Great Headshots – The Inside Story
Q. What are Actor’s Headshots?
A. Actor’s “headshots” are the images used to represent an actor as an aid in casting. Directors, Producers, Casting Directors, Agents, Managers, and anyone involved in auditioning or hiring talent for the various markets in the entertainment industry use “Headshots” as a visual representation of the look and qualities of a particular performer. From the earliest Hollywood “Pub Shots” i.e. Publicity Shots, to current Electronic Submission Digital Images, headshots have been the currency that circulates through the industry representing actors in their chosen markets. An effective headshot is a mix of aesthetic value (it is pleasing to look at and captures the actor at their best) and casting viability and clarity (it illuminates the qualities of the actor’s type that are important in defining the logical characters that actor can play).
Headshots are one of the most effective elements of an actor’s arsenal in terms of “being seen for a role”. A strong headshot can be an effective entrée into the offices of the people who hold the reigns of power in the entertainment industry. A great headshot can’t tell someone how talented you are, but it can present your qualities as an actor which in turn defines the types of roles you should be playing and make your case…with impact.
We have all heard stories of actors whose headshots have “gotten them in the door” of a big shot Director and launched a successful career. That is not a myth. It happens. Headshots are extremely important as a launching pad for a successful career. That is why choosing a photographer and achieving the highest quality headshot is one of the most important decisions an actor can make…and why it is a source of great anxiety for most actors.
Q. How are Headshots used?
A. This is the Nuts and Bolts portion of this article. Headshots are used in two primary forms, the old reliable 8X10 reproduction and the rapidly growing Electronic Submission. The 8X10 reproduction is exactly what it sounds like, a print of the actor’s headshot reproduced on 8X10 inch paper and usually printed in large quantities. Reproduction Houses that specialize in making copies dot the landscape in most large cities that are centers for acting. Actors submit a “Master Image” either in the form of a Master Print or Master Digital File, and the Reproduction House makes carefully controlled copies of that shot. These copies come in two basic forms, Photo Reproductions which use continuous tone photo paper and produce copies which are indistinguishable from the original, or Lithographs which are lower cost and lower quality reproductions of the image using a fine dot matrix process, much like the images in a newspaper. Budget and personal style determine which process an actor goes with and there is an ongoing debate concerning the best choice. Typically actors who use expensive photographers looking for high photographic quality will want to maintain the elements of that quality in their reproductions. Reproduction Houses have price points throughout the spectrum with Photo Reproduction Houses charging around $115 for 100 Photo Reproductions to Lithographic Houses charging $50 for 500 lithographs.
Electronic submissions involve emailing a low resolution JPEG to the appropriate party. It’s important for every actor to learn how to resize their digital headshot file so that it will sail swiftly through cyberspace and land gently in the queue of the target’s email. Currently there are no established standards for image size but most offices prefer that the image be sized under 1 Megabyte and be converted to 72 dpi. If that sounds like gibberish to you, you can learn to resize your photos fairly easily through many of the photo software programs out there. One of the most useful programs is Adobe Photoshop Elements, a low cost little brother to the expensive Photoshop programs professionals work with. The software programs that are packaged with your digital camera will also explain the process and allow you to resize your image “for the web”.
Headshots are submitted to industry people who are involved in the casting process. This could involve sending them to an agent as a means of introduction, or sending them as a response to an ad for a Student Film Casting in a local actor’s newsletter, or giving them to an uncle who knows someone who knows Steven Spielberg. They carry the hopes and dreams of many actors in getting discovered. All actors should take the process of getting a great headshot very seriously. It is your first impression and can lay the groundwork for your entire career.
Q. What makes a great Headshot?
A. A great headshot is the perfect balance of quality, individuality, and effectiveness. A great headshot works on two levels, first esthetically – it looks good to the eye, even upside down. It grabs the attention of the viewer and pulls him/her in. Agents receive thousands of headshots a month. Your headshot has to stand out from the group and grab that agent by the lapels and say, “Look at me!” Secondly, it has to place the actor within a context that makes it easy for the industry professional to mentally cast you. They should be able to envision you in specific types of roles. This actor would make a great Romantic Lead, that one would make a great Villain. The headshot should be specific enough to define elements of your “type” but not so specific that it limits you to only one note. No one headshot can represent all of the possible roles that a talented actor could play, but an effective headshot can represent qualities that give a perspective for casting that actor. Audiences take in cues from the presence of an actor, i.e. looks, physical attributes, voice, style, and they make judgments on who that character is. The cardinal rule of a great headshot is that it represent the “truest presence” of the actor. Photography is a visual language that opens a wide gamut of interpretation of a subject. The best headshot photographers stick to the truth as “ground zero” for the basis of what they do. The best headshot is not the one that gets the most “likes” on Facebook, it’s the one that gets you the most auditions and work!
Q. How do I go about finding the best photographer for me?
A. The search begins by sifting through the maze of avenues available to get a photograph that can represent you as an actor. Yes, it’s possible that your Uncle Charlie who works at the DMV could take your picture and it will be in focus and will look like you to a certain extent, but in the competitive world of Acting, better headshots present the actor as a professional who takes pride in his/her presentation and understands that the first line of offense is “penetration “. A Casting Agent receives a headshot (with a resume attached to or printed on the back) and decides whether that actor is worth a look or whether that headshot goes into the circular file (we all know what that is). Take a look through the dumpster behind a Casting Agent’s office and see the pile of lost opportunities tossed in there.
If you decide that the best approach is to find a professional photographer (obviously my choice) and not to rely on a lucky accident by a friend, then you are faced with the prospect of figuring out what your budget will be and who is the best qualified photographer you can find for that budget. Professional Headshot Photographers come at all price points from the $99 special to the $1500 Hot Shot. Is more expensive better? Can you get a great headshot for $99? The bottom line is that as in real life – quality usually costs something. It comes down to this: A professional who has pride in his/her work, makes a living doing that work, and has tons of experience, is invested in the result that they create, and has a sense of the market and current styles. Lower priced photographers usually lack experience, depend on volume for profit and must cut back on personal attention and care. Yes, it’s theoretically possible to get a great shot for $99, but it’s also theoretically possible to pay $99 seven times and come up empty when the first shoot with a trained qualified professional, who knows the value of their work and depends on positive word of mouth to stay in business, can result in a well crafted, valuable tool to get you work.
It’s a cutthroat world out there for Actors. There are a myriad of businesses specifically designed to separate aspiring actors from their money. You’ve definitely got to listen to your gut, but forewarned is fore-armed and it’s a buyer beware situation. But all is not lost and actors do get their money’s worth by finding the photographers who deliver great results for reasonable prices.
The first step is to put your ear to the ground. Find a network of actors who are happy with their headshots and the rate they were charged. I mention the rate they were charged because the trick is not to break the bank, but to pay a reasonable rate to get a satisfying product. What is the going rate? What is enough to spend? Logic dictates that people who do something well, get compensated for it. That goes for Doctors, Lawyers and Headshot Photographers. So, if the $99 deal seems too good to be true, yes, it probably is. Most New York Headshot Photographers fall within a range from $350 to $850. Does paying $850 guarantee a great shot? Not always. And beware of the “flavor-of-the-month” photographer who makes a big splash, but can’t deliver consistent results over time or creates the same look stamped on every client they shoot, effectively telling the viewer more about who took the photo than who the subject is. New York City is the land of hype and lemmings form a line at every cliff face along the Hudson River. Most photographers in the range from $350 to $850 would probably do a fairly competent job, but the best shots come from a collaboration between a great professional that you connect with personally and feel comfortable with, and an actor who accepts some responsibility in the process. And a word to the wise, most headshot photographers talk a good game so make sure that you compare photographs between photographers, that way you will see the sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring differences between someone is just taking a photo and someone who is crafting and inspiring a powerful, engaging image.
Q. What then is the actor’s responsibility in the headshot process?
A. First of all, an actor should be clear on the markets he/she wants to work in. Do you want to get TV commercials? Well, you need shots that target those markets and present your “type” in a strong clear way. Are you a Business Person, a Mom, a Dad, an All-American Boy/Girl Next Door, a Pop-Culture GAP Kid, a nerd? That’s what should be evident in your commercial shot, and you might be more than one type. You need to cover all of your types. You might have an 8X10 of your strongest type and then a postcard with a few shots of you as different or contrasting types. What about Film or TV or Theater? That’s called a Legit Shot. A Legit shot defines the qualities that an actor projects and that fall into broad categories in the acting world. Are you more on the intense, edgy side (Robert Deniro) or the loose, light, comic side (Jerry Seinfeld)? Are you going to be hired as the love interest (Scarlett Johansson) or the best friend (Joan Cusack)? Are you strongest as a more specific type, like a thug, or a general type like a romantic lead? And within those categories, where do you fall. Are you Ross, Joey or Chandler? Are you Monica, Phoebe or Rachel? Actors need to define themselves so that others can see it. A great photographer has the perspective to help you project your type so that casting people are goosed in the right direction for casting you. If they understand the roles you would be good for, and your shot accurately and powerfully defines those elements, you’ll get called in for parts that you are right for, a critical step toward getting a role.
Q. When I look at the work of most Headshot Photographers, it all looks the same to me. What differentiates a great Headshot Photographer from a good one?
A. It’s difficult if you don’t know much about photography to differentiate levels of quality in photography. There are many technical elements to great photography, such as expressive, attractive lighting, interesting framing, evocative angles that give the image energy and movement. And then there is the ability of the photographer to help the subject come alive and communicate directly with the viewer of the photograph. One aspect of portfolios that is fairly evident upon examination of multiple images is whether the photographer has a limited formula that is stamped out on each client, or whether there is depth to the style of his/her work. It’s not too difficult over time to master some of the technical elements in portrait photography. With enough experimentation any photographer can hit on a combination of lighting and lens that makes a pretty picture. What separates the greats from the rest is the ability to generate individual style in the headshot driven by the style of the client. A photographer who has a deep bag of tricks and has mastered many forms of lighting and shooting can create a headshot that speaks of the actor and not what photographer took the photo. Many agents pride themselves on being able to pick out the photographer who took your headshot, and while there are just a limited amount of photographers out there, the goal should be to sell you, not the photographer and their style. It’s also helpful to look through magazines that profile actors. The best photographers in the world shoot the actors for those magazines and you can learn a lot about quality photography by examining those images.
Q. What about “natural light” vs “studio light”? Close-up vs 3/4 shot? Which is better?
A. The simple answer is that neither is better. Each style of lighting can be used to create gorgeous powerful images. Simplistic absolutes are the opinions of neophytes and hacks. The more I know about photography, the less I am certain about. There are no absolutes in the art world and I consider Headshot Photography an art when it is practiced at the highest level. If you hear a particular photographer tout the virtues of one style of lighting and trash the other, you can be sure that his/her preference is the only style he/she knows how to work with. My personal preference is to have expertise in both natural and studio light so that either choice is possible and all options are in play. The best photographers aren’t hampered by deficiency in technique. They play with the whole spectrum of possibilities and present a wide range of choices. In the hands of a great photographer, light becomes a tool for defining a mood, bone structure, sense of place and energy. I have been a professional photographer for many years and I have seen trends and styles come and go. Those elements are just window dressing, they change with time. 3/4 shot vs close-up, is there a preference in the industry? It boils down to this – a 3/4 shot shows more of your physical presence. If showing your particular body type helps define your character, then by all means take some shots that show it. A heavyset comedic actor, a buff action hero, a buxom femme fatal –3/4 shots will allow the viewer to see the complete package. But, they do close-ups in movies for a very specific reason, it allows greater access to the intensity or subtleties of emotion in the eyes. There is no all-encompassing correct answer. All options should be left on the table in a photo session. Shoot everything that works and narrow down your choices later, in the cool light of day, after the session is over.
On the most basic human level, a great headshot makes a connection with the viewer. The actor and the photographer work together to make that happen. You need to look through the lens and see your partner through the glass…your audience. Bring it to them; create an emotion, intensity, and a statement that is defined in your mind. I encourage my clients to feed me emotions or intent, to think of creating “defined instants” in time. Some have an easier time with that than others. For those that find it difficult, we play games to loosen the flow. I don’t commit to shooting until something is happening. “Charisma” is the mythical element that makes a headshot come alive. A great photographer provides the energy and the mood to help the subject generate and express their “charisma”. It has been said that people either have “charisma” or they don’t. As a professional photographer in Manhattan who has photographed over 16,000 clients, I can say definitively that everyone can be helped to bring out their most effective, most interesting side for a photograph. The aesthetics must be well crafted, a perspective must be chosen, and the photographer and the subject must both put maximum effort into generating a sense of communication. The only moment that counts is the one shown in the photograph. “Charisma” is the end product of two people working toward a common goal…a great headshot.
There is powerful magic in a great headshot. It commands attention and makes the viewer want to meet that person. As human beings we are drawn to truth and beauty, and those are the elements that make an outstanding headshot. A great photographer is excited by the search for those elements in all of his/her clients.
© Joe Henson 2015 All Rights Reserved