From a recent Backstage post I did.
The headshot. It’s the single most important marketing tool for an actor, and it’s amazing how many people do it wrong just to cut a few corners. Actors, it’s time to take it more seriously. When that little headshot jpeg pops up on a casting director’s computer, you want them to say, “Yes, bring that person in!” Not “Yikes, that guy kinda scares me.”
Your headshot is your calling card. A nice color 8x10 of your face, from which people will hire you, and you will make lots of money for them. It will be sent out and emailed to tons of casting directors and agents, who see hundreds of these every day, on their desk and on their computer. If your headshot is bad, you look bad. You want to be seen as a pro, not an amateur, so the way you present yourself in your picture is everything. If you want people to take you seriously, you must have a good, high quality, killer headshot. Not an iPhone pic, not a Facebook photo of you outside with the wind gently blowing your hair, and not a JCPenney glamour shot with palm trees in the background that you reproduced at Kinko’s. Save those for your grandma’s mantel.
Here is what you need to keep in mind when it comes to your headshots:
1. Go pro. Spend the money. It’s worth it. Go to a professional, who is trained, understands lighting, and takes headshots for a living, not some friend who happens to have a decent camera who “sorta knows a little about photography.” Save those pictures for Instagram, and leave the headshots to the pros. Good headshots range from $400-$1200, and to get them professionally duplicated (not at CVS) will cost you another $100. Anything less is just a glorified passport photo. If the headshots look cheap, they probably are. And you look like you don’t care about your career.
2. Go for personality over glamour. Make sure it looks like you. Chill with the airbrushing. Casting directors expect you to look just like your headshot, and will not be happy when you show up looking totally different, or 10 years older. It’s not about looking pretty, it’s about representing your type, age wrinkles included. It should look like you on your best day, showing your age, and who you are now. It’s not about the type you want to be, it’s the type you are.
3. It’s all about the eyes. Just like with on-camera acting, it’s all about the eyes, and what’s happening behind them. It’s your closeup, your moment. Your eyes should be perfectly in focus, alive, and energized, and not dead and glazed over. There should be strong inner thoughts, implying a backstory and a life behind the eyes. A slight squint, and strong piercing eyes will bring a picture to life and help it stand out in a pile of hundreds. A good headshot photographer knows how to bring this out in you.
4. Pay attention to framing, lighting, and background. In general, a good headshot is chest up with good lighting on your face, and no strong dramatic shadows, unless you are going in for “The Phantom of the Opera.” Three-quarter shots are good for print, and extreme closeups are good for, well, nothing. Look directly into camera, and the focus should be on the center of your eyes, not your left ear, or your shirt collar. No peace signs, weird facial hair, or the famous “hand on face” pose. Be sure the background is blurred, which means it’s shot with a good, high quality camera with a high-depth of field, which makes you stand out. We don’t need to see that you are standing on the beach in Santa Monica, or on a tour boat in front of the Statue of Liberty. It’s about you, not the environment.
5. Natural light vs. studio. Some photographers do both, as they offer a different look and feel. Natural light gives a very real, “film” look, which I prefer. Studio lighting tends to be a little more polished, with a more neutral backdrop. Both can be wonderful. If you are more of a sitcom actor, perhaps a good well-lit studio headshot is more suited for you. If you want to look like you are on “True Detective,” then go for the outdoor look.
6. Clothing and props. I once saw a headshot of a guy with a bird on his head. Why? Because he wanted to stand out. Let’s not get crazy here. Keep it simple and classy, and follow the standard format. Professionalism gets you noticed, not desperation. Leave the Ed Hardy and the “statement” shirts at home. A simple, solid color shirt with a little texture that fits you well and matches your eyes should do the trick. No whites, and no graphics or anything you think might distract from your face. And no props. (You know that, right?) If you think you are going to play cop roles, you don’t need to wear the outfit in the headshot. It’s a bit much, and very limiting.
7. Don’t go crazy with the makeup. Yes, lots can be done with retouching. There is no need to put on tons of makeup. You want to look like yourself on your best day, and not look like you tried too hard. Girls, be yourself, do your hair the way you would for every audition. Guys, bring some oil sheets to take down the shine, and maybe use a lightly tinted moisturizer to take out the redness and even your skin tone. Some people spend way too much on makeup, only to have to get their headshots redone afterwards because they look fake in all the photos.
Find a photographer that gets you. You have to vibe with the photographer, and that person has to make you feel very comfortable, as you will hopefully be using this headshot for a couple of years and sending it to everyone in town. Research photographers online, go to Reproductions and look through their portfolio books, look through the list of photographers in Backstage, ask for a consultation, get a feel for how they photograph your type, your ethnicity, your gender, etc.
And most importantly, don’t cut corners.
Want to get more advice on how to get a good headshot? Check out the Headshot chapter in Matt's book "10 Steps to Breaking into Acting: Second Edition" on Amazon.