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!
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!