7 Steps Toward Better Headshots

If you’ve read my other articles, then you should know by now that I’m not about pinning our success and hopes and dreams on wishing for a happy accident. I’m about strategy; a solid strategy for success. Nowhere in our industry is strategy overlooked more often than with headshots.

Oh, headshots. They’re the perfect scapegoat for actors. Having trouble getting repped? Blame your headshots! Not getting called in? Blame your headshots! Aren’t working enough? Blame your headshots!

Actors are constantly stressed out about their headshots. We all need them, and they’re our main marketing tool, so they need to represent us well. So, if you’re like so many others, you’re probably pulling your hair out, staring at your shots thinking, Do these represent me well?!?! Are they too sexy? Too quirky? Too colorful? Not colorful enough? Too zoomed in? Too photoshopped? AHHHHH!!!

OK, chill. I’m here to give you my strategy for success with headshots. If you haven’t yet read my previous series on “Getting your ‘look’ right,” then go read it now and come back here when you’re done: Part 1 & Part 2.

Headshots is a big business in the acting world. Anyone with a camera can claim to be a headshot photographer and charge hundreds of dollars. So, my advice here is going to potentially ruffle lots of feathers. Just remember that this is all just one dude’s opinion….

My goal here is to raise your level of expertise and demand more from your headshot experience so that you can move forward with confidence knowing that your headshots were well-thought-out and reflect you well, so if you’re not having as much success as you want, it’s probably not your headshots.

Here’s how the process works with most headshot photography: You get referrals from your friends, agents, or managers, or you Google away, and look at websites and online galleries until you think you’ve found a photographer who shoots good-looking headshots, in your opinion. Then, you call them and discuss the rates, usually dependent on how many “looks” you want to shoot. A hair and makeup stylist is often optional for an additional fee.

Then, you schedule the shoot, where you bring clothing options for the looks you want to capture and then you, and maybe the photographer as well, choose the outfits for the looks you’re about to shoot. During the shoot, you just listen to the photographer and do what they say and pose and smile and laugh and be serious until it’s all over. Afterwards, you get a disc, drive, or online gallery of the images from which to choose your favorites.

The photographer generally offers to retouch one or a few, sometimes for an additional fee. Then, you take your retouched images to a headshot printer and get them printed up and put the images up online on your casting profiles on the various casting sites.

But there are crucial steps missing in that approach.

1. First, before you ever shoot your headshots, you need to be thoughtful about your look and get that right first; get your body healthy and well-groomed, review and refine your look and style, find your essence, settle on an accurate age range to find your role categories, and find your hotness bucket. Since you’ve now presumably read my article on that, I can move on, but I’ll tell you right now that most people skip this step and is one of the main reasons their headshots aren’t the best they could be.

2. Assuming your look and essence are now honed and well-thought-out, it’s time to consult an image consultant who works with actors to determine the outfits that best suit you and your role categories, down to the specific styles, colors, and, sometimes, even brands. The headshot photographers I use do this for their clients as a matter of pre-production course. The main wardrobe buckets for most adult actors are casual, upscale casual, business casual, and business professional.

3. Once you’ve got your look, essence, and outfits pulled together, then it’s time to schedule the shoot. Always have a professional do the hair and makeup, even if you’re a dude. Again, the headshot photographers I use provide this as a matter of course, but you cannot skimp on this. You need someone whose eyes are on your hair, skin, and clothes (like weird wrinkles, bunches, or folds), while the photographer is focused on performance, lighting, and composition. The key here is to hire a stylist that isn’t over-doing it just to earn their money. Sometimes, all you need is a little lip balm and powder, not a full glamour shots makeover.

4. As you’re shooting, make sure you’re channeling the thoughts and vibe of the role type you’re capturing. If you’re in your casual outfit, covering roles like the neighbor, the college student, the friend, think things at the camera that fit those roles like, “Hi! Great to see you!” “That was fun!” “I’ll see you later!” If you’re wearing your suit and tie for the business professional look that covers roles like business professional, employee, boss, think things like, “I’m on it.” “You’re in good hands.” “Just leave it all to me.” Let’s get it done.”

5. Don’t over-act this. If you’re an under-skilled actor, this part could be hard for you and result in cheeseball images. Ideally, your photographer should be guiding you through this, but if not, at the least, you need to make sure you’re doing more than just giving blank smiles and stares at the camera. Remember, the point of headshots is so that casting clearly perceives you and your essence.

6. After the shoot, when making your picks, actors tend to be the worst at making those decisions. Actors always want to choose the photos in which they think they look the best. Casting professionals want headshots that speak to us, that tell a story, that seem to reach out and grab our attention, hence some photographers telling you to give looks during the shoot like you have a secret, or to be mysterious.

7. Finally, as for retouching, be really careful about how much you alter the image. It will not serve you to portray a false image of yourself. For sure, let a professional handle it but make sure that, when it’s all said and done, that the image is an accurate, although great, capture of your look.

When you put your headshots up on the online casting services, make sure your main/default image is cropped in so that we can clearly see your face. Those images are going to appear on our screens slightly bigger than a postage stamp. If it’s zoomed too far back, you’ll disappear. Top of head to shoulders is generally ideal for the main image. 

Apart from those, hopefully your photographer knows better than to shoot you with distracting things in the background, or dark or black background when you have dark or black hair, or shoots down at you, making you seem weak or small, shoots too far away, doesn’t shoot or light the shot in ways that make your eyes pop so that they’re the first thing we see, etc.

The bottom line is this: You need to take a strategic approach towards your headshots to ensure that your main marketing tool is optimized to efficacy. If you’re just going along with the flow, you’re putting too many variables that you could control into the hands of those who might not care or know better to do those details well. Take control. Work with the best. It’s worth it. Don’t waste hundreds of dollars reshooting when you can do it right the first time. 

More to the point: Other actors are paying attention to these details with their headshots and your photos and theirs are out there competing for the same opportunities.