Six Tips for Perfect Headshots

by Ruth Kulerman

Photographer with camera

The actor's headshot must look professional and here is how to make sure your headshot is great.

"What constitutes a good headshot?"

That is IMPOSSIBLE to answer. However, here are some general suggestions.

First, yes you may staple your cover letter to the front of your headshot, in the upper left hand corner. Be sure the staple does NOT cover important contact information on your resume.

1. Like the envelope and the letter, the headshot must look professional. Always 8x10". I prefer a matte finish. NY still opts for a decent sized white border with your name printed in the bottom border. No fancy fonts here either. Even the print style you select says something about you. Neither the border nor the printed name should draw attention away from your face! The aim of a headshot is to have your face grab their attention.

2. What should the picture look like? YOU!!! Women: Please do not try to look like the next Miss America. "Ordinary" is very much in these days. A pretty woman trying to look glamorous has fewer chances/fewer roles than a pretty woman who presents herself as she is: pretty. Or plain. Or intelligent. Or humorous. Or whatever she is. Teenagers, please look teenager-ish. If they want someone who looks 22 there are thousands to choose from. If you look 15, then look 15. The more your headshot looks like you, the better the headshot.

Men, one nice outfit and one casual. If you aren't the Wall Street type, go for tee or sports shirt only. It used to be one legit (soap, theatre) shot and one commercial. (That is, one glamorous pose and one girl/woman/boy/man next door.) Today I would strongly suggest that if some of your roles will be business types, then men wear a tie and jacket and women wear a suit and blouse as one pose and tee shirt or more sporty outfit for the other pose. Whatever you wear, LOOK LIKE YOU. Try as truthfully as you can to figure out what kinds of roles you are likely to get cast in. Chances are if you are not a hunk or a model, you are not going to get hunk/model roles.

3. Make up? Exactly the same that you yourself could apply. Horrors! I can hear the women screaming. There is only one exception: If you have very dark circles under your eyes, then lighten them under careful makeup. Men, unless you are only the "scruffy, unshaven type" then please shave. LOOK LIKE YOUR HEADSHOT AND HAVE YOUR HEADSHOT LOOK LIKE YOU. Unless you are stunning, please do not have your face all glamored up, unless you are willing to pay a make-up artist every time you audition.

4. Just be sure the picture is about you, not about hair or boots or glamorous makeup. What does that mean? I once saw a headshot of a young woman sitting on the floor wearing boots. The shot was angled from the bottom of her boots. Those boots, consequently, were twice the size of her head. That was a picture about boots. After I first saw the boots, five minutes later I had forgotten the face, but the image of boots has lingered five years.

More and more I see headshots with distracting backgrounds--wrought iron fences with parallel lines, cityscapes, angles, circles, cars. STOP. Your headshot must have NOTHING that takes the viewer away from you. NOTHING. No housetops, no trees, no nothing. If the photographer insists, run -- run very fast to another photographer. The photographer with distracting backgrounds is more interested in his own clever shots than in capturing your face.

5. NOTHING MUST TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR FACE. That is what people must see.

6. If you smile, get your whole face, especially the eyes, into the smile. Otherwise just a "real you" look is best. If you are self-conscious about your teeth, your smile will show it. No, do not smile unless you can commit to it completely. (PS. You CAN teach yourself to smile!)

Truthfully, I would have to look at every person's contact sheets before making a judgment on headshots. However, don't merely rely on your family to help you select the appropriate pose. Get the opinion of someone in the profession who really doesn't know you or else who doesn't have a vested interest in you. An impersonal unbiased opinion. Don't believe the photographer. He's looking at his work, not at your face.

A note-personal-about headshots. I love to laugh. Mouth wide open, tonsils showing, eyes squinty closed, head thrown back. The kind of unladylike laugh/face that embarrasses proper mothers.

My first headshot session captured one of those laughs. Against EVERYONE'S ADVICE, I had "the laugh" made up into a postcard. That "forbidden" pose, the laughing postcard, landed on a casting desk (because I had mailed it). And "the laugh" led directly to my first agent. That's a pose against every rule of headshots. But I just knew it totally captured a major side of me.

My advice: Go and do thou likewise. Capture you.

The hardest advice of all: If a headshot is not working (that is, if you are not getting called in for ANYTHING) heave it out and get another set of shots. That is why it is so terribly important NOT to pay a fortune for headshots. You do not have to use the biggest name photographer. Your headshot is not about the photographer. It is about your face. And if one picture isn't working, move ON TO THE NEXT.

Present the best you in your envelope's appearance.
Present the best you in your cover letter's appearance and content.
Present YOU in your headshot.

Ruth Kulerman is an actress and coach, known for "The Off Season," "A Walk in the Dark," and "Satan Hates You." Her series of articles is copyright by Chad Gracia and ActorTips. All rights reserved.
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Reader Comments

thank you so much for the info.
im only 14 and im sure this will help(:

Posted by valery (2009-04-13) 1290

My background includes community theater, public speaking and sales. On stage or at a podium are my favorite places. In business, my attire was a suit, but didn't fit the "tycoon role". It was more important to me and effective to be "one of the guys'. My current status is retired and certainly don't expect to be cast as a teenager. However, my hopes are to combine things I like and make a little money.

An amateur (wedding type) photographer took some shots which were more suitable for a post office "wanted' poster, I came across your site. Seeing suggestions on this site have given me ideas on how to spice up my photograph, but I'd love any advice you would offer...

Although I have always had confident, it doesn't show in my photos (either recent ones or every snapshot since high school. I am ordinary looking, chubby with a full head of hair (some gray). Some people say I am rugged. Other's say I look like a mafia hit man. There were some uncles in NJ who were pretty close to that "business" but have not had any personal involvement in that kind of “business”. I did dislocate a guy’s leg once wrestling in high school but I don’t think that counts.

Being Italian, I have a dark complexion, including some circles under my eyes. For the first set of head shots, I used a facial scrub but all it did was make my face shine. If there is a mafia hit man role out there or something that would fit my persona, I'd like to have it show in a picture.

By the way, I am in Michigan and on a limited budget so I probably won't be traveling to have a professional head shot taken. My plan is to go back to the original amateur photographer and give her some idea what I want from suggestions on your site.

I'd be more than appreciative if you had any specific advice for me

Posted by Jim Chiodo (2008-09-26) 417

thanks this makes sense! plus i know which picture to pick!

Posted by agent 99 (2008-07-14) 127

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