Of all the questions I get from actors, there is consistently, and disproportionately, lots about headshots. I’ve touched on it before, and re-touched on it, but it seems wise to clear up some ongoing misconceptions about what a headshot is and what it should look like (and not look like… ah-hem). Follow these ten bits of accrued wisdom acquired doing time in the worlds of casting and talent rep. Oh, and as an actor myself.
Without further ado…
RIP BLACK & WHITE HEADSHOTS. Unless you are stepping out of a time machine and into the audition room, stop it. Yup, even if you’re goth. Even if you’re “artsy” and non-commercial. A headshot allows those casting to see what you look like. Color presents, quite literally, a fuller spectrum of your image. The mediums in which actors work are overwhelmingly in color. We know you look better with a black & white filter that hides all your flaws. And no sepia, either. It’s not clever or stylized—you’re not submitting a project for The New School’s Intro to Photo Development class taught by the ghost of David Foster Wallace.
A headshot is not a composite card for print—those are two different things that should not be used interchangeably. A headshot has ONE SHOT—with your head in it. And definitely no “picture in picture” shots like some TV set from the 1990s. The image should measue 8 X 10 inches (it’s almost unusual to use a printed headshot in our green-forward world of digital agent submissions—so don’t print more than 50 at a time). The photo should be matte unless you’re auditioning for a Vegas showgirl position or attending a Be-A-Model! casting call in a mall in Patterson, New Jersey in 1987, and Tiffany is performing.
Don’t put too much thought into your top and even less into what you’re wearing on the bottom, as it most likely won’t be seen. But do follow these suggestions: choose a simple top, and have options, no stripes or busy patterns like herringbone, black or white is a choice, consider the background, choose something timeless or at least not in-the-moment trendy, don’t be shirtless or wear a bathing suit top, wear glasses only if you always wear glasses, don’t allow a top button to make you appear too stiff or rigid. CLOTHING SHOULD NOT DISTRACT OR EVEN BE MEMORABLE. Lastly, borrow a shirt or return it—you can’t wear it to an audition.
A HEADSHOT IS NOT A GLAMOUR SHOT. Remember those? Yeah… if you’re an actor (not a host or presenter), your headshot should look completely naturalistic. You should not be dressed in evening wear or drenched in gold disco lighting. Unless you’re Joan Collins, the majority of roles won’t call for you to be escorted off a yacht in the Mediterranean for the reading of your third husband’s will. Go for an “everyday” look.
Don’t get that five hundred dollar wedding stylist-to-the-stars blow-out before your headshots. You can’t repeat that for every audition. And keep your headshots current. If you’re under 30, you should change your headshots every two years; over 35, every four. YOU HAVE TO LOOK LIKE YOUR SHOT when you enter the room.
BETTER NOT TO POSE. I know, I know… But I’ve found the best headshot photographers are able to capture many moments in a fluid session. The best images depict a fleeting, organic beat and not a frozen one. After all, most actors are dynamic, expressive, constantly-shifting beings. Capture that. How often do you pose, face forward on stage or in a film scene? Oh, and jewelry can be distracting. If the eye goes anywhere other than the face when looking at your shot, photoshop it out! #davinci_reference
HIRE COMPETENT PEOPLE. Find a photographer who has at least a hundred actor headshots that you can see. Some headshot photographers have a very distinctive style—I use a guy who always shoots in front of a blown-out white background. I like interesting framing and negative space. I also prefer a landscape headshot over the portrait variety because I work on camera mostly, and that orientation is more like film. And if you’re having your hair and make-up done (not necessary for most guys but ladies often do), hire those who have worked with your hair type and skin color. Unless you wear extremely good wigs, like my gorgeous actress friend with Alopecia, and you wear that wig all the time, do not wear one in your headshot.
DON’T OVER ACCESSORIZE. Don’t wear a hat—sometimes people will assume men in caps are balding, which could work or not work in your favor depending on the role. Allow casting directors to see your head and what your hair looks like. Also don’t crop your shot at the forehead for that reason. Don’t wear every jewelry option available—choose no more than one or two of the following: earrings, necklaces, bracelets, watches, tribal neck rings, etc…
DON’T DISTRACT WITH PROPS. Put down that cigarette holder, you’re not Bette Davis. Don’t block your face with your hand or your hair. If they can’t see your full face, game over. If you have a huge scar, embrace it. And definitely don’t show too much skin. Jersey Shore-like nails should not be the focus of your headshot. Also, don’t be too close or too far. The shot should contain all of your head, shoulders, and maybe your torso but no further than the waist.
SHOW SOME PERSONALITY. The worst faux pas of all is a statue-like blank look that tells the casting people nothing about who you are or what kind of characters you might play. You are selling yourself as a brand, so always use the shot that’s less flattering but shows that there’s some life in you! Don’t submit mugshots and missing person adverts. Too many of those already.