Why Expensive Headshots Do Not Always Mean Getting The Best Results

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By The Light Committee

We’ve heard the cliches before, “you get what you pay for” or “buy once, cry once.” But that does not apply across the board for everything. For example, with headshots, you can pay well north of $500. This could be for a short session resulting in only one or two photos. And then the photos are not as good as you expected at that price. Many high-priced photographers will attempt to make the case that they are worth their high price. Some can command much higher prices, primarily because of their popularity. Meanwhile, most other photographers probably not so much. But can you get a couple of really good headshots without paying $400 to $500 or more?

A commercial actor headshot of a black man in a studio near Los Angeles with a purple background
A Lot Goes into Producing a Good Headshot, Much More Than Can Fit in This Caption

But What About the Cheap Headshot?

Before we get into high pricing, there is the flip side you should know about too. Here’s a scenario you might not want to encounter. You are in search of a photographer to get good headshots. After all, no one wants a bad headshot or a bad experience. You come across a photographer promoting a headshot session for just $99. You found cheap headshots in Los Angeles. You jump at the chance for that price. After all, you say to yourself, you would only be out $99.

You get directions to meet up with the photographer. You show up only to find your meeting on some random street. There is no studio to go into. The photographer then pulls out their basic camera and kit lens that was bundled with the camera. Or worse, they pull out their iPhone to start shooting. What did you get yourself into?

You’d probably be upset, right? You have an expectation that the photographer will at least have some proper equipment and capabilities, and perhaps a physical commercial studio too. So, just like there is probably a ceiling as to how much you might be willing to pay, you should expect that there is also a floor to how low you should go before things get bad on results. And if you get really cheap about things and settle for something like an AI headshot, well, your professionalism can be called into question. It’s best to avoid it.

A photographer that has invested in setting up a commercial photography business has a lot of expenses, like any other business. There are upfront costs like equipment. A high-end camera body can cost from $3,000 to $20,000 and each high-end lens can cost the same. Sure, there are camera bodies and lenses for less than $1,000. But here is where that cliché of “you get what you pay for” applies. Some in the industry argue it’s about the photographer and not his or her gear. Not true. The gear matters. Then there are the countless other items that are necessary in a studio, the supporting cast of equipment. Oh, and there are recurring licenses, subscriptions, leases, insurances, and so on to pay for.

So, you should expect such a photographer to charge more than $99. You should also expect better results than with an iPhone. The point is, there is a low end to the minimum you should pay, particularly for a photographer with their own studio. A photographer with a studio is capable of providing a real photo-shoot experience, which has extra worth.

Market dynamics drive pricing too, like how many good competing photographers exist locally. There are common marketing elements at play too. Low-price photographers are all about pushing how low their fees are. Expensive photographers use different marketing to attempt to justify their higher pricing.

A theatrical actor headshot of a woman in a jean jacket in a studio near Pasadena
Quality Actor Headshots Are Not Cheap Like the 99 Cent Store but They Do Not Have to Be All Louis Vuitton Pricing Either

Scenario 1: You’re an Actor Seeking the Best Headshot Photographer

Photographers may claim they are recommended by talent agents. Photographers may also claim their pervious actor clients have had success working on film, streaming, or TV projects. Others may claim their actor clients have found agent representation using their headshots. And on, and on. These are worthy measurements for picking a photographer, no doubt. They should seriously be considered as factors for working with someone.

But most photographers that have been in business for years photographing actors can claim any of these successes. So, that is not unique to any one photographer in Los Angeles, New York, or elsewhere.

Others will then go on to claim they are unique in other ways, with how they shoot or what their process is. At the end of the day, look at their work. Do you like it? Do you like it more than all the others? If so, okay, how much do they charge? What if they charge two to three times more than any other photographer you were considering? So, do you like it two to three times more? Are their shots really that superior? Do they check all the other boxes for working with them? This includes boxes like, how are their reviews on Google, Yelp, etc? Do they have a commercial studio in a good location? Can they shoot in studio or outdoors? And so on.

So, yes, maybe go with a photographer that has had proven successes with creating headshots for actors, and that has a commercial studio. In addition, one that shows they can pull off more than just one light setup. Can they do commercial looks that do not all look the same, and theatrical looks that do not all look the same? Can they do that in a studio with studio lighting and with natural light? These are the measures of a capable photographer, not their rates being higher than most.

A LinkedIn headshot of a woman in a suit in studio in Los Angeles
A Great Headshot that is Not Expensive for a Businessperson Can Literally Make the Difference in Enticing Customers to Do Business with You

Scenario 2: You Have Technical Requirements to Meet for a Website or Application

Perhaps you are starting a business and your website designer just reached the point where they told you they need your professional headshots. Or maybe you are a medical residency applicant and need a shot that conforms with the ERAS system. Whatever the case, a capable photographer should be able to meet your technical requirements or be forthcoming that they cannot.

So, you just need it done and do not need the art side of photography to get in the way. But you found a photographer that has a process, and you must adhere to it. However, your technical requirements do not coordinate with their process, neither does your website’s color palette. No, says your photographer. They add, they know what they’re doing with their art, and you should listen. Oh, and that’ll be $700 for your session today, thank you very much.

You do not need all that to get in the way of your technical requirements. And in most cases, it should not drive costs up either. Sure, if you need multiple looks on a specific property where travel is involved, and that must be rented, and then certain props to go with it. Oh, and a stylist in addition to a hair and makeup artist. Then of course you should expect a high-cost shoot. But most people just need a good headshot in the outfit they will come in with.

A woman getting professional headshots for work in Los Angeles outdoors.
Even with just natural light, with the right photographer a great affordable headshot can be had

Back to the “You Get What You Pay For” Argument

Some expensive photographers will claim they can save their clients from the despair of a bad photoshoot. They could save them from spending more on two to three bad photographers if they only had paid their higher cost once to begin with. This can be true if you did not do your homework to make sure you were working with a reputable and capable photographer.

But I’ve helped countless actors and businesspeople that had paid $500 or more for headshots that they said turned out “awful” and needed to be recreated. Actors would show them to their agent who told them to find someone else and retake them. I’ve also helped many businesspeople after they got bad headshots too. One such client recently told me a story about how their team literally looked like parakeets in their headshots. Interesting look. And these were supposed to be good photographers that priced at $500 to $1,000 or more for their session.

As a side note, and to be fair, with acting not every agent is the same. And just because one agent said they did not like the headshots, does not mean the photographer was bad. This is why it is advised if an agent is already in place that an actor gets clarity from their agent on what they want to see in the headshots. For this reason, a mood board – or bringing examples to the photographer that the agent agrees upon – is a good idea.

A Higher Headshot Cost Does Not Mean Higher Results

So, hopefully it is clear now that paying more for headshots does not automatically mean you will get more results and the highest quality. And again, there are some great photographers in Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere that can charge well north of even $1,000 as a starting point because people happily pay it and end up very happy with the results. But they are usually near famous or highly popular.

Furthermore, that these more costly photographers exist does not mean another photographer that costs much less cannot produce very similar or even superior results. With a little homework done and some investigating, you can uncover a good photographer that might save you a few hundred dollars and even provide you better service, a better experience, and better results too.

Study the Photographer’s Portfolio and Ask Questions

A commercial headshot photographer is likely to have their own website. Be sure to check it out. Be sure to study the photos. Do not just do it from your phone where it is easy to hide lesser quality. It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming your headshots are most likely going to be viewed on a phone anyway. This is not true.

According to Statcounter, this year it is within 3-4 percent of 50-50 people accessing the Internet from their phone versus their desktop. But what is not considered here is that when people are accessing the Internet from their phone, they are typically doing passive things like posting photos or video to social media, texting, etc. When people are sitting in front of their desktop or laptop, they are dedicating time and effort to what they are doing. And they are typically doing business – like a casting director reviewing headshots or a potential customer checking out your website to see if they want to do business with you.

So, take your headshot seriously. Do your homework – and from a large screen – to find a good photographer. Spend a little time to research many of them so you do not overpay for headshots, because higher prices do not magically equate to better results.