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This post was originally published in March 2020 and has been rewritten and updated.
In a previous post, What is an Actor’s Headshot and Why Do You Need One? I’ve already talked about the difference between “Commercial Shots” and “Theatrical shots”. *Please note: theatrical means photos you use for film and television, not for theatre. Here we’re going to break it down a bit more and answer some of the most common questions of what your headshots should look like and of course, what you should wear. Again there are differences for film and television or “theatrical” shots vs commercial shots, but there are a few basic rules that apply across the board.
1. What Type of Role are You Trying to Book?
This is usually the first question that actors ask “What should I wear?” Again, this comes down to your character type and can vary quite a bit commercial to theatrical. Before jumping into headshots at all, it’s really important to know your “type as an actor”. For example, if you want to get on a crime drama are you going to play the criminal, the lawyer, the cop or the victim? And no, it’s not all of them. For commercials, are you the sales person or the mom / dad? Knowing your type is so important that I dedicated a whole article to it:
Before shooting actor headshots, start here:
2. This Is NOT About Wearing a Costume
Yes, you absolutely want to know what your character type is, but don’t get too specific with your wardrobe to the point where it’s a costume. This is not only incredibly limiting, but it also makes you look inexperienced or like you are only looking for work as a background actor. For example, you can hint at being a doctor without wearing a lab coat and a stethoscope. Instead, go for clean, and professional in white and light blue colors. If you want to show that you can play a cop or detective, a dark colored button shirt, very clean-cut appearance and little makeup for women can easily show this. Keep in mind: once you book the job, wardrobe is someone else’s department!! Your job is to show up and bring the character and the lines to life.
3. Headshots Are Not Glamours Shots
Your headshots should look like you on your best day, but the are still about YOU. You don’t want that amazing designer dress that you saw Jennifer Lawrence wear at her last appearance to get more attention than possibly booking you for a job or calling you in for an audition. This can be tough for new actors but you really have to put your ego aside on this one and remember it’s about the character and about the work. When choosing clothes for your headshots, look for pieces that work well with your skin tone and body type, portray a character type and look good on camera. You want clothes that fit you well. Stay away from anything see-through, with a busy pattern, logos, T-shirts with writing on them, ruffles or frills and stripes. These things are all distracting in a headshot. If you want to add some quirkiness or character to a shot, consider going with layers. These also create a bit of visual interest and depth. Generally, make sure that your eye doesn’t jump to the clothing first! What you’re wearing should highlight your personality and character type and not be the star of the show – that’s your job!
4. Show Your Personality but Don’t Be Too Extravagant
Yes, your headshots would give a little bit of an idea about who you are as both an actor and a person, but keep it focused on the work. Casting directors don’t need to see every nuance of who you are unless it’s relevant to the casting process. If you are really into Steam Punk, by all means shoot a headshot that shows that, but keep in mind that is the ONLY type of role that it’s good for; it’s specific, but also very limiting. Especially in commercials but also on in movies and TV shows, we tend to see characters that a very large group of people can relate on some level. If your wardrobe is too “unique” or “specific” or “different” and you don’t see that type of character being cast on TV right now, you may be shooting yourself in the foot with particular headshot. While agents and casting directors may love your energy and originality, they just might not know what to do with you. Being a professional and a really good actor is a far better way to stand out that outlandish wardrobe.
5. Bring Lots of Options
This is especially important for new actors! When you just get into the the business, you don’t really know where you fit in or what’s expected of an actor’s headshot. If you bring a lot of wardrobe choices, your photographer can often times help you figure out what the best look is for you. Don’t just bring multiple colors of the same shirt to your headshot session. For each wardrobe change /character that you’re shooting, bring bring two or three different options or ideas. Every headshot and every wardrobe change should tell a different story. If it doesn’t, you’re just wasting your money on “different looks” that are basically the same character.
6. Keep it New and Clean and Within Budget
Clothing that is faded, wrinkled or just worn out is never going to show you at your best or show you as a professional. You don’t have to break what bank on this, but you may have to buy a few new pieces for your headshot session. I always recommend buying extras and returning anything you don’t use. If you do use an article of clothing for your headshots, this is an excellent piece of clothing to keep for your auditions as well. If you really can’t afford any new clothes right now, maybe borrow a few pieces from a friend. Keep in mind, if you are asked to audition wearing the same wardrobe, you may not be able to do this.
Specifically for Commercials
If the look you’re going for is Retail Service Rep, then a jeweled tone polo shirt is an obvious choice. A doctor for big pharma ads or bank manager is is going to dress differently. It’s important here to know your character type and where you fit in. You can play a few different characters but not all of them, none of us can! Your commercial headshot, ultimately, should come across as warm and likable. Choose colors and a collar or neckline that flatters your face, and this is where it’s important to be honest with yourself – high collars look terrible on me! Always have, I don’t care what anyone says about ‘needing’ that type of shot. I’ve never gotten a good shot with a high-collared shirt, ever. It’s always been a waste of time and money! Blacks or grays tend to take away from the warmth and energy of a shot, and for commercials you want to use these colors sparingly. Before shooting, watch commercials, see where you fit in and what people are wearing. Then, go and do more of that.
TV & Film, Dramatic or Theatrical
Dramatic headshots, in industry lingo are commonly referred to as theatrical. This is definitely a term you should know and remember. Again, I know I’m harping on this, but it’s super important… character, character, character. The types of characters you want to focus on, and will realistically be called out for, should determine what you wear for theatrical headshots. I have one friend who repeatedly plays the therapist, another, the bad guy, another, the cop. None of these people get the mom or dad roles, but I do have friends that clean up on those ones too! Know yourself and your type. Watch TV shows you thing you are a good fit for and see what those characters are wearing. Again, stay away from costumes! That smacks of an inexperienced or background actor. You really just want the essence of the character. Jeweled tones are my favorite because they pop and can draw attention when casting is scrolling through thousands of thumbnail photos, but pick colors and styles that flatter your face without drawing attention away from it – you are the star here, not your wardrobe.
Want to see what happens in a headshot session? Watch this….
I hope this article is super helpful! Questions? Head to the comments section below, I answer every one!
Like it or love it? Tweet it, pin it, post it, share it with actor friends! It’s a tough business and we could all use a little help out there!
Until next time keep reaching for the stars and following your dreams!
* 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!