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Headshot Advice

Photographer and Casting Director, Carl Proctor CDG

At the behest of a number of actors, I have written the following ACTOR’S HEADSHOT ADVICE, largely with my casting director hat on.

There is a lot of conflicting advice about actors’ headshots, some of it from photographers who might have less knowledge than you do about what casting directors like, what makes a good headshot, etc.

We see far too many photos that are either just not good or that don’t represent the actor as well as they should and hear too many stories from actors of bad deals, bad advice, rushed sessions, wasted money and disappointing results. I hope that the following information and advice, coming from a casting director who is also a headshot photographer, will be seen as sound and reliable and also provide an insight into how the industry is changing. Some of the less established or well-connected photographers might be slow to react to the changing needs of actors and agents.

I hope to explode a few myths, help actors to avoid some pitfalls and who knows, perhaps it will influence some photographers to adjust their process or the package that they offer. There are some very good and experienced headshot photographers out there but as it becomes cheaper to acquire an adequate camera and lens, there are a lot of new people having a go at it, as a means of earning a bit of extra cash.

If you keep the advice below in mind when looking for a photographer and then during and after your session, it will hopefully help you to choose the right photographer and increase your chances of getting a good deal and some good photos that will work well for you.

I should stress that the views expressed below are just my opinions on the various parts of the process, based on my own experience as a photographer and / or as a casting director.  Some photographers will have different views and their opinions should be seen as equally valid. 

 

1. Choosing your photographer. 

Some headshot photographers might not be able to fit you in for several weeks, either because they are currently among the more popular ones or because they also work in other fields – theatre production shots, journalism, children’s photography, corporate, presenters, models, singers, dancers, etc. If you need new photos you should ideally get them as soon as possible rather than waiting a couple of months or more, so look at your other favourites before agreeing to wait. Some photographers will put you on a waiting list so you might get a session sooner if they get a cancellation.

Where to start. A lot of actors start by looking at adverts in the Contacts book or elsewhere and then go to the photographers’ web-sites.  On Casting Call Pro and more recently Headshot Hunters and The Stage, you can find a lot of photographers’ profiles with a few examples of their work and make your own comparisons, prior to viewing web-sites. The Headshot Hunters web-site is well worth looking as it has very useful search facilities and functions that allow you to shortlist favourite photographers and compare packages.

Most popular photographers. Which photographers are en vogue changes regularly. I know of a number of agents who had their favourites for a while but then stopped recommending them for one reason or another. The name of your photographer or their individual style isn’t likely to make any difference to your prospects. I think some of the photographers with a particular style give the viewer more of an impression of the photographer than of the person in the photo. Signature low crops, designer crops (off centre), shady, etc. Often genuinely more interesting photos, but not likely to influence a casting director in my experience.

Testimonials.  Look for testimonials on web-sites from actors.  If it is apparent that a lot of actors have enjoyed the process and were very happy with the results from a particular photographer, this would be a strong indication that they are worth considering.

Agent’s recommendations.  We are always pleased as photographers, to be recommended to actors by their agents and many agents have a few favourites that they will encourage you to consider.  Not many agents insist on you using a particular photographer but there are one or two. I don’t think this is fair, it’s your money, so whilst you might be happy to use one that they recommend, I think it should be your choice ultimately.

A strong recommendation from a friend is worth taking note of. If you have a recommendation from a friend or agent and would prefer not to spend time looking at a number of photographers, I think you should at least look at that photographer’s web-site before booking and check that they offer everything that you think the process should include as well as a good deal.

Web-sites. If you can find examples of what you think might cover your range on a photographer’s web-site, you like their work and they tick all the other boxes, maybe he/she is the one for you.

Session fee and additional charges.  

Price.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the most expensive photographers are the best ones. Sometimes they are offering you more for their higher rates, but there are plenty of good photographers who offer good packages for reasonable rates. Some of the photographers that charge the lowest rates might give you less time or a reduced package, but if you are on a budget, that might be your best option.

Payment. I don’t think many photographers insist on being paid in cash or in advance, but some do. I think you should be able to pay on the day by cash, cheque or a bank transfer, which ever works best for you. Some photographers have card machines.

Cancellation fees.  I personally don’t think photographers should charge you anything if you have to cancel. We know that actors often get calls late in the afternoon about a casting the following morning or that a job might get confirmed at the last minute. If you wake up ill you probably don’t want to be having your photo taken that morning.  Hopefully your chosen photographer will view cancellations as an unavoidable part of the process and you are likely to be setting another date with them anyway.

Split sessions. Splitting a session (for the price of one) with a friend is often a false economy. A photographer should want to spend as long as it takes with an actor to get plenty of good and varied shots. If you have half the time, you might be getting half the package/half the number of good photos to choose from.

Half sessions. If you already have some good photos but just need a couple of different looks to complete the package, you could ask a photographer to do a half session. It will be cheaper and you will get what you need. Consider this carefully though as a full session might get you some better photos altogether.

Instalments. If you need new photos but can’t afford them immediately, you could ask a photographer if they will consider taking instalments or being paid at a later date. They might say no but I think it’s worth asking.

The package. Be clear about exactly what is included in the package and any additional charges.

Student discount. If you are a student you will hopefully be given a discount. A lot of photographers do even if they don’t need the work, because they believe that it is appropriate to help out newcomers who might not be as well off as already working actors.

Additional touch ups. Some photos might take a while to retouch effectively, but in my experience, most can be done quite quickly, so I don’t think you should be charged much if you want more images than are included in the package. You might also hope to be given a couple of crops in colour and black and white (if required) at no extra cost.

Check list…

Viewing. I would suggest that you ask a photographer if there will be time and if they are set up to be able to let you view the photos as you go along on a monitor. Not the back of the camera.  Viewing as you go along is very useful in my opinion and can hugely increase the likelihood of you going away with good, natural looking photos and the range you need. It will enable you to know when you have got what you need from the session, rather than leaving the photographer to make that judgement.  Some photographers get good results without viewing during the session but it works well for others and for the people that they photograph. More on this below.

Length of session. Be sure that you will be given enough time to get plenty of good main shot options, but also a number of shots for the Spotlight portfolio that show your range and provide an appropriate photo for any submission. The majority of photographers seem to offer between two and three hours which should be plenty of time in most cases for you to have a relaxed and un-rushed experience. Some of the photographer that give you less time than others, also charge less than others, so that might be the way to go for some.

DVD. Some photographers put all photos in a high resolution format on a DVD, not just the ones that they have touched up for you. Others don’t. Personally I see little point in them retaining a few hundred photos of you on a hard drive, only to be deleted one day.  As your photographer will retain ownership of copyright he/she is entitled to stipulate that you must come back to them for retouching if you wish to use any of the photos in the future.

 

2. What makes a good headshot?  

First of all, its rapidly going colour so don’t ask for photos in black and white only.

Range. I think that a good main shot should have a warm, confidence (confident, capable and pleasant to work with).  In some cases it can make an actor look as much like a friendly person as it can someone not to be messed with. However, you no longer need one shot to say it all.  Most actors have range and many can be as convincingly edgy as they can be friendly and much in between. So for the Spotlight folio you need a few good headshots that cover your range. An agent can then choose which photo to attach to a submission. A photo that has nothing of the feel of the character that you are being suggested for may well get you overlooked.  I was told recently of a photographer who tells clients that all of their photos should have a neutral expression so that a director or casting director can project what he/she is looking for onto your face. I think this is very likely to lead to all your photos having the same blank expression.  The same expression in different tops, isn’t range. 

I think that all photos should look real and organic, not posed or deliberate. A relaxed and natural looking photo gives the impression that you very probably look like that in the flesh. If your main shot is engaging and energized the casting director is more likely to click and view the others in the folio.

Crops. The right crop of a photo can increase its impact immensely.  Cropping is quick and easy so a photographer should be prepared to give you more than just one crop of a photo. A lot of wider crops show us far too much of the background and don’t draw us to your face.
Landscape crops (widely used in America and Europe) are useful as they look more like a still from a film or TV screen, so ideally a photographer will include a few on the contact sheets and be prepared to give you them as well as the standard portrait crops, at no extra cost. I often prefer closer crops but be sure that your photographer doesn’t take the shots too tightly, as you can’t then go wider if you want to.
(more about crops below)

 

Portrait style. Famous people can get away with any old photo because their photo has little on nothing to do with them getting work. They sometimes use a still from a film or a heavily lit, stylised portrait taken for a magazine.  I don’t think this type of shot will get an actor any closer to being cast in a US movie, and also isn’t likely to help you get work here. I am all for getting some edgy looks in the mix and anything that jumps out, but don’t let them all look very different from what clearly works and shows us what you really look like.

 

3. What can good headshots do for me?  

A good headshot is what makes us look further. It doesn’t matter how impressive your CV or showreel is, if we don’t look beyond your photos.

Above all, a handful of good photos that cover a useful range, are likely to get you more meetings.  Bad or uninteresting photos can work against you.

Good photos will help you to get an agent or will enthuse your current agent to really push you, knowing that they have images of you that suit a number of casting briefs.

 

4. Preparation. 

Try to arrive with an idea of what you want from the session.

No harm in aiming to look like yourself on a good day, but hair, make-up and what you wear should just look fine but not pull focus.

I think you should check that you photographer has a bathroom or at least a large mirror and a plug socket close by.

Make-up.  I think its fine to enhance but ideally you should look like you are not wearing any for the majority of shots, so keep it minimal for most of the session. If it is apparent that you are wearing a lot of make-up, you are showing us that this is not necessarily what you look like in real life and defeat the main function of the photo. For some women it might be useful to have a more made-up look as part of their range, but it would be limiting if they were all like that.

Hair. For most people, having your hair done before the session is not necessary. It can look too neat and you might want to do different things with your hair throughout the session anyway.  So just not too neat or too scruffy. Women should be given time to put hair up, straighten or curl it.  Men can arrive unshaven and shave during the session if they wish to so you have both looks covered.

Clothing. I think darker, solid colours tend to work best. Take a few options, varied neck lines but not all too wide or low so that we still see some of the top and allow it to frame your face, even in the tighter crops. White isn’t good in my experience, but you might include one or two lighter coloured tops for variation. T shirts with low necklines can look like dance tops on men so not necessarily ideal for headshots. Maybe a casual jacket and a smarter one if you like. For men some shots in a shirt and jacket with and without a tie on might be useful to include if a corporate / business look is of use to you.

A photographer should be able to fix things on the computer if you have a spot or bags under your eyes, etc. This is easy to do so if you have checked that your photographer is willing and able to do the work, don’t consider cancelling if you have a blemish.

Otherwise, if you are confident that you have chosen a good photographer who offers a good package, there is no need to think too much in advance. Just try to arrive feeling confident, relaxed and open. 

 

5. During the session. 

Spotlight is full of photos with deadly serious facial expressions, often because the photo is the best of a bad bunch / the warmest shot there was from the session.

 Viewing as you go along. As a photographer I find this very useful as do the actors that I photograph.  Seeing the photos as you go along on a larger screen than on the back of the camera, allows you to see that an expression or the subtlety you were aiming for, might not be registering quite as you intended it to. What feels like a natural, relaxed expression, often looks much more serious and what feels subtle often looks forced.  Viewing can also make you feel more involved in the process and ensures that the contact sheets are made up of photos that you have already decided that you like. A model is being paid and therefore just does as he/she is asked, but as you are paying the photographer, I think you should be able to see the shots as you go along so that you  know what’s working, what to do differently,  what you have enough of, what you need more of, what you haven’t got yet, what tops are working best, how the hair and make-up are looking,  if you are doing too much or too little or if some of your expressions are looking too posed or empty, if your eyes are too closed or  your mouth too tight, etc.  So keep some control. Even if you are confident that your photographer is qualified to advice you on what makes good actors photos, you should be prepared to stay in charge to a degree during the session. Tell us what you need and by viewing the photos as you go along, you will be able to make your own judgement as to whether or not we are getting the shots that you want and that are covering your range. 

Two of the actors that I photographed recently, have just had sessions with other photographers, but both the actors and their agents didn’t like or want to use any of the shots.  One actor paid over £350.  For that price I would certainly expect a guarantee of a re-shoot or a refund, if I wasn’t happy. Neither was offered. The other photographer, after one hour, looked at the back of the camera and said, “Right, I think we’re done” The actor hadn’t been shown any photos during the session.  If they had been viewing images as the shoot progressed, they would have been able to politely point out that they were nowhere near “done” and that so far, they had not seen any shots that they liked. Instead the actor and agent saw them the next day felt that none were usable.

Some photographers seem only to focus on getting the main shot and some of the less experienced ones might not be aware of the need for range.  Others might not make the right decisions about a range of looks that are useful to you. Or you just might not be seeing any or enough shots that you like. Too many actors are unhappy with photo sessions and have to spend money that they don’t have, on another session with a different photographer. I don’t think this should happen. In short, to eliminate or minimize the risk of a wasted session, I think it is very useful if an actor is able to clearly view photos periodically throughout the session and not just on the back of the camera.

Having said all that, as some photographers clearly get good results without showing shots to the actors as they go along, the above should be taken as just my opinion and what works for me.

Acting.  Thinking of something/someone that makes you happy or sad or angry etc. doesn’t usually work in my experience. It means that you are internalizing and it is unlikely to register as an interesting look. It is more likely to just lead to a blank, un-engaged expression. If a photographer asks you to imaging a particular scenario, you are probably not really going to do that very effectively. You are more likely to be thinking “am I doing the look he wants?” and by being distracted by that, you will not look focused or engaged.  A good photographer will be able to get a range of genuinely organic and natural looks from you without putting you through any of that.  I don’t think many headshot photographers have experience of directing actors in performance, but some still confidently take on that role in a photo shoot. Something to be aware of and another reason for you to be viewing and making your own judgement as you go along.  A lot of actors are not clear in their own heads about what looks they should be going for, so trusting the photographer and just doing what they tell you to do, often seems like the best option, even when it doesn’t feel right. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably won’t look right.

Eyes.  For a lot people opening the eyes a little wider makes them look more alert and engaged and avoids them having a slightly sleepy look. It also helps to correct things if you have one eye that opens a little less than the other.

Don’t stay too still. To be still and have personality is a bit of an unnatural challenge. What starts out as organic will just turn into a fixed expression if you hold it for too long, so look away and back as often as you like to keep the face relaxed and also so that we can get some natural looking away shots.  Looking around also allows you to keep rediscovering and prevents the mouth getting tight. This is important as the mouth dictates the look of the photos more than anything else.

Sitting or standing?  Sitting and leaning in slightly can allow us to get into the eyes and make them the focus.  Leaning in directly to camera can look a little too keen in my experience, so if your body is slightly turned away the position will look more relaxed and confident.  Being completely upright (hard to avoid if you are standing) can often look a little removed, even arrogant. This can be a useful look to have in the mix, but you wouldn’t want all of your photos to give that impression. I think standing up in outdoor shots works better.

Position.  Standing or sitting completely face on can look very stiff and posed. It can be useful to get a few completely face on shots but very slight angles can look much more relaxed and natural, so try turning your head away a little, just enough for us to see less of one ear than the other (not too much) when either looking away or to camera.  People also tend to raise their heads a little when being photographed which draws us more to your chin than your eyes.   Much better to lower your chin very slightly I think. Leaning in very slightly will also draw us to your eyes, simply because you are bringing them closer to the camera.

Off camera / looking away shots. Unless you are a presenter, we don’t see you looking at camera, so looking away shots can make it easier for us to imaging you in the role. At their best they can look like a still or a rehearsal shot or at least have a captured, not knowing you’re being photographed look about them. With these shots I think it’s good to appear to be looking at someone rather than looking deep in thought.  It is easy enough to do convincingly without having to think about who you are looking at or what they are saying to you. Off camera shots work well in the Spotlight folio and in my experience, they are popular with agents and casting directors. Some photographers might choose to take some off camera shots for you to include in the mix. Others might not include them as standard. If you agree that they can work well and help to add a bit of range, you could ask your photographer to take some.

Full length / mid-shots. By full length we often mean a mid-shot. We don’t often need to see your feet. All casting directors will appreciate being able to see your size and shape so don’t listen to anyone who tells you that a mid-shot isn’t useful.  A good still that shows your shape might do the job as well or better than a shot from a photo session.

Outdoor shots. As well as indoor shots, I think it’s useful to have outdoor ones as well although not all actors want or need them. They often look and feel more like a still from film or TV rather than a photo shoot.  At the very least outdoor shots can look like a different shoot to the indoor ones, which adds to the range. Mid shots work well out doors.

Lighting.  In my experience lot of people favour natural light or a mix of natural and studio lighting that gives the same look. Natural light can give a clear impression of the individual, whilst still being flattering and more importantly, a sense that this is what you look like. Studio lighting is often apparent in a photo. We don’t expect to be aware of lighting when we watch you on TV or film, so we don’t need to be aware of it in your headshots. Some of the better photographers are able to use studio lighting well, but from others, we still see an awful lot of bleached out, over lit photos that show us very little of what the actor looks like.

Background. In my opinion a blurred but natural, in-situ looking background will always look much better than a clinical and flat studio back drop. Studio shots unavoidably scream photo shoot. Natural settings can give your photos more of a film or TV still feel.
I see studio shots taken, perhaps by some of the less experienced headshot photographers, where the actor is so close to the white or light coloured backdrop or wall, that we see a very strong shadow in the background. These don’t look like professionally taken photos to me. Even the passport office are likely to reject photos like this.

The session should be enjoyable and not rushed. If you have seen and like the photographers work and have been assured in advance that you will be given as much time as is needed to get lots of good photos that cover your range, you should be able to arrive feeling confident and relaxed.

 

6. After the session.

I think a session fee should include five or so different photos in colour and black and white and at least two crops of each.

Touching up.  Whether it is brightening it up a bit, improving the contrast or colour, softening lines under the eyes, removing blemishes, etc. almost all photos will benefit from a bit of touching up.  From looking at a lot of Spotlight photos, it is apparent that some photographers don’t do any work on photos. Be sure to check that your photographer will touch up your final selection at no extra cost and that they are happy to do further tweaking if you think any need it.

Portfolio. Choose a good range, get opinions.  You probably only need about five photos to cover range.  More than that and you might be repeating yourself. You don’t need colour and black and white versions of the same photo. You don’t really need any black and white ones at all.   A mid shot is often a useful addition to a portfolio. It could be from the shoot or you might have good production still that does the job. Your agent should agree with your choices. Don’t give them photos that they are not happy with.  Often an agent will make the choices for you or with you and you should find that you at least largely agree.

Colour. Get all of your photos in colour. If you do want some in black and white for any reason (perhaps to add some variation to a web-site) it is very easy to turn a colour photo into a black and white one, but impossible to do the opposite.

More about crops.  The crop of a photo can make a huge difference to how good it looks and how much impact it has. I suggest asking your photographer (before you book them) if they will include at least two crops of your final selection and also if you can request different crops (free of charge) if you want one wider / tighter than what they have chosen to do.  I think many actors headshots are cropped too wide, showing too much superfluous information. We don’t need to see a lot of background. We don’t look at 10 x 8 photos very much these days. We just see the small Spotlight images either on their web-site or on a hard copy of your CV, so the more face we see, the more impact the photo is likely to have. Aside from mid or full length shots, I find that most agents and actors tend to favour the tighter crops of a headshot.  No harm of course in including a wider shot showing the full glory of your hair if it is a feature or very long. The best crop for a head shot might often be 10 x 8, but some photos will look better with a different crop. A 10 x 8 full length body shot will have a lot of redundant information at either side of you, so a longer / narrower crop might look better.

Production shots. Two or three production or film stills, if they are good, clear and interesting, can add to the mix nicely. 

Prints. You don’t need them to be included in the package. One 10 x 8 print of a photo is of little use as repros are not taken from hard copies anymore and you wouldn’t want to send off the only one you have to anyone.  Get prints as and when you need them.  A lot of photographers don’t include prints but instead will refer you to a printer if you need any. Be sure that you are not obliged to use the printers that a photographer recommends as you then have no control over how much you pay for prints. We rarely use prints as part of the casting process these days, so their main use is when you have a job – for the production office wall or theatre foyer. 

Spotlight.  Remember that The Spotlight deadlines (male / female) are for their book which very few people look at these days.  It’s all on line now and you can upload photos at any time, so get photos taken when you need them rather than timing a session to meet Spotlight deadlines. It doesn’t matter if your old photo stays in the book. It’s what you have on line that matters.

I hope you get some good ones. 

Carl Proctor

 




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