What Is a Commercial Headshot?

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By The Light Committee

If you’re looking into getting into acting, you’re likely going to try and find an agent or manager. Inevitably, they will ask for your current headshots or for you to get some new headshots. And this means considering getting commercial looks, theatrical looks, or both. So, what is a commercial look?

You might be wondering what is a theatrical headshot too. It is likely you are going to want both types of looks, and to work with a headshot photographer that can do both. There are clear differences between the two and for how they might be used too.

A woman in a suit to make professional actor headshots in Los Angeles
When getting actor headshots, deciding on how many commercial and theatrical looks you want will be a factor.

Acting for Theatre and Stage vs. TV or Streaming

In theater or stage roles, actors there might often refer to a theatrical headshot while they might just be seeking a headshot. This is simply done because they are often attaching the role it will be used for – theatre headshots – just like TV or streaming actors might do so for theirs – actor headshots.

In the end, a theatrical headshot is not always the same as a theatre headshot and the theatrical version can also be different than a commercial look. So, how do they differ?

An Armenian womens commercial actor headshot made by The Light Committee in Los Angeles Seline Bagramyan
A Commercial Look for an Actor
An Armenian womens theatrical actor headshot made by The Light Committee in Los Angeles Seline Bagramyan
A Theatrical Look for an Actor

First, How is a Theatrical Headshot Different?

In a commercial headshot, the look an actor is usually after is of an overall friendly approachable look. So, the photo characteristics is that of being bright and often colorful. For a theatrical look, this is the opposite. However, neither is overdone and actors should appear approachable in all their looks.

In theatrical looks, the actor is usually after an overall serious look while still appearing approachable. As a result, the photo characteristics are often a darker tone. Think of the difference between trying to be cast as the girl or guy next door vs. the tough guy or girl, or villain down the street.

Capturing the difference between these two distinct looks is often best done in a studio setting where professional lighting can be used and controlled. It is not that it is impossible in a natural light setting but, hunting for the perfect lighting when the sun literally changes every minute can be daunting. The sun may not even be the same all the time – sometimes it is just cloudier one day versus another. A studio setting avoids these limitations and empowers a photographer with even greater control of lighting.

So, if a theatrical look is dramatic, it is usually going to center around the proper use of shadows. This is not just the use of shadows on your face but also perhaps on the background, your hair, and so on.

Meanwhile, a commercial look is going to center around usually eliminating shadows and having as even and bright lighting as possible.

A black male theatrical actor headshot made by The Light Committee in Los Angeles Nickolas Beatty
Another Theatrical Look Example
A black male commercial actor headshot made by The Light Committee in Los Angeles Nickolas Beatty
Another Example of a Commercial Look

Facial Expressions for Commercial Looks

To understand ideal types of facial expressions for commercial looks more easily, it is important to contrast it against a theatrical look. Again, the theatrical look is about seriousness. If you are talking about roles, think about a cop that just uncovered new evidence, a villain about to commit a crime, and so on. So, there are no big smiles about it with theatrical shots.

With a commercial look it is about being the best friend, the friendly girl or guy next door, that person everyone wants to hang around. So, in contrast, we are talking inviting and warm smiles or facial expressions.

Of course, there are no rules written somewhere in the acting world that specifically defines each of these looks. You should still be yourself or the characters you can or want to pull off. So, there can be variances. There can even be shots that might blur the lines between both. The point here is to draw out the differences because in most cases, aspiring actors want succinct differences in these shots when they have them done.

Typical Uses for Commercial and Theatrical Headshots

To try and summarize one more way, commercial headshots can be used for movies, shows, theatre, advertising commercials, and more when you want to be cast as the helpful person, the boyfriend or girlfriend, the happy background actor, or the electronics store employee, respectively.

For theatrical looks, you might want these to be used to cast in movies, shows, theatre, advertising commercials and more as the hateful person, the suspect in a case, the villainous extra, or the mad customer at an electronics store, respectively.

Again, these looks span well beyond such roles. There are just attempts to continue to clarify what is meant in general when we refer to actor commercial versus theatrical looks.

What to Wear for Commercial Headshots?

For acting, headshots are usually cropped rather tight, right around the upper chest. What you wear always matters but, it is not as important as what not to wear so the focus stays on your face instead of what you have on. So, generally speaking, avoid flashy jewelry. You might also avoid busy patterns like stripes that are overdone or have a lot of contrast. Steer away from large logos on branded tops.

You might consider solid colors with simple accents to them, like simple stripes or other patterns. For the commercial shots you usually have a basic top on, maybe a suit. For the theatrical shot you usually layer on top of a basic top by adding a jacket or some other shirt to put over it, like a flannel shirt over a t-shirt.

The Professional Headshot Photographer

As mentioned, getting these shots done in a studio will usually yield the best results. But it does require a good headshot photographer capable of understanding and pulling off multi studio light setups.

You also want to measure the quality of their photos, such as their sharpness – not too much, just the right amount, the depth and tone of their shots too. This might also include the color saturation, background options and so on. There are a ton of choices for photographers in Los Angeles. So, see if in their portfolio they regularly pull off both looks. It is important since your agent or manager is likely to want you to have multiple looks in your portfolio. An actor probably wants to be able to target both types of roles too.