I have been a professional headshot photographer for more years than most of you have been alive. At last count I have photographed over 17,000 clients including celebrities such as Tyler Perry, Annette Bening, “King Ad-Rock” of the Beastie Boys, Selma Blair, Dick Cavett and about 16, 995 others. I’m not the loudest, or the most Internet savvy, or the latest flavor of the month, but I have learned a thing or two about headshots in my tenure, and I’m happy to share some of that information here in hope of helping actors everywhere traverse the minefield of getting their headshots done. Here are the most common pitfalls, and how to avoid them.
1. Not Getting Headshots Taken Often Enough
Your headshot is your presence in the acting market. It represents you to anyone whose attention you have drawn. It should be accurate and up-to-date and represent your current look, not what you looked like 2 years ago, or even 2 months ago if you have noticeably changed your appearance (hair cut or color, weight loss, gain, etc.). To be properly cast, you need to properly represent yourself.
As a photographer I am constantly hearing these words, “I’ll set up a session once I lose a little weight!” And while losing a little weight is a commendable goal for most of us, health-wise and attractiveness-wise, it’s not always the skinniest person who gets the job, it’s the actor who combines ability with believability. So, set that weight goal, give it your best shot, but set a date for new headshots to give your goal some teeth. If you haven’t lost the extra by the session date…you probably aren’t gonna. ☺ What’s better, not a perfect body shot, or no shot at all?
2. Choosing a Photographer with a Limited or Repetitious Style
When it comes to choosing a photographer, be aware that you are not the only actor he/she is shooting, and thus an agent sees 100’s of photos of different actors, all in similar poses, similar lighting and similar backgrounds from that photographer. That’s a bad way to stand out. It’s human nature to tire of repetition, no matter how effective the first exposure to something is. You are a unique presence in the acting world, and your headshot should be unique as well. That’s not to say that you demand that each and every shot be absolutely different from every other headshot the photographer has taken, but beware of the assembly line photographer.
3. Trying to Do Your Own Hair and Make-up
Some people argue that having a professional Hair and Make-up Artist work on you before your session is a bad idea because it doesn’t represent your everyday look at an audition. I would argue 3 points regarding that issue. First, having a photograph taken is to be the focus of intense inspection. Details that pass by unnoticed in the motion and bustle of life, a misplaced hair, or uneven eye-liner suddenly become glaring distractions when frozen in time and space, which is what a photograph captures. Second, you can’t be the subject of a photo and see yourself from the perspective of the lens at the same time. Having another pair of eyes watching for problems allows you to relax and concentrate on the job at hand – communicating something compelling to the viewer. Third, if you get cast in a film, TV show, or commercial, chances are there will be a professional hair and make-up artist putting you together for the shoot. Show the casting people and directors how you come together when you are done right. This is show business, not everyday life!
4. Following Trends in Headshot Styles Instead of Showcasing Your Strengths
The purpose of a headshot is to show yourself at your best, and most cast-able. Present your strengths; don’t just blindly follow the current trends in headshots. If your body type is an integral element in how or why you are cast, make sure you show it with a ¾ shot. If intensity is your strength, get that camera in close to capture it. Close-ups reveal layers of subtlety that are lost when the camera pulls back to a ¾ shot. Don’t just follow the trend to be trendy; you might be short changing yourself.
5. Choosing a Photo that Doesn’t Show You Clearly
Remember that the purpose of a headshot is so that a Casting Director can see what you look like. If you turn your head too far to the side or bury half of your face in shadow, you aren’t giving the viewer enough information to process and they don’t really know what you look like. So face the camera boldly straight on and let the photographer light you for maximum effect.
6. Making It All About Looking Good, Instead of Looking Right and Accurate
It ain’t always about beauty. It’s about impact and that comes through being true to your type and presenting it in the strongest way possible. Pride goeth before the fall, so don’t retouch a photo into a different age range, because remember who will be following that photo into an audition – little OLD you ☺. And distance your vanity from your viability. Not everyone has to be a romantic lead; there are plenty of character types out there for everyone. Learn where you fall in the casting spectrum (or find a photographer who understands that aspect) and make your photos about that!
7. Over Retouching Your Headshot
Just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done. With modern retouching techniques, pixel pushers and polishers can alter details in an infinite number of ways. And the most common transgression among headshot clients is to hyper focus on details and obsess over every pore, losing sight of the collective whole and finally sandblasting the photo into sterile oblivion. Other people don’t go over your photo with a magnifying glass, unless they are a hapless friend who has been imposed upon to help until they feel like the only way to justify themselves is to point out the microdot on the background that reveals itself through a CAT scan. Remember that the average headshot is viewed for no more than 5 seconds by an agent, casting director or director, then it’s on to the next or the resume, or lunch. In my mind, the less retouching done to the photo, the more real it looks and the more honest it is.
8. Retouching the Photo Yourself
Nowadays, everyone has Photoshop or some filter they can run their photos through. Unless you make a living at retouching, you are not going to have the skills or the perspective to do the job right on your own headshot. Skin is not clay or fog and Professional Retouchers work in incremental details on the skin, not through an automatic filter that makes the face look like it is being viewed through your Grandma’s support hose.
9. Saving your Money by Getting Cheap Copies
If you have gone to the trouble of paying for first class photographs, the last thing you want to do is try to balance your budget by getting cheap copies made. Most people are using less and less actual hard copies of their headshot. Since it’s much easier, faster, and cheaper to email or post something on the web than to send a hard copy, you are not going to need to make hundreds of copies and you might as well spend the money to make them good and retain the quality of the product you paid for in the first place. Not too many things of value come cheap. Don’t skimp on the quality of your little photo ambassadors.
10. And Finally…Not using your New Headshots to Market the Living Hell out of Yourself!
The saddest thing is to go through the entire process of choosing a photographer, defining yourself, picking out wardrobe, taking pictures, retouching them, copying them and then not putting in the effort to get them out there. There is no more effective tool that is available to an actor than marketing. Master the technical skills of posting, attaching, uploading, submitting, emailing, and using social media to push yourself to higher visibility in the world. Headshots are actor’s currency and the only way you can be almost everywhere at once. Find a way to project yourself into the market every day.
I hope that this article has helped you navigate around the most common pitfalls in the exciting high stakes world of Actor’s Headshot Photography. If you would like to view my work, please come visit me on the web at http://www.joehenson.com.
We are based in NYC, but travel frequently to Washington DC and Boston. Please check the link on our website “Have Camera…Will travel” to see when we’ll be in a city near you.
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