Getting Your Best Actor Headshot Ever!

Few things seem to strike more fear into an actor than the dreaded headshot. If you have been acting for some time, you've probably been less than satisfied with at least one set of headshots or the photographer who took them. Perhaps the lighting was a bit too dramatic. Maybe your makeup was too heavy or too light or your outfit just wasn't right for the types of roles you'd like.  Maybe the images were OK back when only black-and-white headshots were acceptable. But now they look really dated. Maybe you continue to use them anyway because you had 500 printed. "Oh, well, they'll just have to do,” you tell yourself. Sound familiar? Or, you're just starting your career and you've heard all the headshot horror stories from friends in your acting class. You've been told the only way to get a professional headshot is to go to New York and spend a small fortune. You don't have a small fortune. So you decide you'll have your sister's boyfriend take your “professional” headshot. After all, he took some really good pictures of the family's Grand Canyon trip last year. How hard could it be? The pictures will be fine, you say. Guess what? They probably won't.

Here are a few tips for getting your actor headshot right the first time and feeling good about the experience.

Find the right photographer for you. One of the best ways to research a headshot photographer is—you guessed it—browsing their website! Answering the following questions before you book your session will easily narrow down your choices.

  • Does the photographer even do headshots? If so, how long has he or she been working with actors?

  • Are there actor headshot examples on the website? Are all the images similar, or is there a variety of poses and styles? Do the actors look comfortable and approachable?

  • What is a typical photo session like? How long does it last? What are the actor's responsibilities?

  • How much is a session and what do you get? Actor headshot costs vary widely, from $200 to over $1,000. The old adage that you get what you pay for certainly applies here. But there's no reason to break the bank either. It's more important to consider what you can afford and your ability to work with the photographer to get exactly what you want.

Assuming all your questions have been answered, it's now time to pick up the phone or send a detailed email. Note how long it takes for the photographer to call back or send a personal email response. You should get your potential photographer's attention within about 24 hours. Now that all your basic questions have been answered, be sure to tell the photographer about yourself and your acting plans. Ideally, they would have already asked you, thus demonstrating interest in your career and knowledge of the industry. Do some soul-searching, if you haven't already, about the kinds of roles you really want and what you've already been cast in.

Ask the photographer how you might portray those characters in your headshots. Does he or she have any thoughts on this? The answer may give you exactly what you'll need to make your determination. OK. The price is right. You've booked your session. Now what?

What should I wear? There's only one rule that should never be broken when it comes to your headshot session wardrobe.  You must keep it simple! Your clothing should be understated. For guys, that means jeans or other casual pants, crew-neck tees or turtleneck shirts and a light jacket or sweater. A business suit with dress shirt and tie is also a safe bet. The idea is to keep your wardrobe from competing with your unique look. No stripes, no patterns, and never any logos. (I once turned a client's shirt inside out and backwards, so as to hide the logo of a local brewery!) My approach is to suggest, depending on their complexion, that clients wear muted  colors like gray, navy, or brown. If you're fair, you'll  probably look great in navy or another darker hue. Dark-skinned complexions look vibrant in lighter tones, dissimilar to skin tone and hair color. Unless you're really buff and going for a cop or tough-guy role, stick with long sleeves. For women, simple boatneck or v-neck shirt styles convey a polished look on everyone, no matter your size or shape. Jeans never go out of style; however, bring along a daytime outfit like a business suit or jacket that you'd wear to impress! The idea is to be comfortable with yourself and the way you look.  By bringing 3–5 outfits, you and your photographer will have plenty of looks to choose from. Color rules are the same for women, muted and complementary to your complexion. Again, avoid loud patterns, stripes, logos, or "messages." You are the message, not your outfit!

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Should I hire a makeup artist? That depends. I have many beautiful images of clients that didn't use a makeup artist. I would consider them quite skilled at makeup application. If, however, you're like me and wear what takes under five minutes to apply, know nothing about foundation, and have been wearing the same lipstick color for 15 years, I would recommend a professional!  Men should also consider a makeup pro if plagued with uneven skin tone or dark undereye circles.  A good makeup artist will charge a minimum of $200 per session. For an additional fee, some pros will even assist with hair styling.

Success means always thinking ahead! Throughout your long and successful acting career, you'll need headshots more than once, so establishing a solid, trusting, long-term relationship with a photographer will be an absolute bonus. Your actor headshot is far too important to leave to chance. A great headshot doesn't guarantee that you'll get the part, but it sure gets you in the door.