Headshots 101: Part One
by Rotimi Agbabiaka
As 2020 approaches you may be thinking, “New year, new me, new headshots?” Often an actor’s first introduction to potential employers, that 8 by 10 image can bear the weight of much anxiety and hope. To help you put your best face forward, we chatted with some of the Bay Area’s favorite headshot photographers about how to take a winning shot.
Look out for Part Two of our Headshot guide in the next Insider, where we chat with Bay Area casting directors about what they’re looking for in an actor’s headshot.
What makes a good headshot for theatre/film/TV? Beyond being a good photo, it should deliver an accurate representation of the person in front of the camera. Is there life in the image? That aspect is controlled by lighting, composition, color theory, and most importantly, how at ease the person in front of the camera looks. A good headshot should immediately register, to the viewer, “Yeah, that’s that person.” Or if they’re not familiar with you, a good headshot will generate interest in who you are.
What should you look for in a headshot photographer? First identify what your needs are. Know what you’re looking for in a headshot and if you’d feel more comfortable with studio-style headshots or a more casual walkabout-talk about style (which is what I would describe my sessions to be).
Ask your community for recommendations and then check out their previous work. Ask yourself: Do these photos get me excited to book a session? Do these headshots represent my personal values? Do I see myself (or people who look like me) in this portfolio?
And if you can get a friend, whose work you like, to take your headshots, that’s always a great place to start because through that process you can practice communicating your needs. It’s rare that you’ll get one set of headshots and call it done for the rest of your career, so you might as well start learning how to identify and state your needs.
How should you prepare for your headshot photoshoot? First off, remind yourself that it’s your headshot session. Give yourself ample time before the session to get on your routine and arrive fresh and ready. I’ll always encourage you to clear your schedule so that the session is the most important thing of your day and you can drive all your energy into that. That’s a gift for yourself! Drink ample amounts of water and catch up on your sleep before the shoot. And finally, since it’s your session, give yourself permission to PLAY!
What makes a good headshot for theatre/film/TV? A good theatre headshot is one that has a genuine expression, that draws you in, that you just can’t ignore. And if it’s on a black background, it pops off the page, which is just what you want to set yourself apart from the others.
What should you look for in a headshot photographer? Does the photographer know how to catch the model being real? By looking through the photographer’s portfolio, one can ask: Do the models appear to be awake, alive, alert? Can one see real expressions, not fake ones? If the answer is no to any of these questions, move on to another photographer!
How should you prepare for your headshot session? Have a conversation with the photographer prior to the session, and make sure you are both on the same page. Discuss the wardrobe and the colors to be used and decide together what color background you will be using. Bring more wardrobe than you need, with lots of possibilities. Bring tear sheets [images from magazines, etc] for inspiration on what poses to use. Discuss the tear sheets with the photographer before starting. Once you start the session, trust the photographer implicitly and let her/him know that that’s the case. It works miracles.
What makes a good headshot for theatre/film/TV? A good headshot must have life in the eyes, an expression that isn’t forced or trying too hard, flattering lighting and simple but creative composition that collectively capture your individual essence.
What should you look for in a headshot photographer? Headshots for actors are an art form all their own—very different than just a nice portrait photo—so a shooter with a depth of entertainment industry experience and a keen eye for what agents and casting directors seek is paramount. Find a photographer who comes highly recommended by industry professionals and other actors, who has a reputation for knowing how to put actors at ease and consistently delivers compelling headshots, whose portfolio and style you love.
How should you prepare for your headshot photoshoot? Decide if you’ll have your hair/make-up done by a professional before or at the shoot, or do it yourself, and make arrangements accordingly. Take care of the nuts and bolts before the day of your shoot, (get your clothing together and make sure it’s clean and fits, get your hair colored and/or cut, etc.) so you can arrive in the right headspace, feeling good, ready to focus on being present instead of self-conscious or distracted by external elements.
What makes a good headshot for theatre/film/TV? A theatrical headshot is a soulful photo capturing the essence of the actor and it gives the director a sense of who the actor is before they walk in the room. It’s as if the director got to spend five minutes over a cup of coffee to know a little more about them but through a photo. You aren’t acting in your photograph, you are just being present and, with the right photographer to direct you, it can be incredibly impactful.
What should you look for in a headshot photographer? You should look for consistency. You want to know what your final results will look like and if the photos are so different from sample image to sample image you might not really have any idea what you will walk away with. You want to feel at ease and you want to be able to trust your photographer. I have photographed over 10,000 actors and comfort and trust are the key elements. A photographer that is knowledgeable in the industry—speaking with casting directors & agents [to know] what they are looking for—is very valuable.
How should you prepare for your headshot session? Make sure you are feeling your best and looking your best—be well-rested and prepared. Make sure you like the clothing you bring—it doesn’t have to be expensive but it has to be something you are comfortable in that works for the industry and the type of work you want to get. Then once you are in the studio, surrender and enjoy the experience. A great photographer is like a great director and they will guide you on this journey and work with you to get amazing results.
What makes a good headshot for theatre/film/TV? When people are picking out their own photo they will often pick the picture with the least of their insecurities in it and that is pretty much not the best headshot. That’s usually the photo with the least things wrong and I think a good headshot is a photo with the most things right. For example it would be like me picking the picture that doesn’t shows that my left ear is bigger than my right. Nobody on the planet will ever notice that. So the shot that shows the most of our personality and our brand and our life is a much more engaging headshot.
What should you look for in a headshot photographer? Someone who specializes in headshots. Headshot photography is marketing photography not just portrait photography so you’re looking for someone that can help you market and brand and sell yourself because that’s what a headshot is doing.
If you’re getting recommendations from friends, finding someone that people enjoy working with as well as liking the photos makes a big difference. Because that means they felt more comfortable and confident while shooting, which results in more confident and comfortable looking shots.
How should you prepare for your headshot session? Find clothes that you not only like the look of but really like the fit of. Choosing clothes that look great but don’t draw attention. With a really good headshot you don’t look at the headshot and say that’s a really good outfit. You want them to say that’s a really great person.
That last thirty, sixty minutes before the shoot plan on doing something that relaxes you—not sitting in traffic. Getting there a little early, getting a little coffee, and getting a little relaxed goes a long way.
What makes a good headshot for theatre/film/TV? The styles are a bit different for commercial tv work than for theatre. For TV, headshots tend to be brighter with more vibrant colors, and for theatre, they can pretty much run the gamut from moody to bright depending on the types of roles an actor/actress is auditioning for.
What should you look for in a headshot photographer? If you have an idea of the style of headshot you like, then try and seek out photographers that create those images. If you are new to the headshot game, then reach out to peers and ask them who they think does outstanding work.
How should you prepare for your headshot session? I always suggest plenty of rest the night before, but that isn’t always possible, so I try and reassure them that we can still get great shots if they miss a few zzz’s. It is easier for men who don’t have to worry as much about hair and makeup. When it comes to hair and makeup for women, it tends to get a bit tricker. I like a more natural face for theatre headshots and more made up for commercial shots. However, it comes down to the individual and how they do their hair and makeup every day, you want your shots to reflect who you are as a person.
Rotimi Agbabiaka is the Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area. He is an actor, writer, director, and teaching artist. Learn more about him at RotimiOnline.com