Tips for Impactful Actors Headshots | An Interview with Denver Casting Director Sylvia Gregory

Actor Headshots by Jennifer Koskinen | Merritt Portrait Studio. [ Click to enlarge ]

What makes a Killer Actor's Headshot… ?

You know what I'm talking about... the kind of photo that grabs the right kind of attention, communicates personality and makes a casting director curious to know more about an actor…

It takes a special blend of preparation (from the actor), technical skill (on the part of the photographer), timing and chemistry -- interpersonal chemistry, that is -- between an actor and a photographer to create that perfect headshot.

As a service to my actor headshot clients, I thought it would be helpful to sit down with Denver Casting Director, Sylvia Gregory, of Sylvia Gregory Casting, (who works with these headshots every day, after all) to get her perspective regarding how headshots are ultimately received and used in the casting process, what elements are best (or worst) to have in your headshots, and other answers to questions I often hear from my clients.

I’m incredibly grateful to Sylvia, a former actor herself, for sharing both her valuable time and expertise so that we could present this information to you. Whether you are just starting your acting career, or if you're a seasoned actor looking to refresh your headshots after a few years, hopefully you’ll find Sylvia's insight and perspective to be helpful in preparing for a fantastic headshot experience! 

NOTE: All of Sylvia’s answers below are paraphrased from a candid conversation -- I’m a photographer, after all, and make no claim to being a journalist!!


A CASTING DIRECTOR's PERSPECTIVE on creating POWERFUL ACTOR HEADSHOTS :

Jennifer (photographer) Question : As a casting director, are there particular elements that stand out to you in a headshot that catches your attention, either positively or negatively?

Sylvia (casting director) Answer : YES! During the casting process we often have headshots spread out on the floor, so actors' names should be on the FRONT of their headshots. This little thing helps save our knees and backs during the casting process!

Focus should be on the Eyes... something should be happening in the eyes: they should be thoughtful, engaging, humorous. This photo is an introduction to what this actor is going to be like to work with, we want to know this person, not a caricature of the person.

It’s critical that your headshot look like you. You don’t want us to think, “This doesn’t look like person at all.” I tell actors that you should be photographed as you would look “on a good day,” because if you show up not looking like your headshot, it wastes your time and everyone else involved in that casting (you’d want that consideration from others as well, as this potentially takes a limited audition spot from someone else who might have been more appropriate for a role).

Jennifer : If an actor has diversity of styles, should they have different headshots for each kind of role they might go after, or one “brand” photo?

Sylvia : One brand photo which is about the ACTOR is most important. A client needs to know who will show up ON SET... we want to get an idea for who this PERSON is… not a caricature. That being said, an actor should have two great headshots -- one with teeth (expressive, i.e. smiling), and one more theatrical and serious.

There are special instances where an actor may want to show a more gritty, intense, or more hip (etc.) side of themselves for certain types of roles in which they are often cast, and if you have the means to do this, certainly go for it, just be cautious of appearing too “posey” or caricature-like. These are big NO’s.

Jennifer : As a photographer, I’ve been told that actors’ headshots should look “like they’d look when they walk into an audition.” Do you have thoughts on this regarding makeup/hair/wardrobe/retouching/ etc:

Sylvia : Regarding Makeup & Hair -- Again, think natural -- wear your hair how you would every day. Having options is good, so for women, if you have long hair, maybe start with it up, then try it down. Guys, it’s great to see beard and no beard, so consider coming in with a beard and shaving part way through a session.

Regarding Wardrobe -- No logos, no crazy patterns... NO JEWELRY... nothing that could make your headshots dated (so avoid trendy fashion choices). Solid colors are best, you should know your best colors for your coloring. If you have the means, consider investing in a meeting with an image consultant (they can advise you on the best neck and collar lines, best sleeve cuts, best colors, and other wardrobe choices that are best for your bone structure, body type and coloring).

Regarding Retouching - remember this is not a glamour shot! If there are a few blemishes it’s fine to retouch these, but if you have scars or if your skin is textured in any way that is going to be there during your audition and/or for a role, we need to see that. Be aware again of the importance that your headshot truly look like YOU... there’s a trickle-down of consequences for bringing in the wrong look when an actor walks in for the part

Jennifer : As a photographer, I direct a lot on a headshot session and often capture the space and movement between directions. Should actors be thinking of anything in particular or do you have tips from your perspective, having been an actor and as an audition coach and casting director?

Sylvia : Really, just be YOURSELF... a few tricks that can help:

If you’ll be in a studio, bring some of your favorite music. This can create natural moments of spontaneity, allow you to get into a groove. Moving photos are often the best ... moments of spark.

Bring a person you love to be on set to help create moments of authenticity.

Jennifer : For beginners, do you have any advice on preparing for headshots for those who may not have defined their brand yet?

Sylvia : Use a professional headshot photographer if you can, or at the very least do NOT submit a blurry, iphone photo. Don’t get too posey: be natural, be yourself, show your personality... Natural light is best. I often spot amateur photos because they have worn too much makeup, or are too posed. Kids, please: NO CUTESY photos! They appear over-coached (and not in a good way).

Jennifer : I hear a lot of discussion from photographers that there's a big debate in the casting director community about Horizontal vs. Vertical headshots. Do you have a preference??

Sylvia : No preference at all - horizontal or vertical -- either is fine, a good headshot is what's important. And again, "I just want your NAME ON THE FRONT.” (that part in quotes... that's a direct quote... and take note, that's not the first time she said it! If you work with me, I'll make sure you get a file that will make Sylvia happy!)

Jennifer : Location -- do you have preference on indoor vs. outdoor headshots?

Sylvia : Natural light is best, so wherever the light is good works. Although if you’re easily distracted, working inside a natural light studio may be a better choice for you.

Jennifer : Are there any headshot trends that you like (or dislike) in the Denver headshot market at the moment?

Sylvia : No… but I do still see black and white on occasion and it comes across as NOT CURRENT. We want to see you in full color.

Jennifer : How much should an actor worry about the print quality of a submitted headshot (matte vs. gloss, press printed, stapled vs. taped resume, etc.)

Sylvia : Matte and glossy finishes are all fine... (although be aware that if you spend money to print your resume directly on the back, this tells CD you’re probably not working enough to update your resume often -- generally these are printed in bulk and ideally you want your resume to need updating before you run out of 50 headshots!)

I strongly prefer headshots and resumes to be stapled in all 4 corners to ensure that your photo stays attached to the back of your resume. And (this is a biggie!) your headshot and resume need to be stapled BEFORE you walk in!! Huge pet peeve to walk into an audition unprepared! There’s no need to spend a ton on your print, but your choice in the final quality does come across. And we see a lot of bad headshots in Denver...

Also, it's a good idea to make a cheap photocopy of your headshot just to see how it converts to black and white. Headshots will get photocopied in the process, and sometimes this reveals “floating head” syndrome, or too much texture in background -- the focus should always be on your eyes!

Jennifer : How often should an actor update his/her headshot? (does this keep actors fresh in front of agents and casting directors?)

Sylvia : Every 3-5 years for adults should be fine, every year for fast growing children. If you have a drastic hair change and don’t have funds to update your headshot yet, take an iPhone photo of your new look, print it small and staple it to the upper corner of your headshot. This will at least allow us to quickly know we're thinking of the right person (from an audition, for example).


And ... A Few TIPS from the PHOTOGRAPHER:

  • Please tell me about your brand prior to our session. Do you specialize in comedic or dramatic roles? Do you specialize in theatre, television or film? Are you known for any particular or unique physical features? Especially if we haven’t met, knowing these things will help me get a sense of who you are, and may have an influence on how and where I photograph you.

  • Know your face. If you have strong features you’d like to accentuate or decentuate, please communicate this. Practice your smile in the mirror to see how it affects the size of your eyes.

  • Discuss any specifics with your agent if you have representation. If you’re trying to get representation, look at headshots posted by that agency and compare to the work of any photographers you may be comparing.

  • Prepare for your headshots like you would for an audition: Drink plenty of water and get a good night’s sleep for bright, clear eyes. Exercising that day (if it’s your thing), does increase circulation for healthier skin color (especially if you are pale).

  • Prepare your wardrobe AHEAD of time (not the day of)! Double check that all necessary layers (including undershirts, bra straps, etc.) work together, fit, are clean, and that they all come with you!

  • Bring OPTIONS for clothing (solid colors are best, layers are great to have on hand to change up a look simply -- leather jackets, for example).

  • Bring your wardrobe items in a portable bag, preferably with wheels, in case we head out for sessions in the streets of downtown. Even if we’ve planned a studio session, sometimes we’ll head outside for a different look, and it’s great to be portable!

  • Keep your lips hydrated! This goes for guys, too! Bring lip balm/chapstick -- whatever you like. Dry, cracking or chapped lips do not look good in photos!

  • Kids -- pigtails & ponytails make younger look, straight hair often reads older.

  • I probably don't need to say this, but just in case... Do NOT think a glass of wine (or other substance of choice) will help relax you. Instead, you won’t be as alert or receptive to direction, and your eyes will be dull and/or bloodshot. You can trust me to direct you and believe me… this is going to actually be a positive experience for you.

  • When sharing your headshots online (social media), noting copyright / photographer credit helps boost all of us creatives. Share the love!

OK... so now it's your turn!

Are there other questions you have? Please feel free to contact me, or leave questions in the comments below and we can continue to update this actor headshot resource for you.

And of course I'd love to learn more about YOU! If you'd like to set up a time to talk about headshots, please drop me a line and let's set something up!

Break Legs!

- Jennifer

If you're looking for more info, THIS ARTICLE from Backstage is one of many resources available from them, and again stresses the importance of preparation and connecting with your photographer. Please let me know if you'd like to chat and see if we'd be a good fit!


ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Jennifer Koskinen | Merritt Portrait Studio specializes in Actor Headshots and Portraiture. She is also an internationally published Live Theatre and Stage Production Photographer based in Denver Colorado. In the summer of 2015 she was brought on as the production photographer for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival after multiple seasons photographing live theatre for the Denver Center for Performing Arts Theatre Company. She has also volunteered with the Denver School of the Arts Theatre Department, capturing actor headshots and staged productions for the past 4 years. Her photos have appeared in around the world, and in US publications such as the New York Times, American Theatre Magazine, Playbill.com, The Denver Post, and Broadway World, to name just a few.

For more about Jennifer, please visit our ABOUT page. For information on headshot packages, please take a look HERE!

 

ABOUT SYLVIA GREGORY CASTING: Sylvia Gregory cast the SAG Independent Feature Film “Fishing Naked” and the SAG Independent Short Films “Death of the Bar-T” and “Distance”. She has cast commercials, Web spots, print ads and projects for such Nationally established companies such as Sprint, Kellogg’s, Coors, Southwest Airlines, Honda, Duracell, Jenny Craig, Kroger/King Sooper, Bayer, HP, Spectrum Reach, Cabela’s, TGI Friday’s, Hunter Douglas, HP, Ameristar Casinos, Best Western, Allstate, AAA, The Bill Gates Foundation, Conoco, Kaiser Permanente, Delta Dental, BabyCenter.com, Reebok (NHL), Burger King, IBM, NFL Red Zone, Dish NetworkVerizon, SpeakEasy, Play Along!, Boston Market, and Bass Pro Shop.

Regionally, Sylvia has cast for Humana ParksCalifornia AlmondsColorado Department of Health EducationSmartypants VitaminsRocky Mountain Health Plans, Connect for Health Colorado, The Colorado Lottery, The New Hampshire Lottery, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Summit Automotive, Charter Media, Via Satellite,  Keen Shoes, The Rocky Mountain Cancer Center,  North Dakota Department of Transportation, Pinnacle Bank, LiveWell Colorado, CollegeInvest, Tri-State Energy, Banner Health, Del Real Foods, and Furniture Row.

The Colorado Heath Foundation episodic films “Encrucijada”,  for PBS and Univision, won the Heartland Regional Emmy Award for best PSA in 2015. Sylvia is also proud to be a part of The Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention’s “Man Therapy” PSA campaign, which was written up in an article in the Media & Advertising section of The New York Times.

Sylvia is currently the Casting Director for The Colorado Shakespeare Festival and LOCAL Theatre Company. She worked as the Casting Associate at The Denver Center Theater Company for three seasons.  She has also cast shows for Denver Center Attractions, Off Square Theatre, The Colorado Symphony Orchestra, The Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra, Bravo! Vail, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, Cleo Parker-Robinson Dance, Colorado Theatre Works, Senior Housing Options at The Barth Hotel, and Paragon Theatre Company.

Please visit SYLVIA GREGORY CASTING for more information.


Tips | Preparing for an AWESOME Family Photo Session in Denver

Truth is, ANY time is the right time for family photos. But nothing makes people THINK about scheduling family photos quite like autumn. Changing leaves, approaching holidays, anticipation of winter, family time and cozy hugs of warmth. And so it is that once again I’m scheduling family photos at a faster clip than usual… so thought it might be helpful to share my tips for how best to dress, prepare and plan for your family session.

SESSION GOALS:

Even if you only want a photo for a holiday card, chances are that if you’re going to make the investment in professional photography, in even just a few years you’d like to have more than a set of outdated files… so your session goals are really worth thinking about! How would you like to see your family’s photographs in 10 years or more? Do you picture heirloom prints on the wall? Would you prefer a coffee table style album that can be passed along to grandchildren? If you have ideas about this, it’s helpful for your photographer to know if you’re looking to tell a story in an album or looking for a few artful family portraits for a wall gallery, as it could inform how your session is photographed.

LOCATION:

Are you a mountain family? Do you love the vibe of the city? Would you ideally like a mix of both feelings in a single session (yes! This is possible!) Is your home cozy with great light and styled to reflect your family’s character, or perhaps you have a great outdoor space? Are there things you enjoy as a family such as the arts or sports or theatre or movies? The only real requirements I have are the ability to find good light and flexibility on location for variety. Other than that, I can make all kinds of things work, and these are just a few ideas to get you thinking. If you don’t already have a spot in mind, I’d love to help you figure out the perfect spot during our pre-session consultation.

COLORS:

Before diving into clothing colors, if you are considering fine art prints for a wall in your home, it’s helpful to think about the mood and colors of your home. There's no need to “match” the decor of a room, but a wardrobe that complements a mood or color theme in your home can make for a show-stopper work of art, one that happens to celebrate the people you love most in the world!

Regarding the colors of your family wardrobe, think “coordinating” not “matching.”

In general, it's best to avoid all black, or jeans and pressed white shirts… (unless your family is hipster enough to pull it off ironically)! Keeping simple things in mind, like avoid clashing patterns, styles or colors, will go a long way towards harmony in your photos. I like to recommend that one person chooses a general wardrobe palette of colors or neutrals and a complementary accent color, and then ask everyone to find things from their wardrobe in that palette.

Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:

WARDROBE | STYLE + ACCESSORIES:

Layers are great (jackets, sweaters, flannel shirts, scarves, hats, etc.). And things you are comfortable moving around in -- having the option to sit on the ground is a plus, so dress pants and/or short skirts can be challenging (which is not to say that they are impossible, if you’re set on a miniskirt, but could present challenges and/or limitations for getting cozy, fun group interaction -- this really depends on your family and style).

If you're into this sort of thing, I've got an inspiration board on Pinterest with lots of imagery and ideas -- feel free to peruse HERE.

ELEMENTS OF PERSONALITY | WHIMSY:

This last tip is completely up to you and the specific style and character of your family, but sometimes, for a few shots, props can be quite fun. Perhaps you want to bring along a big cozy blanket we can wrap around the kids… or everyone! Or some costume mustaches... Or silly hats... Or big furry scarves... Or cups of cocoa and a bag full of marshmallows (the fat ones, of course)... It’s weirdly powerful to have something to create a moment of shared laughter and a memory which your family will cherish forever. This is NOT a requirement by any means, but if you're game, can be a fun way to break ice, loosen everyone up...and make for some unique and fun photos!

LAST TIPS:

Make sure you are familiar with how to get to our location, plan for traffic and parking and arrive on time. Our session time is limited, and I’d hate for you to miss out on the full experience! You’d be amazed how people relax through the duration of a session and often it’s after we’ve been shooting for a while that the magic happens most naturally.

I’d be so excited to work with your family! Drop me a line to set up your consultation now and let's make some cherished artwork together!

Top 10 Tips | Preparing for your SENIOR PORTRAIT SESSION!!

It’s high school senior portrait session time!

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Having a senior portrait session with a professional photographer should be a once in a lifetime, confidence building, fun and empowering experience -- AND it should be one that results in pictures that will last generations (be aware: digital media is not likely to not last -- only prints should be considered archival).

Your kids -- even grandkids -- should be able to look back at your senior photos and be inspired to learn more about your story. The potential value and life of this experience extends far beyond the yearbook picture!

So, to make it a positive and fun experience, here are a few things to look for in a photographer:

FIRST: do you resonate with the work you see on a photographer's website/portfolio? Are the EYES the focus of the pictures? Do you feel personality and connection from the people being photographed? Is the lighting flattering? Does the style match your style (or desired artistry)?

SECOND: do you feel comfortable communicating with your photographer? Your photographer should offer a complimentary consultation so that you can design your session details to fit YOUR personality and style. Your comfort level on the day of your session is critical to getting great connection in your photos so this is a must!

senior-portrait-photographer-denver

ONCE you have decided you can't wait to work with ME . . .

A little preparation can go a long way to making this even BETTER. To that end, I have compiled a few tips after years of doing this to help you arrive feeling prepared and ready to get the most out of the senior portrait experience :

TOP 10 TIPS ...   HOW TO have a ROCKIN’ SENIOR PORTRAIT SESSION :

  1. What to wear: You should bring at least 4-5 different looks to your session. We may not shoot them all, but it’s always great to have options. Think in shades of casual/cozy to more formal/dressy, but keeping all options in line with your personality and style. Think about necklines and a variety of textures of fabric, lace, etc.. Clothes that fit close to your body are more flattering in photos (no matter your body type -- baggy clothing is very difficult to pose). Think about colors that compliment your skin tones (colors that compliment your eyes, skin tone or hair are great). Layers are great (jackets, leather jackets, flannel shirts, etc.) to give us options. Try to avoid flashy or busy patterns that will distract from YOU. Jewelry will often become a distraction, but if there’s an accessory that you love, by all means bring it along and we can try it! Don’t forget shoes/boots/etc. and socks to go with each outfit! If there’s a prom dress or something in your closet that you love but never get to wear, please bring it!

  2. At least a week prior to your session: gather and TRY ON each complete outfit. Check that they are clean and that they still fit you well. Don't forget to include any undergarments needed (i.e. no striped undershirts/black bras under light shirts!!) and... please launder / press as needed.

  3. If step number two has left you uninspired, perhaps it’s time for a new outfit or two? (which is why step 2 is NOT the night before your session). Check out Pinterest for ideas (I have a fun senior photo style board and other portrait/style boards HERE), but keep in mind that your senior photos should be a direct reflection of YOU, as you are at this moment in your life.

  4. Wardrobe Portability: If we're on location somewhere other than in one of my studios, be sure that your wardrobe and accessories are packed in a way that we can carry them around with us if we're walking and put down on a sidewalk, without scattering or loosing items along the way!

  5. A few days prior, make sure you stay hydrated and get plenty of rest. Think of this as you would preparing for an audition or interview. This will help keep your skin clear and eyes bright! Don’t stress if you wake up with blemishes the day of your session (and don’t mess with them as it will generally make them worse -- let photoshop do the magic there!)

  6. Nails + Eyebrows: this applies to girls AND guys -- clean up your eyebrows before your photo session! And your hands will likely be in at least a few photos, so make sure they look how you want them to look (i.e. fancy manicure is not necessary, but please, no chipped polish!)

  7. Exercise the week prior so you feel great IF that’s your thing -- but there’s no need to delay or dread your session so you can “lose a few pounds.” One of the major benefits of hiring a PROFESSIONAL is that he or she should know a number of posing tips to make you look your best and to flatter every and any body! (and this is one of my specialties!) And for goodness sake, get a good night's sleep before your session!

  8. Day of session: make sure you’ve familiarized yourself with directions to our meeting place and leave yourself time to negotiate traffic and parking. Nothing worse than arriving frazzled, except perhaps arriving late when there might be a session scheduled after yours. Losing out on session time stinks!

  9. If you’re getting professional makeup and/or hair, arrive with your face and hair clean and dry. If you wear makeup normally, feel free to bring a snapshot of how you’d like your makeup to look so your makeup artist can compliment your normal look, making it "camera ready." If you aren't getting a professional makeover, wear your normal shades of mascara/lip color, just be sure to refresh right before our session (even if you don't normally wear makeup, mascara and lip tint is great to highlight your features but still look natural). And guys, a bit of chapstick is a great thing to bring for hydrated, non-cracked lips!

  10. Trust that you’ve hired a photographer who has experience and will be able to direct you to share your most awesome sides, empower you, and bring out your personality for the best photos you’ve ever seen of yourself!

The only thing left for you to do is to RELAX into the session and be yourself. HAVE FUN and allow your photographer to direct you through this experience and capture you at your best!!

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Hopefully that helps, but if you have ANY questions, please drop me a line and ask!