The first and most important rule of of a great and effective headshot is: Your headshot must look like you. It’s really that simple. It has to be real and natural and be a current and authentic representation of what you look like. A common pet peeve of Casting Directors, Agents, Managers and Creative Teams is when actors come into the room and don’t look like their headshot! Imagine after months of auditions and callbacks, round after round, your headshot gets tossed in the decision making process because they couldn’t quite place you due to the actor in the room and the actor in the shot are not the same person. How disappointing! Or say, you get called in for an immediate replacement because your headshot looks like the person leaving a show and you show up with different hair, having gained or lost weight- any number of things- and you will have wasted the time of people, who’s time is their most valuable commodity. I cannot imagine you would stay on their good side. Furthermore, staying away from high-fashion-style lighting, dramatic shadows, disproportionate or choreographed poses, and anything else that makes the shot more about the photographer’s artsy style than about you, is a good rule of thumb. Throw those in a session for your website, but by no means use that as your headshot.
Your headshot is your most important tool, it’s your first impression, a virtual handshake, and it could be why you do or do not get hired. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a photo session. So the burning question is: What makes a great headshot?
Remember, in an age of branding and self promotion, your headshot is, first and foremost your greatest marketing tool. Your headshot is so much more than showing the Casting Director or Agent what you look like.
Great headshots answer the three basic questions:
A Headshot that does not clearly answer these fundamental questions, is nothing more than a pretty picture, and will not get you hired.
Let’s talk about typing. Typecasting is an essential part of the industry. The first question you need to consider is “What is my type?” And the second is, “Does my Headshot Answer the First Question?” Casting is done in the first few seconds an actor enters the room, much like a first date. In the blink of an eye, an assessment is made, the first impression is locked, and they’ve sized you up, and put you in a box. If that first impression is anything other than what you’ve represented in your headshot, you’ve broken the first rule and their trust. Rather than focusing on your audition, a million questions will swell in their head as they ponder, “what else are they hiding?” The decision to bring you in, is based heavily on matching an actor’s type to the character’s type, based on what you have submitted.
Agents and Managers can have tendencies to pitch their actors in a wide variety of projects and roles, believing that they can do anything. The truth of the matter is, almost every casting director generally assigns an actor to a specific group. Let me put it this way: A Leading Lady will never be an Ingenue. An Character Actor will never be a Leading Man. Once you have been labeled one of those things, that is where you live in the mind of Casting. So you better get it right and represent what and who you truly are before getting put in an inappropriate box, wasting years trying to claw your way out.
Typing is unavoidable, whether you are on board or not. Why not take advantage of it? If you do, you’ll be way ahead of the pack. Yes, once you’re established, you can stretch those wings and play outside the box. But until then, take the path of least resistance, and most success.
So the million dollar question is: how do you know which type you are? You might have to do some investigating. Having a great Manager or Agent is always helpful, but let’s be honest, even they made a snap decision when meeting you. And most likely they hit the nail on the head. But unless you are just starting out (congrats if you are!), it may have been five, ten, fifteen years since that first impression. This is certainly not your first time at the Headshot Rodeo, but it is your current time. 2015 You is not the same as 1999 You. The more input you can have here, the better. These days, Casting Directors (and even Agents) are so accessible! And trust me, they will be happy to give you direct honest feedback. The bottom line is, the less guessing they have to do the easier you have made their life and the more they will like you. That’s how relationships are built. I don’t recommend asking family, friends, or even fellow actors (especially fellow actors!). Getting brutal, unbiased honesty will be rare and it’s hard to say what your first impression is when you’ve known someone for any long time.
My advice on accurately capturing your type on camera? Come to your headshot session ready to play! And bring lots of clothes. Style is how people communicate their individual point of view to the world. A Sexy Bombshell doesn’t dress the same as The Girl Next Door. Wardrobe makes a huge difference here. Make sense?
Next, Industry folk need to know that you can indeed, “Act.” What does that mean? They need to feel confident that you can connect with the camera and have something going on in your head. Chances are, if you have a great photographer and you two connect, they will get a plethora of real moments. The sparkle, and intangible quality so often talked about that needs to be going on “behind the eyes” happens when there really is something going on! Stanford Meisner defines Acting as “The Reality of Doing.” So show up to your session ready to play and you’ll be fine. There are a million millimoments that happen between movement and speech, and a great photographer will catch them. Always better to be pulled back than not have enough to coax out.
After all, your eyes are the most telling part of your face. They tell us who you are, or at least who you believe yourself to be. And in an industry where time is money, we’ll believe you without further exploration. So if you have dead eyes, or are guarded in any way, it is a huge problem. With Agents and Casting Directors looking at hundreds, if not thousands of headshots every day, your shot has less than a second to catch their attention.
Invite us in, because we want to play with you.
Every actor brings with them a different skill set. I had a client who described her toolbox as “ingredients.” I love that! Every project, stage or screen culminates in a finished product. Much like a recipe, to make this glorious piece art, the cooks in the kitchen have to have the right blend of ingredients. And you must have your own ingredients accessible to those cooks. Therefore, as a great actor, you must allow yourself to reveal bits and pieces of who you really are, in the lines and movements of someone else. And in this case, in front of a lens. When agents or casting directors look at your headshot, they should instantly be able to see your personality and who you really are. Reveal something about you. We really want to know, I swear!
We all love those Facebook or Instagram pictures of ourselves candidly having a great time with our friends just hanging out. In fact, studies have been done rating the attractiveness of people in images, and the results showed that candids have the highest approval. Why is that? It is because you are having fun without trying too hard! An authentic moment, unguarded by the desire to control perception was captured. In other words, you were not trying to be something you’re not. You are comfortable, which translates to confident. Confidence is everything in this business.
At the end of the day, the industry is a business of People. There has to be a likability factor, because people need to want to spend time with you. The Law of Attraction is at play here. If you love you, others will love you. If you are having fun, others will want to have fun with you. Be the person that you want to be. And get it on camera.