The Winning Headshot
I originally wrote this piece for Lar Park Lincoln’s book Get Started, Not Scammed. I’ve reworked it some as a way to kick off this new blog.
Your headshot is the most important item you have for marketing yourself. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the face that is looking out from that piece of paper is the first impression an agent or director will have of you; and as the saying goes, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” When a casting call goes out, they may receive hundreds of different headshots in the mail. The casting directors will spend, on average, about one second per image as they sift through the pile of envelopes. If your headshot doesn’t leap off the page, it may never be looked at again.
So how do you make a first impression that impresses?
• Go to a photographer who specializes in headshots. I cannot stress this one enough. A portrait is not a headshot. You can take a fantastic portrait that your mother will adore, but it may not get you in the door on a casting call. Why? For the most part, portraits are about lighting and backgrounds and posing. Headshots are more like a product photo you see in a magazine, only your face is the product. Portraits are made better by heavy makeup, jewelry, and the sweater you got for Christmas. Headshots are made better by simplifying, by removing the jewelry, by avoiding the heavy makeup, and by choosing clothing that draws attention to the face, not the clothes. You never want to show up to an audition looking different than the headshot that got you the audition.
• Make sure your photographer is willing to give you unlimited printing rights. Most portrait studios make their money by selling you prints, not by selling you the portrait session. These studios generally are not willing to grant you unlimited printing rights without charging you a great deal of extra money for it. It’s a classic bait and switch scam. They lure you in with low session fees and then surprise you with after session markups. Make sure your photographer knows you need unlimited printing rights and that it and all other costs are included in their price.
• Learn to act in front of a still camera. Please note that I did not call it “posing.” You are an actor, not someone sitting for a portrait. Every expression you have when facing the camera should have a thought behind it, a motivation to make it. Your eyes should portray the thought and the emotion as much as your face. There is nothing that puts a headshot in the cut stack faster than lifeless, emotionless eyes. You need to be able to wake up your face on a moment’s notice through a thought (find your motivation in the look you are shooting) or an action (shaking the head or arms and fingers in order to loosen up). A good photographer who specializes in headshots can help you with direction, but you cannot count on them for motivation. Perform for the camera just as you would for an audience. You do not have to freeze position – the camera will do that for you.
• Choose the correct wardrobe. When preparing your wardrobe for a headshot session, bring a variety of solid colors and combinations that can be layered, such as a white crew neck t-shirt with a denim or leather jacket or a tank top with a light sweater. Stay away from things like logos, spaghetti straps, and busy patterns. These clothes may look good on you in person and may describe your personality, but they do not make for a good headshot. Wardrobe needs to be well thought out, but still simple so it does not draw attention away from you.
You and your photographer are a team. Neither one of you can produce that killer headshot by themselves. Just like your auditions, preparation is key. Find the right photographer, relax, and immerse yourself in the moment to get the shot that will get you the role.