TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Your Acting Headshot

You’ve started on the road to an acting career and you’d like to find yourself an agent and/or some work. Well, getting an agent isn’t the easiest thing on the planet, and work can be a little thin on the ground for all actors, represented or otherwise, but the first step is putting together a strong package that will sell the product – you – well. This article is the first in a series of four that gives tips and advice on how to build that package – beginning with your headshot.

A good acting headshot (photo of you from the waist/shoulders up) should reflect you, the person, in all your glory. There should be only minimal re-touching of the photo. No re-touching is even better. Just a natural shot of you as yourself is your best guide.

When you go to the photo session, take a few of changes of clothing – light shirt, dark shirt for example. Do your hair as you would normally do it, so that when a Casting Director calls you in for an audition, you don’t have to go to enormous trouble to recreate the look in your photo. Girls – MUST wear make up. Guys – not as important, but a good foundation is recommended to give you an even skin tone (and you’re going to be wearing make up on the screen or stage anyway!).

Girls: Make up needs to be a little heavier than you would normally do it, as a photo can wash your face out. You don’t have to go looking like you’re off to Mardi Gras, but a little heavier eyeshadow, eyeliner and mascara helps bring your eyes out. If in doubt, locate a friend who is a budding make-up artist, or better still, a professional one.

Once the photo shoot has taken place and you are at the stage of selecting a photo, go for the one that shows you as you are, but has a bit of warmth to it. Any photos where you are smiling around the eyes are good candidates. The way to tell if your eyes are “warm” is to hold a piece of paper over the lower half of the face, so you can just see the eyes – then see if they are smiling back at you. Casting Directors use this technique sometimes, as do Theatrical agents.

Choosing a photographer

When choosing a photographer for your acting headshots, here are some helpful hints to get you started:

It is always best to go to a photographer who has been recommended by someone you know. Personal experience and recommendation speaks volumes more than a glossy advertisement.

Call the photographer and ask him or her about their experience – even better if they have a website with a portfolio you can look at. Ask if they have they worked with actors before, how much do they charge for their services, what will you, the client, get in return for that fee? If they’re still shooting on film, ask how many rolls of film will they use for the session (on average, there is usually 1 roll included in the quote, with extra rolls costing more). Ask if you get any prints for that price or if they are extra (they are usually extra).

Many actors get copies of their photo direct from the photographer, as casting directors like to receive clear, professional copies for their files. Most photographers have a quote for doing bulk copies (usually starting at 20 copies). Find out how much they are. Alternatively, if you have access to your own printer, or laser photo copier, you can just get the one photo and do your own copies – if you’re going to do your own, ask about any copyright issues – some photographers like to keep their copyright and have restrictions as to where you can reproduce their work.

Ask to see a sample of the photographer’s work. If they have a website – visit it. The most important thing is to find out if they specialize in actor’s photography – taking a professional headshot is different to taking wedding photos – experience working with actors is an important criteria that a photographer should preferably have when taking these kind of photos.

A good actor’s headshot photographer will usually advise you what to wear, how many changes of clothes to bring and what to do with your makeup. A general guideline is to avoid busy patterns on clothing – block colours or simple black or white is best – and putting a little more mascara and eyeshadow on your eyes than normal, along with wearing a slightly darker lipstick, as, don’t forget, the camera has a habit of washing you out, making you look paler than usual. Make sure you evenly apply your foundation and highlight your cheekbones with blush to give your face definition.

If you are concerned about going to a photographer on your own, don’t be embarrassed to take a friend along for support. Visiting a photographer can be an anxious experience the first time, and there are some individuals out there who aren’t completely above board. If you have any concerns about the photographer, either cancel the appointment, or take a friend along for back up. (I’d suggest canceling the appointment, but it’s up to you – that’s why I suggest only going to photographers that other actors recommend).

Colour vs. Black and White

I always get both colour and black and white shots. Black and white is still the usual in Australia and the UK, but colour is becoming the dominant version in the US. As I work all over the place, I get both versions to ensure I can send the right ‘kind’ of shot to Casting Directors, depending on which country they are in. In these days of digital photography, you can usually change a colour photo to black and white fairly easily.

Final note: every time you change your look, get new photos. I usually get photos done once a year at least – and every time I change my look. A casting director wants to see you as you are now, not 12 months ago.

Originally published February 2007 © Sally McLean. All rights reserved.

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