Any aspiring actor that has started their journey on this career path knows a primary tool they will need is a set of really good professional headshots. But, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, there is no standard on what is a good headshot for acting. After all no two casting directors, talent agents, or talent managers are alike. They are each seeking different things at any given time from a headshot. But there are some general guidelines any actor should try to abide by to maximize their potential for success from their headshots.
A common headshot is typically 8×10” (4×5 crop factor) in size and it is usually cropped from about mid-chest to just above the top of the head. Anything further out, as a primary headshot, tends to start to defocus attention from the actor’s eyes. The actor’s eyes should generally be the focus and thus, should generally be centered in the frame.
It is not uncommon to see shots where the actor is off-center to the left or right, or with the top of their head cut off. This is often likely for artistic effect but also because it might be perceived that this composed approach can help a headshot stand out from those that are centered.
But you might also consider what questions it brings up, whether openly or subconsciously. If the top of the head is cropped off, what might you be hiding? Are you hiding that you have a mohawk or something else? Does it make a casting director wonder the same? For the off-center shots, the imbalance can be off-putting to a viewer. Most of us seek balance in life and we can sometimes subconsciously push away things that seem unbalanced.
To be clear, again, there are no standards in what a good headshot for actors is. This means none of this is necessarily wrong to do. But we are focused on what is good for headshots. So, to do so, we must point out what has more possibility to be bad for a headshot. These composition elements are things to consider.
One more point about how close-up a shot should be, there are some industry requests for full-body shots for actors, and three-quarter shots, etc., and this is a different focus than what is good for a headshot.
If you are an experienced actor, you can skip this section as you are likely familiar with the two most common looks of commercial and theatrical.
Briefly, a commercial look is friendly, vibrant, and bright. It is kind of like the happy friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend character. The theatrical look is then somewhat the opposite. It is a darker – though not necessarily dark – more serious dramatic look. It is kind of like the detective or enemy character. Check out this article on what is a commercial headshot and this one on what is a theatrical headshot for a deeper dive on the topic.
It is important in a headshot to come across approachable. A main message you want to convey is that you are someone people can get along with and work with. This is true whether you are getting commercial or theatrical looks. Yes, you can create a dramatic theatrical look and still come across as approachable.
An actor’s eyes will be the primary element of a headshot that tells the story you want told. There are many ways to arrive here, and an actor should practice which one works best for them. You might get into character during a headshot session. You might just have specific thoughts – this might be specific to a character or a general mood you might want to get across. These are just a couple of examples of how you can arrive at ensuring your eyes lead the way.
Then there is the supporting cast and that begins with your chosen actor headshot photographer and the equipment he or she uses, like high quality studio lighting. Let us start with the photographer. Their portfolio should demonstrate an ability to create the varied looks you want, not just one style or similar styles. This is typically around at least varied commercial and theatrical looks. It can also be a comedic look. It also can mean in-studio or outdoors. All of these are important because, again, what one casting director, agent, or manager is looking for on one day may not be the same later.
So, it might be good to have a studio commercial and theatrical headshot as well as a natural light commercial and theatrical headshot, to more easily meet the varied needs of the industry. Thus, another crucial factor is whether the photographer can pull off studio and natural light, and commercial and dramatic looks.
Study their portfolios to see how they use light to help the actor shape the story they are trying to get across. Study how their use of varied backgrounds is helping. Furthermore, study the quality of their shots? Are they sharp and in focus? Is the color accurate and do the colors help shape the story?
If you are just getting started, a thought might be that what you wear has little impact since it is a shot from around the chest up. But what you wear does have an impact just as much as what you do not wear.
What an actor wears for headshots versus another profession is typically different. We are of course focused on your top here for a headshot. Generally, what will help make a better headshot are vibrant colors instead of solid black, white, and gray. Not that solid black, white, and gray are bad, they are just very common to use. Vibrant colors can help your headshot pop in a sea of other headshots.
Try to find colors you feel complement your eyes, hair, and skin color. Bring one option for each with you. Avoid overly busy patterns like heavily contrasting stripes or brand logos. Keep it simple with your wardrobe. The same goes for accessories like jewelry.
Bring collared shirts, button-ups, and other tops beyond basic t-shirts to your session. Bring layers too like jackets to wear over your tops as these can be helpful for varying your looks. As for using a hair and makeup stylist, if you can budget for it, it can be helpful in further elevating the results.
Finally, prepare in advance. Do your research on a photographer. Get a good night’s sleep. Plan your wardrobe carefully. Hydrate well for the week or so leading to your session. Do you need a haircut? If you have an agent or manager, get their perspectives on what you should get out of your headshot session.
Careful planning and an open approach during your session will help produce the results you are after. But despite all this, remember that sometimes even if all went to plan, the shot you think is THE ONE might not be as mass appealing as you thought. If you are not seeing results, consider swapping out the shots for others or doing another shoot with different themes. Sometimes, you were just wrong about that set of shots, even if they look great. Adapt and overcome.