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. There are clear differences between the two and for how they might be used too.

womens commercial actor headshots
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 when they also might be seeking a commercial 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 the same as a theatre headshot and the theatrical version is very different than a commercial look. So, how do they differ?

How is a Commercial 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. The actor is usually after an overall serious look while still appearing approachable. As a result, the photo characteristics or often a darker tone. Think of the difference between trying to be cast as the girl or guy next door vs. the 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.

Facial Expressions for Commercial Looks

To more easily understand what types of facial expressions you might want for a commercial look, 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 smiles about it.

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. 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.

What to Wear for Commercial Headshots?

For acting, headshots are usually cropped rather tight. 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.

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 put over it.

The Professional Headshot Photographer

As mentioned, getting these shots done in a studio will usually yield the best results. But it does require a competent 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. 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.