The mysterious art of actor headshots

For actors (particularly those starting out), an interesting and engaging headshot (or these days a set of headshots) that shows you at your best while also showcasing some of your unique qualities is the most essential tool for getting an agent and more importantly getting good auditions.

For so many of my actor clients, the feedback always comes back consistent: once they get the right headshot(s) there is almost always an upsurge in the amount of castings that they called into. Put simply, a good headshot won’t guarantee you the gig, but it will get you in front of castings directors.

How to plan a successful headshot session.

You have to start by finding a photographer whose style and portfolio you really love. Someone you feel confident  has a style (and a process) that can get you the best shots and also who can help you identify the best shots during the shoot process. It’s understandable to choose based mainly on price but if you can get past that you will be in a better position to book the best photographer and to move your career forward.

It’s also good to do a bit of research into your chosen photographer’s work. Have a chat to them and see if you like the way they communicate and assess their portfolio and read some reviews. Take a note of how they light and pose the actors they shoot and whether they get good light into the eyes.

Also start to plan out some looks for yourself and make sure you have what you need clothing wise to capture the looks you want to achieve. Arriving with some random clothing stuffed into a bag is the worst way to start a shoot and clothes need to be prepped i.e washed, ironed or steamed and hung on hangers so they are ready to shoot.

Lookalikes and the Doppelgänger effect.

Once you get photographing a face properly you will often see the  Celebrity lookalike(s) of the actor you are shooting with. This is really fun but also gives valuable insight into the types of looks and roles an actor might be best suited to. It also gives actors a way of researching the best type of clothing hairstyles and overall styling as they move forward into their career.

lookalike example
Naomi Watts

Why are they are called headshots when they actually are “face” shots?

Clothing is important, but what’s often more important is the “face” and how you work to find engaging and interesting expressions that bring focus to the eyes. Also working your jawline into the right spot will help ensure a flattering photograph. The camera tends to view whats in front of it as flat and using angles and light to create peripheral depth will improve how the face is captured. 

Ultimately it’s the job of the photographer to guide your face into exactly the right position, then help an actor along with some good banter so you get a more genuine reaction. This ensures much more engaging and meaningful expressions can be captured. 

The very best actors in the world are, without exception, brilliant with their eyes and seem to possess a calmness and stillness believability to the role they are playing. There are so many great examples of this, e.g. Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the Master (or any film to fair) and Daniel Day Lewis in his performances. The way these actors use the eyes as an acting tool is so important in the overall delivery. (below screenshots are NOT my images they are just to illustrate the point above).

Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Daniel Day Lewis

At the other end of the scale in so many actors’ headshots and showreels they often seem to be staring into nothing rather than using the eyes and portraying a real connection with the scene or the dialogue.

Hair and makeup

Hair and makeup is where shoots start to get more expensive, but will enable more polished looks. It’s also a good chance for a young actor to learn what makeup works best on camera and these are insights you can used when preparing for auditions.

Farah Sobey portrait

It’s usually the best plan to work with an artist who the photographer recommends and has worked with previously as there will be a better timing and collaborative flow.

Ideally for actor headshots you’re looking for a natural or “no makeup” type of application. This can be adjusted to capture a more dewy look which works well for giving skin some life and colour.

Hair can be managed throughout the shoot it just needs to start with some texture and hold to shoot well and look natural. Some volume can be added by flipping and or a natural wave

The image on the left is a really nice example of an (almost no makeup) look with use of natural light and a tiny bit of airbrushing. The skin looks alive and warm but the natural textures and freckles in the skin have been retained. Sublime!!


A few pre shoot tips...

By now let’s assume you’ve booked your shoot and have everything in organised a few last minute tips are below.

  • Try to avoid drinking to much alcohol the night before the shoot. Opt for a night in and drink plenty of water to keep your eyes nice and clear.
  • Aim to arrive a bit early so you can get settled in and ready to shoot without feeling too rushed.

Your Headshots are the job!

There was  this great idea doing the rounds a while back and it came from Bryan Cranston who said when you audition it’s not to get a job, the audition is the job and you just leave your best work in the room and let go of the outcome, the same goes for headshots, it the job at hand so try to have some fun and be yourself.

Take a curious approach.

It’s good to keep curious in life and particularly in a shoot. Whether it’s about the camera, the lens or the light, anything really just try to remain engaged and interested in everything.

Hopefully this post has helped you a bit

There is so much to talk about and share on this topic. This is just a little brain dump of thoughts and ideas from my 20 odd years of photographing actors.

If you’d like to have a chat feel free to get in touch via the contact form or CALL me and we will get you on your way to the nexus of the headshot universe! 



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