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How to get the best headshots and choose the best photographer – for you

There seems to be a current surge of less than stellar headshots making their presence in the industry, with the expected winces, groans and eye-rolls. Don’t let this happen to you!

What’s the first thing anybody sees about you?  Your headshot.  It’s your calling card to the world that hires you or represents you. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.  A mediocre or misleading or mis-submitted headshot can stop an online submission in its tracks.  Never invited to audition. Never on an agent’s roster.  Nobody will ever know how gifted and deserving you are.

In a casting, CDs can receive thousands of submissions, sometimes tens of thousands.  Yikes!  Their eyes land on a thumbnail headshot for a fraction of a second and a decision is made:  continue to look at their self-tape, clips, résumé, or a click of the mouse to the next submission.  In the blink of an eye.

With agents, when considering taking on new talent, that headshot is the first of many steps in the decision-making process. A weak headshot can kill the process without further consideration.

In a rush, sometimes an actor can be booked directly from their headshot, no self-tape, no audition. That’s how much rides on the right, authentic, professional headshot.

Bad news and good news. The bad news is that far too many actors have uncompetitive headshots – knowingly or unknowingly – that can cost them jobs or representation and possibly giving up on a career.  Too many actors are the victims of bad advice, misinformation or lack of care.

I had the horror of seeing a casting director after a lackluster audition, hand back a headshot to an actor, with a faint smile.  The poor actor almost vanished in front of him.  The shot looked nothing like her, heavily Photoshopped.  All the enablers who told the actor her headshot was FABULOUS weren’t there in the casting studio to defend her.  The actor paid the ultimate price.  Never to be seen for an audition in that casting office again. And possibly a call from the CD to the agent about their actor’s misrepresentation and their poor audition, in front of a client, no less.  The career damage was fatal.

With digital photography for headshots, there should be a noticeable increase in the quality of headshots.  Interestingly, just the opposite is true and for reasons you may not be aware of.

There has been a flood of people – not only budding photographers, but actors and the like looking to make some extra money – with cheap cameras and claiming to be capable of taking a professional headshot.  That is simply not the case.

Headshot photography is a skilled profession as much as acting is a skilled profession.

We are also seeing more and more non-headshots.  Just pictures taken wherever, even in front of a bedsheet, standing on the street, on vacation in the shadow of a palm tree, getting crazy at a wedding, you name it.  And then there’s the shot so big on our computer screen we see every clogged pore on that poor unfortunate’s nose.  A broken capillary that looks like Interstate-95 on Google Maps.  And that oil slick on the forehead….

Do these shots convey a professional performer?

How do you want to be viewed?  Hence, more lousy shots to punish our eyeballs than ever before.  Think about the signal these shots send out about you.  Any shot will do if all you want to do is background work.  Hopefully, your sights are set higher than that.  You do want to be perceived as a professional!

Interestingly, more of “The Industry” are going to your Instagram account to see how you really look in real life, not even in a good headshot that’s supposed to promote you.  This can send mixed signals as well.

And if the headshot doesn’t cut it, the resumé probably doesn’t even get looked at.  So much for all your credits and training.  And all that time getting a website together, getting your clips, etc.

Paradoxically, many actors spend untold hours (and dollars) on acting classes and then get a perfunctory picture of themselves.  Make sure all levels of your career are on an equal footing.  Getting a truly superior headshot is like putting together a great career: there’s a lot more to it than appears on the surface.

The good news is that all these deficiencies can be corrected.  Below are excerpts from my book, Here’s Looking at You: the Actor’s Guide to Commercial Print (Heinemann), soon to be in its Second Edition.

First, what makes a great headshot?  As a rule of thumb, your shots should look like you on your very best day, including “the eyes.”  Agents and casting directors as well as other people who hire you, constantly say the first thing they look for in a headshot is the eyes, then their field of vision pulls back to take in the rest of the shot.  The shot should convey the character and personality of you.  For commercials and commercial print, the shot should EVOKE types.  Gone are the days of the “doctor” wearing the white lab coat, stethoscope, name badge.  You should be able to duplicate your shots in person on 20 minutes’ notice.  Your shots should be you as you look today, not six months ago with a different hairstyle or a year ago ± 10 lbs.  So keep in mind: thinking of going to “extreme” hair color?  Or an extended visit to the tattoo parlor? New headshots may be needed.

Think of your headshot as so much real estate.   Your headshot oftentimes will be reduced to a thumbnail for Actors Access and Casting Networks [in the U.S.] so every inch is important and must work for you.  No distracting backgrounds or parts of you that don’t contribute directly to the overall effectiveness of the shot.

How many headshots should you have?  There’s no such thing as a “one size fits all” headshot for all acting purposes.  Depending on the need, you will have different shots.  Commercial and commercial print shots are type-driven, lots of smiling and showing teeth, happiness: executive/professional; active outdoorsy; mom/dad types.  Theatre is more personality-driven and can sometimes be more than a collarbone shot up, more ¾ length.  Film/TV is slightly more serious, but pleasant or a little sultry.  Remember when submitting on Actors Access or Casting Networks that the primary shot on your account that everyone sees first should be the one that matches your submission.  You may have to change out shots to match submissions.  This also assumes you post these various headshots to your account as your secondary shots, having them ready to go.

And, of course, getting a great headshot calls for a great photographer.  So how do you choose one?  Too many performers make a fatal mistake choosing a photographer solely by their price:  “Who do you know that’s good and cheap?”  No such thing.  Remember: a cheap headshot will be your most expensive headshot – in terms of lost work and representation it caused.  At the other extreme is the astronomically priced photographer, who can do a “glam” shot that feeds into the dream and ego of an actor and will certainly do more harm than good.  And price is just one of many considerations.  It’s also interesting that at least once a week our office gets a call along the lines of: “You (Scott Powers) are the expert on print, who’s the best photographer in New York?”  Best, for who?  The best photographer for your friend may not necessarily be the best photographer for you.  That’s why in an acting class someone shows their great headshots around and half the class rushes out to that photographer and come back with luke-warm shots. It’s kind of like dating: the ideal date described by your friend is not necessarily the ideal date you have in mind.

With that thought in mind, here are some pointers in choosing which photographer is best for you, no matter where you live:

  1. Personality. How do the two of you mesh?  Some photographers are high energy, others are laid back; some warm and personable, others more detached.  What types do you respond best to?  The best photographer in the world won’t get your best output if they can’t bring out your best qualities if you’re holding back.
  2. Look at their Portfolio on their website. Are there shots of your type in it?   If not, chances are they don’t shoot your type as well as others.  Again, look for the eyes.  A great photographer captures life here, mediocre photographers consistently miss it – and never progress to the level of being able to get it, either.  Look for energy, but not mugging.  It is part of the photographer’s art to help you bridge that gap between where you’re sitting and the camera lens.  Also look to see if they change the background lighting for different subjects (blondes vs. brunettes should require different lighting), are there different camera angles, are they able to alter the mood?  Also keep in mind that most photographers have a leaning: for example, some shoot blondes especially well, or African-Americans, or classic types or character types.  You know where you fit in.  And do you see their brain at work?  Is there creativity that is applied individually to each one shot?  That’s why a good photographer can only shoot two or three actors in a day before their creativity is drained.  Be careful!  Some lesser photographers use the assembly line approach, shooting up to 10+ actors a day and approach to everyone exactly the same, thinking you won’t find out and you get a shot that looks like everyone else they shot.  Who loses?  You do.
  3. The Interview. Communicate with the photographer either online or over the phone.  Does the photographer take adequate time to find out about you and what you really need and want, and vice-versa for you?  Or does the photographer have their assistant do this?  Remember, you are paying them, not the other way around.  You have a right to meet directly with the person who will be shooting you.  During this interview, tell them what you need the shots for: TV, film, theatre, commercials/commercial print – all of which can be quite different shots.
  4. What does the Studio look like? Some are antiseptically sanitized, other subscribe to the Miss Haversham School of Housekeeping.  And everything in-between.  What situation makes you feel most comfortable?  Your comfort level will ultimately come through in your shots, so make sure you’re in the right place!
  5. Vanity Photographers. Steer clear of this type of photographer who charges an exorbitant fee and produces a shot that looks nothing like you.  These are sometimes called “glam shots.”  Or “piano shots.”  They look gorgeous  on your mother’s piano back in Dubuque.   It’s a major play into the actor’s ego and vanity.  Ah, the big fan blowing the hair back; and the boa.  May we make the boa illegal, please.  And these vanity photogs are busy!  In the final count, the only person that likes this shot is your mother or when she show her “star” to her canasta group.  But they don’t hire you.  On the flip side from the vanity photographers, there is:
  6. My Uncle Otto, the Part-Time Photographer. Getting a cheap, unknown, unskilled photographer will not give the superior results that are necessary to your career and will ultimately short-change it.  These people will take your headshot, a picture of your home if you’re selling it, your dog, your wedding – you get the picture, no pun intended.  Generalists produce general results – about as far away from your need as you can get.  Just keep in mind this kind of photographer could make Iman or Carmen look like bag ladies.
  7. Go with “The Names.” This is a name-crazy industry. When you start interfacing with agents and casting directors for submissions for TV and movies, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “Who took your headshot?”  Why?  It’s a good icebreaker, it also gives us an opportunity to hear you talk and to see if you know your way around.  Having your shots done by a “name” photographer will assure them that if you know one area well, generally you will know others areas well, too.  They’re looking for things they can relate to.  They can’t relate to Uncle Otto.

Warning:  be careful of anybody that says you have to shoot with “OUR PHOTOGRAPHER.”  A kick-back is usually lurking in the background  And chances are you will get a cookie-cutter assembly line headshot that looks like everybody else’s, and possibly not as good as if you were to do your own legwork in getting the best photographer – for you, not for someone else’s wallet.  Reputable agents often have a sheet of photographers to refer to and may narrow down the field to three or four for you, but they should leave it up to you to make the final decision.  Also take the learned advice of trusted recognized industry professionals – managers, casting directors, directors, coaches – as a starting point for your research.

Keep in mind the trade papers have both the good and bad ends of the spectrum.  Look carefully at photographers that have to pay advertise.  Some can be good, some not so.  Most photographers get their work from industry referrals; they don’t have to pay to advertise.

What you say, no money for the headshots?  Think outside the box.  Be pro-active.  Go to the photographer of your choice and barter your time and talents for headshots.  Offer to help with their social media, organize their portfolios, do computer work, maintain their office – anything that will lighten their load and let them do what they do best – shoot headshots.  Offer to be shot during their down time or a last-minute cancellation, when it doesn’t cost them paying clients.  You’ll probably get a good response from them and the shots you want.

Regardless of your choice of sources, if you apply the above criteria to the photographers that strike you, and then – vote with your gut — chances are excellent you will end with headshots that will open doors for you instead of closing them.  And you will remain competitive in a competitive marketplace.

How long should you keep your new masterpieces?  Until they no longer look like you on your best day.  Younger actors need new shots every couple of years, as their face/body is still growing, changing.  Older actors can have a longer time.  However, do not torture the industry with headshots that are 10+ years old.  Or older, OK?  And please burn those old black-and-white shots that you want to use up before getting new color ones.  The ones that are yellowish around the edges.  We’re speaking of the headshots, although a couple of those actors are a little yellowish around the edges, too.

So, circling back, where do you look for a great photographer?  Take your time – do your research with the new knowledge you now have.  It seems there’s a bewildering number but you can narrow down quickly with your new filtering skills.

We have an Excel list of well-known photographers in the New York area that we have compiled from and recommended by several trusted industry-respected agents and casting directors.  Shoot us an email at: GetWorking@ScottPowers.com and we’ll be pleased to send it to you.

In the end, you’ll find your headshots are working as hard for you are you are for yourself and you’ll have a thriving career going for yourself.  Enjoy every moment of it!  Hooray for you!