Kerry-Lou is my wife and chief Hair and Make-up Artist. We’ve been working together for over 16 years and have done thousands of shoots. Those of you who are lucky enough to have worked with Kerry-Lou know the skill and care that she brings to every shoot. Today, we are proud to announce the launch of her signature custom make-up brush line! A year in research, planning and production, Kerry-Lou’s Make-Up Brushes are the finest quality, designed based on years of experience and made for professionals and personal users alike. Please take a moment and check out her website, Pro-Style-Crew, and her instructional videos on youtube. They are available for purchase today, either as a full set or single brushes! And thank you to all of our clients and friends for your support! All photography by Joe Henson.
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The most mysterious and fascinating aspect of portraiture and headshot photography is “Camera Presence”. “Camera Presence” refers to the ability of the subject to make direct contact with the viewer of the photograph. You, as the viewer feel the impact and immediacy of their gaze, a connection is established. The sitter becomes an active communicator, making their attention felt, instead of being the “victim” of the photograph. 🙂 “Camera Presence” is a very good thing to have!
But, what is it? And how do you get it in your headshot? Is it about charisma? Is it about beauty? Does it come from intelligence, from confidence? Can it be learned or is it somehow ingrained?
I’ve spent my entire career learning how to encourage the intimacy and power that comes from my clients’ eye contact. And I hear over and over again from new clients that they chose to shoot with me because “there was something special in the eyes” of the people on my website.
It is certainly an aspect of my photography that I spend a great deal of effort on. And it’s not just the result of a trick; eye contact or “Camera Presence” is attained through a combination of techniques, emanating equally from the photographer and the subject.
My role starts with setting the atmosphere for the shoot. I want my clients to feel totally at ease, loose, and safe to be playful without fear of judgement, so I make it clear both through my actions and attitude that although we are going to work with intention, we are going to have a lot of fun doing it. And I remind them that we always have the delete button, should we choose to banish a particular photo to the void. Our studio is a relaxed and upbeat place. Yes, serious work will take place, but we will be your partner and your support team. People let go of their concern when they see that we know what we’re doing. I love shooting headshots because it combines the excitement of meeting people and getting to know them, with the magic of photography, my chosen profession. And I enjoy learning something new everyday to extend my ability to take beautiful photos. But that is just the beginning of the process. I see myself as a translator, taking our ideas about what the photo should convey and breaking that down into a mix of photographic elements; lighting, setting and background, body language, and camera angle. Then we add the final ingredient, which is to help each subject present themselves to the camera in an instant of time that feels fresh, immediate and makes their attention palpable and evocative. I can certainly motivate with the direction I give, but the subject can also have a strong role in the creation of “Camera Presence”.
Recently I shot a headshot session with Tamara Johnson.
Tamara is a repeat client who I have photographed every few years since 1988. Tamara is a super talented actress who has worked consistently on Stage and in Film & TV for her entire career. Writing a piece on “Camera Presence” was on my mind and I was acutely aware of the way Tamara addressed the camera in our most recent session and how clearly she was able to make consistent contact through the lens. I wanted to understand her side of the process, so I asked her directly, “Tamara, do you know what you’re doing to achieve these moments of contact, specifically how you present yourself to the camera?” Her answer was a simple “Yeah”, so to that I said “Good, tell me, so I can tell others!”
Here, in her words, is her process : “People can easily be intimidated by that cold, black, unmerciful cyclops aka the camera lens. How do you make friends with that? I think some people expect the photographer to ‘pull something out of you’. My belief is that talent should come in with their own inner monologue ready to pitch, and hopefully you’ll have someone as skilled as Joe is to encourage it, craft the visual elements, and pitch it back to you.
What we’re ultimately going to be talking about is energy and how to direct your focus while he’s shooting. When I see the camera lens, I view it more as a tunnel that I have to go deeper into. I focus my eyes and energy to reach beyond the lens. When I look into the camera, I both use and lose Joe’s presence behind the camera intermittently. Joe’s job is that of capturing, framing, lighting – getting all the technical elements of my shoot to perfection. My job is to keep sending wonderful thoughts into the camera. This is the fun part, after all the work of wardrobe analysis, shopping, timing of haircut & coloring, plucking, bleaching, manicure and packing for multiple changes.
On my commute to the photo session, I make a conscious effort to raise my body’s vibration to its highest level. Being grateful for everything that’s going right in your life is an easy way to do that, just count your blessings for 5 minutes. I do this often as a habit especially while out walking. Some talent can become stressed working with a photographer they don’t know well or psyched out by the importance of this event. If I ever find myself in that realm I always go back to my mantra, “You’re in either one of two places, in fear or in love, so choose Love.” That puts things into perspective quickly and puts you back in a place of power. I tell myself, “You’ve never looked more beautiful than you do today.” Instant higher vibration! This is easy to do coming out of Kerry-Lou’s make-up chair.
During the photo shoot, I’m always actively thinking secret, sweet nothings like, “I know a secret, wanna know what it is?” I’m not saying this to Joe necessarily, but he becomes a conduit to those I want to communicate to. I’m thinking of my best friend, or the future Casting Directors who are seeing this photo for the first time and thinking, “What’s that sparkle in her eyes?” Joe is there to capture the essence of the thought, to time the shot to catch my energy at it’s zenith. He is also a coach in the session providing encouragement, head adjustments or just telling me to stretch out my face muscles, or to break contact and bring it back to keep things fresh.
Joe is about 5 feet from me while we’re shooting. With my vibrations raised and my thoughts jazzed, I take these thoughts and laser beam them further than just the lens of the camera in front of me. With intention and energy I pierce past the lens, through the tunnel of the camera itself, past Joe’s eye and into the center of his brain. It’s like making Star Wars cinematography with my thoughts. That’s the focal point where I want my sweet nothings delivered. It’s amazing to see how much difference that makes on the camera. Most people set their intention only as far as the front of the lens and sometimes even that falls short of reaching the target.
So, that’s my secret weapon to creating great camera presence. I think it’s this deeper projection of intention and thoughts that makes for a productive, fun, rewarding photo session. And let’s just keep this between ourselves, ok? 🙂 Best wishes on your next headshot session and to a thriving career. Shooting with Joe and Kerry-Lou make getting a great headshot easy and enjoyable. I love this team.”
So, there you have it, from the perspective of both the photographer and the subject. “Camera Presence”… it isn’t a mystery, it can be learned, employed, encouraged, and captured. And it can actually be fun! Come shoot with us and get “that something special in the eyes”!
I remember reading Andre Gregory’s description of an impromptu headshot session he had with Richard Avedon (who sits at the head of the table in my Pantheon of the Photographic Gods), wherein Avedon riffed through aspects of Gregory’s presence at warp speed – moving a light here, changing an angle there, tossing out direction like a possessed artist, serving up masterpiece after masterpiece capturing the diverse aspects of Gregory’s persona. It was a powerful performance showcasing a photographer’s ability to de-construct his sitter and use light, pose, and expression to crystallize elements of his subject on film. And it provided me with a lifelong goal of learning all of the elements of portraiture to better capture each client in a unique and personalized image.
I was thinking about Avedon’s session with Andre Gregory when my next client arrived, Steve Jones.
Steve came to New York City in 1991 to pursue an acting career. Having a knack for both zany comedic roles and serious dramatic ones, parts came his way ranging from Alexi the dog at The Living Theater and You Can’t Take It With You (Ed) to Julius Caesar (Brutus) and Dancing at Lughnasa (Michael) at regional theaters. Adept at impressions, he was also Nickelodeon’s “voice of Bill Clinton” for a few years.
After taking a 19-year detour to pursue other interests, Steve was no longer able to deny acting is his true passion. And, of course, getting new headshots had to be the first step in re-entering the business. Here are two photos that Steve sent me as a visual to work with in order to make suggestions for types and clothing.
Steve had a very malleable face and a wide range of interpretations came to mind when I was thinking about how to shoot him. We discussed actors who had similar qualities with names as diverse as Keifer Sutherland, John Lithgow, and Norman Fell. There was a wide range to encompass, so I decided to see how many different ways we could capture his presence in our scheduled 4 look session, but stay true to his persona.
Below are the images that came from our 4 hour session.
And then we decided to really open it up and play with more specific expressions and characters, just because we were having so much fun.
It was a super fun and productive exercise. And it solidified my belief that variety in headshots is the spice of life. No one single approach can capture the range and diversity of actors out there, or even the range within one actor. Thank you Richard Avedon for pointing the way, I am just a pilgrim on that trail :).
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.
Kerry-Lou and I recently had the pleasure of shooting Susannah Solis…yet again! Our first shoot with Susannah was over 9 years ago, and since then we have done her headshots every couple of years and worked with her on multiple portfolio shoots. Our longterm relationship has formed a wonderful friendship and also an inspiring collaboration. Shooting Susannah is always fun, but also magically productive. Her beauty is self evident, but she also embodies the multitude of qualities that make up a true Muse: fearlessness, energy, creativity, and trust.
You will see her photos sprinkled throughout my portfolio, I can’t bring myself to retire the older ones because I like them so much. The first shot was taken in 2007. It’s a perfect example of the fact that nothing matters in a photo except what is visible.
This photo was taken with Susannah seated on the hallway floor in a shopping mall in Bethesda! Shoppers were actually walking around us as we shot, but I knew the light was beautiful and the color of the tiles worked well with her coloring. The piece de resistance was the perfect match between her blouse and eye color. The high angle perspective gave her a vulnerability and wide eyed innocence.
A few years later Susannah got a new haircut, which prompted a phone call and a new series of headshots. It was a pleasant time of year with comfortable temperatures and I wanted to shoot the entire session outside using the sun as our main source of light. The dramatic dark background shot was taken in the hallway of my studio building against a freight elevator door, the light came from an open door to an outside terrace. The outdoor shot was under the beginnings of a scaffold on the FIT campus. The openness of the background gave the shot a fresh sparkle. Voila…
The next time we shot, a year later, I was playing with horizontal shots and white backgrounds: horizontal because that’s the orientation of the film and TV screen, and working close trying to capture intensity. White backgrounds work well because they are clean, crisp, classic and create beautiful skin tones. With a clean background the form of the silhouette becomes architectural.
Then an opportunity arose to test a new light diffuser. The company that manufactured the ellipical umbrella brought a few sizes and we experimented, finding the sweet spot for the light…I wanted to get a fun, upbeat shot for Susannah with very pure, beautiful, simple light. One light carefully placed…that was my mantra.
Most recently, her manager requested a new round of shots for her film and TV work. He wanted a natural dramatic shot, something strong and stripped down, a sophisticated professional ala Robin Wright in House of Cards, and a polished leading lady. Here they are…our latest installment…
It’s fun to watch the development of Susannah’s persona and the evolution of my shooting style over the years. In photography, stagnation is the enemy. Pushing forward with new techniques, new equipment, and a fresh vision keeps the work vibrant and productive! As actors gain experience, they begin to fine tune the qualities that casting directors respond to, and so the image they project in their headshot must adapt and reflect those qualities.
I recently had the pleasure of shooting headshots for Actor, Writer, Comedian – David Lee Nelson. David had a wide range of markets that he wanted to address with his headshots, from Legit/Film/Theater/TV work to Commercials, Stand-up Comedy, his work as a Playwright, and One-Man Performance Artist. You can see from his website that David has his fingers in many pies. I photographed David 4 years ago…
…and his career had blossomed into a multi-media extravaganza of acting and comedy. He has worked as Charleston’s PURE Theatre’s Playwright in Residence for Season 12. His play Folly Beach had its world premiere for PURE’s 2014 Summer Slam. Solo plays: Silence of Lucky, Status Update, The Elephant in My Closet. NYC acting: Stupid F**cking Bitch by Lucy Alibar (EST/Youngblood), Binge (Slant Theatre Project). Regional acting: Hamlet (Shakespeare Project); The Tempest, Arms and the Man, Merry Wives of Windsor (Alabama Shakespeare Festival), Much Ado About Nothing (Warehouse Theatre). Film/TV: Turn(AMC), Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (Sundance, MoMA). In 2013 David received a Young Alumnus Award from The College of Charleston School of the Arts. His solo play, Status Update, was named Best Touring Show of the 2010–2011 Dallas Theatre Season by the Dallas Theatre Critics Forum.
It’s apparent immediately that David has that perfect blend of leading man looks with an impish comedic persona, ala Paul Rudd, or Ben Stiller, throw in the intellect of David Steinberg!
So, David came with a bunch of clothes reflecting every market we planned to capture. When he signed up for the session, I sent him a confirmation email with a breakdown of types we would shoot and suggested wardrobe. I also suggested that he come with three days scruff of beard to start off the session with, since that is his standard everyday look. We planned to shave part way through the session, to add to the variety of looks.
My original thought was to keep the lighting simple and unrestrictive, so David would have room to play and express himself. He took the ball and ran with it, delivering shot after shot of charming, playful, but handsome looks…I like the results because the focus is David’s personality – smart, urban, and brimming with wit! These shots could work for the Commercial Business Market, millennial Art Director, Creative types. And these shots would also work for Film or TV roles… The white background evokes that clean, current Apple Computer vibe.
Next, we wanted to get some shots that would express a younger, sexier, rebel. David shaved for these shots to bring his age-range down a click. These shots would represent David for anti-hero romantic leads…
And now that he was clean shaven, we could work on some pop-culture, casual commercial shots, geared to snagging David a nice juicy all-american guy next door role… I began working with a more even, soft light to give a vibrant upbeat feeling to the shots.
And finally we needed to capture some Promotional shots to use in print or web articles about David as a writer, playwright or comic. We wanted these to be quirky, smart, and current, out of the standard headshot mold. I chose to shoot these with a slightly wide angle lens and more of a portrait feel…
David left with a full complement of tools for all aspects of his multi-faceted career. And I left with a feeling of accomplishment. My job was done today. We’ll see what tomorrow holds…
Having worked in New York City (one of the most actor-concentrated areas in the world) for the past 30 years as a professional headshot photographer, and having photographed over 16,000 clients, I have learned much about what makes the most effective headshots and I’d like to share some of that information with you today!
First, let’s define our terms. The truest way to measure whether your headshot is living up to it’s full potential is not how many people give positive comments to it on Facebook (no one trashes someone’s new photo on Facebook), or whether your Aunt Flossie thinks you look gorgeous (she always thinks you look gorgeous, because you look a little bit like her), or whether you feel an horrifying whoosh as big money leaves your wallet (the price you pay doesn’t guarantee that you got your money’s worth), there is only one barometer by which to judge whether you have a fantastic headshot and that’s whether it facilitates getting you acting work! Does your headshot grab the attention of the casting agents, agents, directors, and all of the people who can actually get you a job? And once you have their attention, are you telling them accurate, compelling, and useful information that helps them see the possibilities of how to cast you? Can they clearly see your coloring, your age range, and qualities that are elements of your presence and present the basis of the type of roles that you are most suited to? And are they seeing your presence defined in a unique image that focuses their attention on you and doesn’t just define who you went to for your headshot because it screams the signature style of the photographer? The last thing you want for your headshot is an advertisement about the photographer you went to. If your headshot looks like it came off of an assembly line, then you are paying to be stamped out like a fresh cookie, not a singular and original actor! So, how do you go about getting a headshot that kicks down the doors of the powers that be and does it’s job as your good will ambassador, smiling, shaking hands and schmoozing the powers that be? Read on…
Do your homework! The photography market in the headshot world works like the ocean. There are two currents pulling actors in the direction of who to shoot with. The rip tide carries actors to the “Flavor of the Month” Photographer. Photographers come on the radar with a style that catches attention or a marketing gimmick that makes an impact, or a friend on the inside of the industry that starts a flow of work coming his/her way. And a migration of performers start moving in that direction for their headshots. It becomes almost a status symbol to say that you were shot by so and so! Then, slowly as the amount of actors shot by this photographer in their signature style start to stack up, actors begin to realize that their photos look just like everyone else who got in that line. And voila, you have it. A perfectly anonymous, bought and paid for, declaration of what photographer you went to, not…what makes you the one of a kind actor you are and should be represented as! And to make things worse, some photographers teach their style to other aspiring photographers and then you end up with a diluted, knock off, second hand version of a style that is rapidly becoming too saturated on the market anyway. Not good.
The other current in the headshot world is the undertow. A powerful pull toward a photographer who consistently does great work because they have mastered the photographic arts, interpersonal skills, and use their talents to help define each individual with an image built from an ever shifting set of elements resulting in a headshot that doesn’t look canned, speaks more about the actor than the photographer, and prepares the casting powers for exactly who is going to walk in the door. Ah, a ninja warrior of a headshot! Sleek, direct, and devastatingly effective. That’s magic on a page!
So, how do you find that type of photographer? First, resist the rip tide, look at tons of websites, and familiarize yourself with the work of popular photographers. Look at a large collection of their images. Do they all look alike? Are they all lit the same way? Are they all cropped the same way? And are alternate images represented for different markets, focusing on the strength of that individual tailored to that market, or does the actor just change hairstyle, and clothes, shoot against the same background, with the same lighting? Surely, it shouldn’t be that easy on the photographer. An actor’s presence in the legit world of Film, TV, and Theater might be totally different from their presence in the Commercial world, and so the different shots should present the actor through the lens of what is important information to see in that particular market. Not just a change of expression, but altered aesthetics, different environment, different color palette, body language, energy, and expression. The best headshot photographers have a diversity of work on their sites that serve up fresh, distinctive images that key into the strength of each actor’s presence and suggest types of roles that they should be considered for. Of course there will be similarities, because there are finite options available to play with, but exact replication over and over screams assembly line, and that is a waste of an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
Know yourself. What are you in the acting world? What type of character? Who does the audience see you as? This is a tough one, because I’m not asking who you want to be, or what you want to play, I’m asking you to honestly evaluate what most members of the audience see you as. The most successful actors I have had the pleasure of photographing have a very clear understanding of who they are in the acting world and polish it up to be amazing!
Audiences perceive character types through the filter of both their life experience and the collective consciousness that has developed through years of seeing characters defined in Film, TV, and Theater. Characters fall into broad categories that then get refined with qualities that add to the totality of the character. Learn the character types. I love the definitions created by Bob Frasier, check them out on this website http://www.actorpoint.com/acting-articles/acting-type.html. Find out how others see you by asking teachers, agents, even strangers. Come up to 10 total strangers, tell them you are doing an acting project and ask them what type of character they see you as. You can make it easier for them by preparing a list of character types and let them check off the ones that they think match you. Sure, it could be embarrassing, but you didn’t become an actor because you are a shrinking violet, did you?
Make sure that character comes alive in the elements of your headshot. A great photographer acts as a translator, giving visibility to information. Every element of the photo should combine to create the impact and statement of the shot. Let’s start with wardrobe. Use what you wear to help define your type. Your headshot wardrobe shouldn’t feel like a costume, it should be what you normally wear, but tailored to the way it frames your face, works with the palette of the shot, and represents your type. Romantic leads should wear clothes that are attractive, like you might wear out on a date. Bad guys wear dark, that’s just the way it is. Working class characters wear denim or flannel. It’s a language and your photographer should be able to make suggestions and help you prepare.
Once you have the wardrobe, work on expression. As dumb as it sounds, stand in front of a mirror and try some different expressions. Find what looks good on your face, practice, watch the evolution of an expression, find at what point of energy it looks best. Models do this all of the time. Your face is an instrument, learn to play it. Again, your photographer should be able to recognize the expressions that make you look your best and make your character come alive and help capture them at their peak. Big tip – you know the look that you give yourself in the mirror before you go out on the town and you are kind of flirting with yourself? Definitely try to reproduce that look in your session. Years of looking at your face has taught you the combination of minute muscle contractions that create your most attractive face. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, spend more time in front of the mirror. And watch the James Franco section of this amazing NY Times video called 14 Actors Acting. He and it are awesome!
Another element to play with in your session is body language. The physical attitude you present yourself in helps tell the viewer how to perceive you. Again, to the mirror, try looking powerful; what does your body want to do? Try nonchalance; how would you pose? These are all building blocks, and great photographers use them like brush strokes.
Some actors crumble under the pressure of committing to a headshot session and preparing for it. They psych themselves out, thinking about the options, the importance, the money! Yes, it’s the most important tool for you to possess, because if you can’t get in the door, you can’t get work. Headshots are an actor’s avatar, an embodiment of all that is good and useful about a particular actor. No single headshot can define everything about an actor, but the best headshots make a strong, accurate, attractive statement that make agents sigh with glee because they have a currency which is valued. An agent is much more likely to submit a headshot that gets a positive reaction. It reflects well on the actor, that they are professional and take their career seriously, and it reflects well on the agent, that they handle professionals. Everybody wins! There is no over estimating the importance of a great headshot, but…don’t let it psych you out. Instead, get excited for the opportunity, get organized so the process is that much easier, and get aggressive, turn that anxiety into action and energy!
Focus is everything. When you are in front of the camera, take a moment and breathe. Center yourself, clear your mind, and look into that camera with as much attention and clarity as you can. And be fearless. Don’t listen to that voice that says you might look ridiculous doing something or trying a certain look. Get loose and play. Try different expressions, even if they are exaggerated and over the top. You can always dial them back down. As an actor, you need to become bullet proof, un-embarassable. What a great job you have: to get to play, become people you aren’t. Act wild, funny, crazy! Revel in it and play it to the camera. The best photographers encourage the frenzy and looseness that creativity flows from. And remember, when you are looking into that camera, you are looking at everyone who can help you get work. Reach out to them. See them in the lens. Communicate to them. Turn the tables. The ultimate is to have a photo where you are the one looking at them, not vice versa.
Joe Henson is a headshot photographer located in New York City. He also shoots frequently in Boston, Washington DC, various colleges and universities, and at large. You can see his work at http://www.joehenson.com.