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.