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Everyone has their own ideas about what makes a good headshot stylistically, but after 20 years as a professional actor, and 5 as a top New York City headshot photographer, I have spoken with enough casting directors, directors, agents, and actors, and looked at enough headshots to know that there are really only two essential factors a good headshot absolutely needs if it is going to help you and not hurt you. One – it has to be visually striking enough to grab the attention of casting directors as they scroll through hundreds of thumbnails, and two – it has to communicate something specific about what qualities you embody as a performer and could bring to the role.
In order to get a headshot that does these things, there are 6 steps that I coach my clients through at William Wilder Photography. I want to make sure they understand what they need to do on their end, to ensure that they come away with a great headshot that will actually advance their career.
Let’s dive into the 6 Steps For Shooting Headshots That Get You Work
1. Understanding You as the Product
As an actor, you are the product that you and your agent are pitching to casting directors. Your headshot is the initial point of contact for your “sales pitch,” so it is important that it conveys something about what you are “selling” (you). Don’t simply assume that a good photographer will magically be able to “see” who you “really are” and bring that out in your photos if you yourself have no idea what you bring to the table.
So, the first step is to think long and hard about the characters you have played in the past, the characters you want to play in the future and that resonate with your type, as well as the qualities you most resonate with and enjoy portraying in your acting.
Also, talk with other actors, your acting teachers, your agent, or anyone else in the business familiar with your work, about how they see you and what qualities you naturally embody. I find this to be more helpful and more specific to you than the conversation about “type” most actors seem to be having. For example, you might be told that you are a “cop type” or a “soccer mom type,” etc. But why? What are the qualities you have that MAKE you suitable for those roles? Are you aggressive, powerful, cunning, sweet, warm, troubled, bubbly, intellectual? Make a list of these words that you connect with. These are the things about yourself that you want to try to convey in a headshot.
2. Choosing a Photographer
Firstly, choose a photographer whose work you find striking. Don’t go with someone who takes shots that you find boring, just because they have been recommended by someone. Your headshot has to grab attention and boring, generic shots just won’t do it. What makes a headshot grab attention? There are a number of factors, from colors to lighting, to expression, to framing and more.
Just make sure that you go with a photographer whose portfolio is full of images that make you inwardly stop and think “oh wow, these pictures are stunning!” In addition to this, you need to consider whether a photographer’s style is in line with the qualities you identified about yourself in step one. If you are a bright, bubbly comedic actor, you don’t want to choose a photographer whose work is all dark and moody looking.
3. Choosing Your Wardrobe
Most photographers offer different packages which include a certain number of “looks” (outfit changes). Decide how many you want based on the qualities you want to convey, and plan accordingly. For example, you might decide you want a sweet innocent shot, a troubled intellectual shot, a cocky professional shot, and a laidback humorous shot. Each of those concepts would require a different outfit that is congruent with the qualities of each. You might choose a simple top in a pastel color for the sweet innocent, a dark sweater and glasses for the troubled intellectual, a tailored suit for the cocky professional, and an unzipped hoodie over a brightly colored T-shirt for laidback humorous. I find this way of working more helpful than trying to pick specific professions or stock character ideas you think you might be cast as. Casting directors really do want to see YOU. Or at least a specific side of you.
4. Hair and Makeup
The biggest complaint casting directors have about headshots is that all too often they don’t actually look like you when you do the audition. The most common reason for the shot not looking like you is the hair and makeup being totally different from what you normally do. You want your headshot to look like you on a good day, not you as a beauty pageant contestant.
If you are going to use a hair and makeup artist, make sure that they specialize in actor headshots, not weddings, fashion, or some other area that requires a glamorous look. Also, do not choose to do something with your hair that you don’t normally do, like curl it or straighten it, unless you are prepared to do the same thing every time you get an audition.
5. Posing and Expression
Now that you have planned out what you want each of your shots to convey, it is important to stay focused on that during the shoot. If you are working on a dark, edgy look, don’t get distracted and start doing big smiles that won’t be congruent with the story your headshot is trying to tell. At the same time, you want to be relaxed and open to play and experimentation.
The best headshots, like the best acting, come when the actor is relaxed, focused, in the moment, and not self-conscious. Like film acting, less is also more. A headshot shoot is not the time for extreme expressions. With the exception of big smiles for commercial shots, keep the expressions subtle.
While remaining spontaneous is key, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind when it comes to head positioning.
Often we want to throw our heads back when someone takes our picture, but this doesn’t work at all for headshots! Instead, I have my clients gently push their head forward to accentuate the jawline. Then, drop the chin slightly which brings out the eyes.
Similarly, tilting the head slightly can look great, but only if your head is tilted in the same direction your body is angled. So if you have your right shoulder angled toward the camera, your body will be facing slightly to the left. If you want to tilt your head, tilt to the left. Tilting your head to the right will make you look contorted as though you have a broken neck. \
When it comes to actual expression, regardless of character or qualities, you generally want your headshots to project confidence and approachability. Confidence can be signaled by a very slight raising of the lower eyelid into the beginning of a squint sometimes called “the squinch.” The effect is to counteract the “deer in the headlights” look, and make you appear cool and confident.
Combine this with a slight smile, and you have a winning combination of confidence and approachability.
If all this makes you self-conscious and overthinking everything, then a good strategy is to focus on the qualities you decided you want each shot to convey, and put your attention on projecting those qualities into the camera.
I will often coach my clients with simple prompts like “give me warmth through the eyes” or “imagine you know a funny secret” or “now imagine you are the most powerful, high status person in the world.” This helps them create an active moment, instead of just worrying about the details of the shot.
6. Choosing the Final Images
Remember, your headshot shoot is only as successful as the images you choose. Often your photographer will send you several hundred headshots to choose from. This can be overwhelming making it difficult to choose. I highly recommend that actors don’t make their headshot choices alone.
We all want to look good in our headshots, and when actors choose alone,
When they do, there’s a tendency to focus on esthetics, frequently overlooking images that are much more striking, and tell an interesting compelling story about who you are as a person and an artist.
Be careful when asking for an opinion on your headshots; everyone you ask will probably have a different point of view. Keep in mind, some opinions are more valuable than others in this context. Your mom, for example, will probably tell you she likes the shots where you look the most happy and friendly. That may or may not be helpful.
If you have an acting teacher, an agent, or even just a friend who knows the industry and knows your work, ask for their help in headshot selections instead. Ultimately the final decision is yours. You don’t want to go with shots that you actively dislike just because someone else preferred them.
When choosing headshots remember to hold two questions in your mind: First, “Is this shot visually striking enough that it stops the eye and demands to be looked at?” And second, “Does this shot communicate the qualities I wanted to convey when I planned this look?” If the image grabs the viewer’s attention and shows those qualities, then it will open doors for you in your career!
If you are a New York City actor looking to get new headshots and would like to collaborate on creating visually striking images that communicate who you are and the qualities you bring to the table, both as a human being and a performer, I would love to see you at William Wilder Photography!
William Wilder is a photographer in New York City specializing in headshots for actors in TV, film, and theater.
* Please Note: I am not an agent, manager, or casting director. I do not procure work for actors. All information, workshops and coaching are for educational purposes only and are not a guarantee or promise of employment. Thank you for being here!