A lot goes into actor headshots that will need to get selected for castings. There is no cookie-cutter approach. Much of this is because what is desired varies from casting director to casting director and from talent agent to talent manager. So, if an actor is working with an agent or manager, they should ask their talent agent or manager what they want, and get specifics. And if they do not have a talent manager, they need to decide what type of roles they want to be cast for, or anticipate the looks their future agent or manager can work with. Then they can ask their chosen photographer some questions about getting actor headshots. So, what questions are these?
There are seven questions at least to ask. Certainly, this is not a full list, and it could go on and on. At the very least, the following seven questions may bring up ideas for additional ones. There are other sources to turn to for additional questions actors might want to ask.
When you go to an actor headshot photographer, you go because they know something about photography the average Joe does not. With professional photographers this means specialized equipment will be used.
You would probably be very disappointed if you showed up to a headshot session and the photographer only uses an iPhone. Anyone can do that and selfies are seriously frowned upon, for many reasons. So, you generally should verify what gear the photographer will use.
It is not important to understand the technical underpinnings of certain equipment. However, hearing your chosen photographer will use these is a sign you are working with a good photographer. For cameras, ask what sensor type is in the camera. They should say “full frame” or “medium format.” There are others but these are highest end. You might also ask if they use portrait lenses or which focal lengths they use. In most cases, you will want to hear something in the range of 85 to 200mm.
As for lighting, it is critical. Ask what type of lighting they use. If they use artificial lights, hearing “studio strobes” is better than hearing “flash” but either is okay. Just be sure to view examples of their artificial lighting work. If they use natural light, ask how they deal with the sun or lack thereof and ask for examples of natural light shots.
If you are speaking with a good photographer, they will come across well-versed with their responses. Again, it is not essential to know all about camera gear, lenses, and lighting. But the photographer should certainly come across well-versed.
Studio and natural light headshots each provide wonderful looks when made by a good photographer. However, there are varied considerations for each. Also, asking this question is important so you understand where your headshots will be made.
If the photographer says they do studio shoots, ask about their studio. Some photographers have their own commercial studio, some have home studios, and some will need to rent. A photographer with their own commercial studio might be pricier because of the overhead of a studio.
A photographer with a home studio might be more affordable but more limited in capabilities compared to a commercial studio. A photographer with a home studio should also disclose they work from home. Expecting a commercial studio and arriving at someone’s house can be weird otherwise. Finally, a photographer without a studio that needs to rent can be a more complicated process. There could be booking issues, unknown gear to work with, and so on.
As for studio looks versus natural light looks, they can be quite different. When outside in full sun, the look can often be harsh in terms of shadows and shadow lines. On the opposite side, full clouds can remove all shadows, making it tougher for theatrical looks. But backgrounds in outdoor settings are often preferred by actors.
Regarding backgrounds, what is preferred can vary from talent manager to talent manager and casting director to casting director. Some might prefer a cityscape or nature-like background. It can help them more easily visualize you in such movie settings. But others might prefer a solid color from a studio setting as it lets them more clearly focus on your personal look.
Some photographers can offer both settings. If you cannot decide, this might be ideal. Furthermore, having both settings in your portfolio is not a bad idea.
Generally, in a studio setting the photographer is more capable of controlling the lighting. So, they can get very precise about creating the specific commercial look or theatrical look you are after. While this is far more limited in a natural light or outdoor shoot, again, the backgrounds offered outside are often compelling tradeoff.
Speaking of commercial versus theatrical looks, most actors opt for headshots covering both. You might want a handful of such shots for each look. Each of these shots can have varied outfits, backgrounds, facial expressions, and so on. But first, understanding how these looks differ is important as their definitions can vary person to person.
A commercial look is sometimes defined as a headshot specifically to get cast for commercials, as in advertisements. Sometimes, the commercial look is defined as a friendly or basic shot. But not all commercials are happy and basic. Some are dark and complex, and so on. So, a broader definition might be that a commercial look is one that is friendly. This can include some that are happy, approachable, or overall pleasing. It is often characterized with bright vibrant lighting and colors to go with the character of the person they are attempting to portray in the photo.
A theatrical look is sometimes defined as one that is for theatre. It is also defined as one that is for movies. In addition, it is often defined as a shot that is darker in mood. This last definition is the broadest match. Some theatre is comical, and some is dramatic. Some movies are the same. So, a theatrical look is best defined as one that shows your dramatic side. This can be to play a detective role or villain, for example. It is characterized by darker lighting and shadows. You are more about seriousness than approachability.
So, with a commercial look headshot, you can use it for theatre, film, TV, or commercials to go after roles that need a happy, approachable looking person. Meanwhile, you can use your theatrical look to submit for theatre, film, TV, or commercials wanting a dramatic person for that cop, villain, and other more serious or cinematic roles.
Experience does matter. The more varied experience a photographer has, the more problem-solving they can do. Often, photography is about problem-solving. So, ask about their experience with actors. But even experience outside of actors is good to have.
If they do headshots for other professions, this can be helpful. For example, if they do headshots for corporate teams, this knowledge can transfer to that commercial look you want where you want to appear as a businessperson yourself. The same can be said if they do lifestyle photo shoots, which can translate to how they manipulate environmental conditions.
Still, they should also have a lot of specific experience working with actors. This can include asking them if the actors that have come through have come back for more headshots or if they have been cast or later been agent represented. Most actor headshot photographers will know about at least some of the successes of some actors they have shot with.
Most of the time this is about what you should wear for a headshot session. There are a lot of considerations here. Much of it depends on how general or how specific you want to be.
Usually, you want to have general looks that are applicable to many roles. So, vibrant, and solid colors are good. Clothing that is not overly busy is too – no logos or few logos, avoid busy stripes and patterns, and so on. The busier your outfit, the more time a viewer might spend looking at it instead of your face or vibe.
Many actors also want to get very specific to go after very specific roles. It is likely not uncommon for headshot photographers to have worked with actors that are dressed as a doctor, police officer, and so on because they have success with such roles and want to continue it. Or they believe they will have success there and want to pursue it. So, getting very specific is sometimes an option, though it is likely best as secondary shots and not your primary ones.
Eventually, when you are considering a photographer, you will need to vet their work and pricing. Verifying their work should include viewing a portfolio or gallery of example headshots. You should also read reviews online about the photographer, which should of course be good reviews.
As for pricing, this is important to get clear. There is no standard and costs and what is included in such costs can vary quite a bit from photographer to photographer. So, ask if they have different sessions and how much each session is. Ask what each session includes. This can mean how many photos will be provided and in what format? Get specific about the format – are they high resolution print-quality digital files or low-resolution JPEG files? Ask about turnaround time – how long will it take to get the photos?
Retouching is one of those words in actor headshots that can be frowned upon. However, this is usually bad advice. Any headshot can benefit from retouching. Part of the concern stems from a misperception that retouching means changing your look – such as making you look slimmer or adding weight, or removing moles or scars, and so on.
Changing how you look is not a good idea. It is advised that you look in your headshots close to how you would look when you arrive at a casting. In this way, you do not misrepresent who you are. So, when retouching, this should mean sticking to things that do not change your essence but still improve your image. This can include flyaway hairs, a pimple that would be gone in a week anyway, some lint on your shirt, and so on. So, yes, retouching is good. Ask your photographer about their approach and if it is included in a session. Some photographers do not offer it or offer it for an added cost.
The list of questions could go on and on. But these basic questions should help you get answers that are helpful to finding a good photographer. Ultimately, this means setting yourself up for the best opportunities for success in being an actor in Los Angeles or beyond.