Do Actors Still Use Headshots?

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By The Light Committee

For decades now actors, particularly in Los Angeles but elsewhere too, have used professionally made headshots to get represented by talent agents and to also get noticed by casting directors looking to hire someone for productions. Along the way there has been and continues to be rare advice given that actors might not need a professionally made headshot – just a selfie or smartphone shot will do. Is this sound advice?

A commercial actor headshot of a black man in a studio near Los Angeles with a teal background

The quick answer is this is bad advice in general. There might be cases where a quick update shot from a phone is of value in addition to submitting professionally made headshots. Such phone shots can add value in verifying your current look. However, the industry at large consists of just about all actors making an effort to invest in getting headshots for acting in Los Angeles that are professionally made. So, it is a fundamental mistake to not also do so. It would be like showing up to a race in a Ford when everyone else showed up in a Ferrari.

What is a Headshot in Acting?

We all know Hollywood to be made of big productions. The industry stops at nothing to ensure high quality in the content they put out. This is true of big show productions and big brand commercials. Everything is well polished. So, why would it be wise to submit an inferior quality headshot in an industry that is all about the best quality? Be sure you are taken seriously by showing you are serious too, starting with your headshots. If you are just getting into the industry, you might first wonder, what is a headshot in acting?

There are many details that can be covered about what is a headshot for actors and a post linked above can get into those details. But briefly, a headshot is a photo of someone’s face for the purpose of marketing that person. In the business world, it is typically on LinkedIn for career opportunities or a business website to influence a customer to do business with them.

In acting it is also about influencing a decision maker. It might be to get an agent to represent an actor and help them get cast. It can also be a casting director seeing your looks to determine if you are a fit for their production. In all cases, a headshot directly or indirectly influences a financial opportunity for you. If whether or not you are going to make money in and industry is being influenced so much by your headshot, then perhaps it is wise to invest in a good one.

A theatrical actor headshot of a woman in a studio near North Hollywood

Quick Points on Why iPhone Headshots are Bad

There can be a lot to write about why iPhone or Android headshots just simply cannot compare with headshots made with a real camera and with a real photographer. So, the point here will be to be brief. First, there is that Ford compared with Ferrari analogy. The same concept applies here. You cannot use an inferior device to match the output of a superior one. There are layers to levels of quality, and it is evident in a smartphone’s inferiority compared with a full-frame sensor mirrorless or DSLR camera.

Furthermore, it can be easily argued the lens options available on smartphones are poor choices for headshots. They physically change how you look compared to lens options that can be used on a real camera. This does not even touch upon the levels of quality in optics between a lens, say from Canon, Nikon, or Sony, compared with one on a smartphone.

Next up is the lighting. Here too there are levels of quality in the lighting used. Natural light is available to everyone, but studio lighting is not. A knowledgeable photographer can use studio lighting to shape a look you are after. Hollywood does it all the time in their productions. So, you should also take advantage of this for your headshots.

Finally, there are gimmicks with smartphones. The current trend is in smartphones somehow being able to now process darker skin tones accurately. If anything, fixing this is more a reflection that bias may have been built into the smartphone in the first place. This is not the case with modern full-frame mirrorless or DSLR cameras, nor has it been for years. Light is light. It does not care what color someone’s skin is. Sometimes you might turn up or down the light as needed but photographers do not generally go around adding red, green, or blue to their lights for different skin tones.

Smartphone cameras also rely on such computational photography to enhance photos. There is nothing wrong with retouching – it is done for actor headshots too. But smartphone automated photo processing falls short on details compared with real cameras.

vibrant color woman's acting headshot

So, How Many Headshots Do Actors Use?

There is no specific number of headshots an actor can have for their portfolio, but some common advice is to have at least two and not too many, perhaps 5-7 at the high end. If just two, perhaps a commercial look and theatrical look are ideal. If you believe you are best suited for one or the other, then you might make both commercial or both theatrical headshots.

Another important factor to consider is to keep them updated, especially if your look changes. What is a look change? It can be that you grew out your hair or cut it short. Maybe you colored your hair. Maybe you lost noticeable weight or gained noticeable weight.

Finally, it is probably a good idea to have many headshots ready to go. If you and your agent select some to use, try them out. If they are working for you then keep at it until you need them updated. If they are not working, try some of the others you had made. It might be as simple as the smirk in one photo is not as good as the other. Getting that smirk right can tell casting directors something more about you. So, do not be afraid to try different photos if the ones you put out there into the industry are not working for you.

So, yes, actors still do use headshots. That has not changed for decades or for the foreseeable future.