What Is a Theatrical Headshot?

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By The Light Committee

Actors in need of headshots are often concerned with how many headshots they should get, how many looks they need, and whether to get commercial headshots, theatrical headshot or comedic headshots. And sometimes, what a theatrical headshot is can be unclear.

what is a theatrical headshot for acting
A Theatrical Headshot Differs from a Commercial Headshot in Acting by the More Dramatic Expressions of the Actor and Lighting Setup for the Headshot

Stage Acting vs Movies, TV and Streaming

A theatrical headshot is also commonly referred to as the type of headshot geared more for castings in theater plays and other on-stage roles. If it’s for this purpose, a theatrical headshot and commercial headshot can have blurred lines in their differences.

When specifically used for acting roles in movies or TV shows, a theatrical headshot differs from a commercial headshot mostly by how dramatic one is versus the other. A theatrical headshot here will be characterized by the more serious expressions of the person. It should also be lit differently than how a commercial headshot would be lit.

Why a Theatrical Headshot is Different

These two different shots are intended to help an actor get cast for very different roles. The commercial headshot is the most common headshots actors get. Many times, this can be simply because of the limitations of the photographer they choose. But it’s also because the commercial headshot is a bit more universal.

So, the commercial headshot is a friendlier look – the guy or girl next door, the every-day businessperson or friend, and so on. It can even fill a comedic actor look if you don’t want to have a comedic-specific shot on hand.

A theatrical headshot can instead be used for the villain, the bad person in the movie, the Debbie-Downer type of person. Unlike the commercial shot that will generally be bright and lively, the theatrical headshot will be darker and with more shadows.

Difference in Facial Expressions

A bit more on facial expression differences, and specifically for theatrical headshots related to non-stage roles, there are usually no smiles. One such exception might be a dark villain – think Joker. It’s also not the opposite of smiling, which would be frowning.

You’re generally trying to come across more serious overall – kind of stone-faced. It can be easy to overdo it and come across mean, if not careful. This serious look is why the drama-specific lighting is used – it’s very helpful to better portray the serious expression.

Difference in Wardrobe

What to wear with a theatrical versus commercial shot also matters. Because it’s a headshot, just the top is essential. Many commercial head shots are with a very basic shirt and one that is minimalist in color. It can be used to create contrast with the background.

For the theatrical shot, using layers is common. For example, going from the commercial wardrobe to the theatrical one might be as simple as tossing on a jacket. This could be a leather jacket over a gray, red or blue shirt. It might be going from a basic t-shirt in a commercial look to a button-up shirt for the theatrical one.

The Photographer

To help ensure getting useful theatrical headshots, it’s important for an actor to make sure the photographer of their choice has the lighting equipment, and understanding of how to use it, to create a theatrical mood in a shot. This is much easier done with studio lighting than with natural light.

With natural light, the photographer will likely need to make use of equipment to control how the sunlight is hitting the actor, or not hitting the actor. Therefore, a studio setting is the most ideal setting for creating theatrical headshots.

Actors need many shots in their portfolio and ensuring some theatrical headshots are part of it is a sure-fire way to help broaden how they might appeal to casting directors. In addition, one never knows which way the wind blows, meaning while an actor might think their future is seeded in a commercial look, a casting director might instead see an actor in more dramatic roles. So, having many looks helps ensure more opportunities for success.