Actor Headshots – Everything You Need To Know
Actors headshots are traditionally 10 by 8 images, featuring an actor’s head and shoulders, and used as a promotional image to help the actor gain work. Headshots are essential for every actor, and at an early stage of their career, they will go through the process of deciding what their casting is and which photographer will be best to convey that and help them grab the attention of casting directors.
Finding the right headshot photographer can be confusing, and figuring out which headshots to choose for your headshot portfolio once you have had your photo session can be even more stressful.
Here is everything you need to know about actor headshots, which will hopefully make the whole process easier and more transparent.
Why do Actors get headshots?
Actors need headshots. They are an essential part of the casting process.
Casting directors for stage and screen will put a casting breakdown on Spotlight, or similar casting platform. Professional agents will then submit their client(s) for suitable roles by sending the casting director, the appropriate actor or actress’s profile.
The profiles appear to the casting director as a screen full of little thumbnail size actor headshots. Casting professionals can sift through literally hundreds of little headshots per role. The casting director will then review these and decide yes, no, or maybe. Subsequent reviews will occur until they have a shortlist of actors, they want to call to audition, it’s only really at this point that casting directors will look at the actor’s CV. For some castings, for example, castings for commercials, CV’s are often irrelevant. In this instance, casting directors are mainly relying on the look of the actor.
Regardless of the role, in the first instance, a casting director will choose an actor purely based on how they look in their headshots!
If you don’t have a headshot you literally will not be seen by casting directors, and never get that casting call!.
At the beginning of the process, a headshot is the only thing the casting director has to go on. In the end, a great headshot might not be enough to guarantee you an audition, but a bad headshot will guarantee that you don’t get one.
Actors not only need headshots; they need to not have bad headshots. Ideally, they need a great professional headshot.
The History of Acting Headshots
In the 1920’s, actors’ and actress headshots were incredibly glamorous. Actors wore expensive clothes, lots of makeup and the looks were very dramatic. Shot on black and white film, the lighting was terrifically dark and atmospheric. This reflected the black and white films of the times.
Over the years headshots became more natural and clearer, as film and shooting techniques improved. Even in the 60s and 70s, headshots were still very posed and characterful.
Before the internet, Spotlight/Contacts (actor and agents listings) were hard copy books that casting directors looked through. Agents representing actors and actresses needed to get a copy of Spotlight to see the castings and casting directors needed a copy contacts to see a list of actors and agents. Actors needed to have one great headshot because only one would be printed in the Contacts.
Actors needed lots of hardcopy headshot prints because their agents sent hard copy glossy 10 by 8 headshots to apply for acting jobs along with a cover letter and SAE. This went on until around 2010 but with the advent of the internet, Spotlight moved online and digital headshot photography became essential.
Most professional headshot photographers started using digital cameras because film was very expensive, taking fewer images with longer photo shoots to achieve the right look and feel, often producing just one final image… Digital photography now means that hundreds of images can be taken in a photoshoot and actors can select a range for their headshot portfolio.
In the UK, black and white headshots were the norm until around 2010 when colour started creeping in. American actors usually had colour headshots way I before this time. Currently, colour headshots are the norm in the UK industry and most actors don’t use black and white headshots anymore. There are still a wide variety of headshot styles, with cinematic landscape images and casual none posed images becoming more common.
Why you should get Professional Actor Headshots
A good way to look at it is to see an actor as a business. The business is acting. Like Coke Cola is a business. Their business is soft drinks. You see a Coke on the shelf, and you know what you are going to get. You see it and you instantly trust it. This is branding. Its why manufacturers think very careful about how they package and sell a product. To an extent, it doesn’t matter what is in the packaging. People will judge a product based on what it looks like. They may judge a product better quality than another product purely based on how that product is packaged.
It is the same for actors. An actor or actress headshot is part of their packaging of themselves as a business. It’s part of their branding.
Thinking about it in this way, it is not difficult to see why actors need to invest so much thought, time, effort, and money into their headshot.
As good as phone cameras are these days. Taking headshots on your phone will look unprofessional. A headshot not only tells a casting director what an actor looks like, it has the power to tell the casting director whether the actor is professional.
The reality is there are very talented actors with really bad headshots and as a result that don’t get casting calls, I can tell you this from my experience of 10 years as a professional actor in the industry. I can also tell you there are bad actors that have great headshots and who get seen but I don’t need to tell you this as you can watch TV and see for yourself.
How much do Actor Headshots Cost?
Prices of acting headshots range considerably from £50 to £600. £150 is around is the average price. Price does not necessarily mean quality or results, but if you find a professional headshot photographer that you think can give you the results you need, then it may well be worth the money in the long run.
What sort of Actor Headshots do I need?
Style is the most important aspect – if you like the photographer’s style of headshot, you are more likely to be happy with the result from that photographer. Remember, you may have to live with it for several years. The style needs reflect the sort of castings you are looking for, e.g. classical theatre, character, young urban, etc. so spend time thinking about this before deciding on your photographer and what you should show in your actor headshot portfolio. Headshot photographers worth their salt will spend time with you to find out what you want and try different styles and expressions throughout the photo session. The final contact sheet may have up to 200 images to choose from. Your final selection of 5 or 6 retouched images should portray your range as an actor. UK wide
Where do I go to Get Actor Headshots?
Many headshot photographers are based in London but there are professional and experienced actor headshot photographers UK wide, you will find them in in Scotland, Wales, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol, and just about everywhere in between. If you attend a drama school outside of London and do not have the biggest budget, look for photographers that are nearby and see if they offer a student discount. It might be wise to look locally before deciding to spend money on a train to London.
Sometimes finding a headshot photographer near you can save time when that all-important phone call comes from your agent telling you that your headshots need updating.
This is not to say some of the experienced photographers aren’t worth travelling to London for. I would, however, say if you are still at drama school it’s worth remembering that if you are lucky enough to get an agent upon graduating, they may ask you to get more headshots done and may have a preferred headshot photographer.
Actor Headshot Tips:
Here are some actor headshots tips to help you prepare for your shoot and help you choose the right headshots.
How to prepare for your Headshots
Firstly, decide how you want your headshots to represent you – remember, they are a marketing tool. Try to arrive with an idea of what you want from the session: what roles do you usually go up for? What roles do you want to go up for? If you already have headshots, do they need completely updating or do you just need a few new looks? The more preparation you do the easier it will be.
Secondly, make sure you are physically and mentally ready for the shoot. It’s important to get a good night’s sleep the night before. You need to be as hydrated as possible so drink plenty of water the week before the photoshoot, and don’t go out drinking the night before or this will show in your photos! Bags under eyes can be edited but it’s more difficult to fix the dead look in your face, the shoot might be over by the time your face has woken up.
If you are someone who gets nervous in front of the camera, it may be worth doing some relaxation and or breathing exercises beforehand. Yoga can be good for actors trying to relax and centre themselves. Actors doing yoga to prepare is becoming more common in the industry but anything that can wake up your body and mind up, in the morning, whilst keeping you relaxed, will do.
It is helpful for the photographer to see any of your previous headshots. If you have any general headshots that you like, they can also be a good reference for the photographer. Go in prepared, then just relax and enjoy the session. Any little blemishes on the day can be edited out in the final retouched images so no panic is necessary!
What to wear for Headshots?
There are no set rules, but remember to wear something you feel good in and relaxed in. Being comfortable will show through in your photos. However, if you stuff your shirts in a bag, they will look like they were stuffed in a bag for the shoot! Take a few tops. Generally, darker, solid colours tend to work best. Avoid crazy patterns and heavy logos as they are distracting. Bring a few options, with varied necklines, but not too wide or low, allowing the top to frame your face.
If you wear glasses, bring them, try shots with and without. Although, sometimes if you wear glasses they can distract away from your eyes, so take contact lenses as well if you have them. Try and avoid accessories such as necklaces and earrings, they will take the focus away from your face.
What about Hair and Makeup?
Less is more. It’s always easier for people to imagine you with more makeup on, not so easy to imagine you with less. You want to look your best, but you don’t want the first thing people think to be ‘Wow, she’s wearing a lot of makeup!’ or ‘what does she look without makeup?’
Don’t hide your freckles, keep your scars and imperfections on show. These features are what make you unique, and gives interest to your face and get you noticed. Remember casting directors often want to see an interesting face that catches their attention and conveys the character they are searching for and not necessarily ‘model’ looks.
Wear your hair how you normally would but do experiment with a few different hairstyles before your shoot. For women, it’s always worth trying a few looks with your hair up, as it could affect your age range and can look very ‘period’ or ‘classical’. Don’t cut your hair the day before your shoot! Give your hair a few days to relax after a cut. Think about what your hairstyle says about you, your image, and, ultimately, your casting.
How to pose for Headshots
There isn’t just one way to pose for headshots. It varies greatly from photographer to photographer. Some photographers will sit you down. Some will make you stand against a wall. Some will make you crouch. Some will ask you to keep your chin down and eyes up. Some will get you into character. And some will want you to just relax and keep the energy up. You may choose to have some whole body shots taken, it is really important that they look relaxed and natural.
Whatever the photographer tells you to do the most important thing to do is keep your eyes actively engaged and keep energy in the image. The photographer will do the rest.
This is why you choose a professional photographer.
For further headshot advice check out our headshot advice page.
Good Headshots Vs Bad Headshots
Good Headshots should :
· Look like the person.
· Be interesting and engaging.
· Draw attention to the eyes which should ‘pop’.
· Have head and shoulders are in the shot.
· Look like they have been taken on a phone by a friend.
· Have a distracting background.
· Have distracting clothing, accessories or background.
· Have dead eyes.
· Are out of focus.
· Are over airbrushed.
· Cut Off the top of the head or shoulder line, or show too much body distracting from the face.
Number 1 cardinal Sin – Headshots that don’t look like the person.
Outdoor Headshots Vs Studio Headshots
Which is best depends on your preferred style but here are some pros and cons to help you choose.
· Can achieve a more urban looking headshots.
· Natural-looking headshots, using natural light.
· Unique backdrops.
· The Weather – Rain can kill your shoots, the cold can be tough to shoot in. Heat can make you red in the face and sweaty. Too sunny can make your squint. Windy can ruin your hair. Perfect conditions are usually overcast with good light.
· Distractions – You are at the mercy of other people walking in the way and distracting you.
· Light – you might find yourself chasing the daylight, the natural light may not be sufficient.
· It’s a more controlled environment.
· Can potentially be more relaxed.
· Lighting can be controlled.
· You may be limited to the backdrops, although can be added digitally.
· Some studio shots can look very composed.
· Less variety of environments.
How to Choose Your Headshots
You probably only need six or so photos to cover your range of castings. More than that and the pictures may be too similar. You don’t need black-and-white shots anymore, although many selections do include them. Remember, a range is a subtle difference the look, not the same look in different tops. A mid-shot (i.e. from the waist up) is often a useful addition. One or two production or film stills, if they are good and interesting, can add to the mix nicely.
There is no exact science in choosing a headshot photographer, nor is there a formula for creating a killer headshot. It is an incredibly subjective process. What will work for some, will not work for others. You can argue about what is in fashion, but a great headshot should always show you in the best light but look like you when you walk through the audition room door.
How to Put my Spotlight Portfolio Together?
Whether looking at your contact sheet (often up to 200 shots) or looking at a selection of final retouched images, don’t be afraid to ask for people’s opinions. They will help you get perspective because it is quite difficult to view your own headshots objectively. Saying this, they are your headshots, you have to live with them, so make sure you pick the shots that you are happy with. Unless, of course, your agent picks them for you, in which case, as long as you are happy with your agent, your work is done until the next time they need updating.
Q: Do I Need Prints of My Headshots?
A: Prints are not used as part of the casting process anymore, so you don’t need them to be included in the package. A photographer is likely to set a higher fee if they are included. You can get prints as and when you need them from reproduction companies.
Q: Do I need Black and White headshots?
A: If the photographer is shooting using a digital camera, then you should be able to have both at no extra cost, as turning an image to black and white is a click of a button. Check this with the photographer first. It would be unusual for anyone in the industry to ask for black and white headshots. It may be useful to have them, nevertheless.
Q: How many Headshots do I need?
A: You need one ‘main shot’: this is your best shot which should be engaging and says a bit of everything. However, it is worth having a couple of others to show your acting range. On your online actor profile, such as Spotlight, you should have around five or six different shots showing your acting range.
Q: How much time do I need during my photoshoot?
A: Frankly, the more time the better. One hour minimum is advisable but if you’re after a range of looks, you should be looking at least one to two hours +. If you are experienced in getting headshots and know what you want less time is fine. Some people prefer quick shoots as fatigue can set in on longer shoots and they can be less effective as they go on. This is where regular breaks, caffeine, and treats come in.
Q: Can a family photographer or portrait photographer take performers headshots?
A: All photographers can take headshots, however, there are industry standards for actor and performer headshots so you need to be sure your photographer understands these and can achieve them.