How to Get Great Headshots
by Joe Henson
You need a great headshot, one that's the perfect balance of quality, individuality, and effectiveness.
What are Actor's Headshots and how are they used?
Actor's headshots are images of actors which are used as an aid in casting by Casting Directors, Agents, Managers, Directors, Producers and anyone involved in auditioning talent for the various markets in the entertainment industry. 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 an effort to be seen for a role. An effective headshot is a mix of aesthetic value (it is pleasing to look at and makes the actor look good) and casting viability and clarity (it defines the elements 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 entrance into the offices of the people who hold the reigns of power in the entertainment industry. A great headshot can not tell someone how talented you are, but it can define your qualities as an actor that in turn define the types of roles you should be playing. We have all heard stories of actors whose headshots have "gotten them in the door" of a big shot agent and launched a successful career.
Headshots are used in two primary forms, the 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 actors. 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.
Headshots are submitted to industry people who are involved in the casting process. Depending on the level of professionalism, this could mean sending them to an agent as a means of making contact 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.
What makes a great headshot?
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 that actor. They should be able to picture the actor 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 a "type" but not so specific that it limits the actor 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 logically give a perspective for casting that actor.
How do I go about getting a great headshot?
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 cry for the lost opportunities tossed in there.
If you decide that the best approach is 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 prices depend on volume for profit and must then 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 to come up with something that could have come the first time from a trained qualified professional who knows the value of their work and depends on positive word of mouth to stay in business.
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 for-armed and it's certainly 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? No. And beware of the "flavor-of-the-month" photographer who makes a big splash but can't deliver consistent results over time. 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.
What then is the actor's responsibility in the headshot process?
An actor should be clear on the markets he/she wants to work in first of all. 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/MTV Kid? 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 shot of you as a different type on it. How 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 or the loose, light, comic side? Are you going to be hired as the love interest or the best friend? 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 or 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 big important step in getting a role.
When I look at most Headshot Photographer's work, it all looks the same to me. What differentiates a great Headshot Photographer from a good one?
It's difficult if you don't know much about photography to differentiate levels of quality in photography. This is where in this interview I have to speak personally, based on my experience and what I do to make my work stand out. One aspect of portfolios that is fairly evident is whether the photographer has a limited formula, which is stamped out on each client. It's not too difficult over time to master 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 a photographer who generates the style of the headshot from the style of the client, who has a deep bag of tricks and has mastered many forms of lighting and shooting so that the headshot tells about 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 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, taking in those images.
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 the person behind the glass. 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. 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. I look for the moments when I feel the connection and BAM - there is a headshot!
The sitter is creating the role and the photographer is directing the action, choosing angles, and lighting, backgrounds that enhance the overall statement of the 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.