Photos For Actors
The Actor’s Business Card
You. That’s who. Every actor needs a photo, or “headshot”, whether just starting out, or at that point when every one knows him by the name “Robert DeNiro”. Photos are your business cards. They are usually your first introduction to someone, anyone, who might be interested in using your talents to further line their pockets with profit.
That someone might be an agent, a casting director, a director, a producer or some paper pushing account executive who doesn’t know anything about how you function as an artist, but who is in charge of making an “industrial” (a corporate video) explaining to a dreary workforce what happens when dirty water enters the storm drainage system of the town you live in. Yes, that executive will look at your photo and say, “This actor looks just like someone from the EPA. Clean-cut. Friendly. Wears a jacket and tie.”
But because you are a good actor, and your “headshot” projects that certain clean-cut image, the account executive never has to know that last year you were serving time in prison for armed robbery, and the mohawk you had then is now the ivy-league replacement you begrudgingly cultured to accommodate your new image, and as long as you don’t have to take your clothes off, he won’t see the 12″ tattooed imagemap of your ex-wife’s body parts on your ass.
Hence the name “headshot”, not “ass-shot”. So if you are serious about making some kind of living as an actor, you will need at least one good headshot to start with, adding more to your “portfolio” (publicity collection) as you need them. Eventually, you may be asked to have a “composite” (several photos combined on one or two sides of the paper) made.
What is a good headshot? Before I answer that one, let me tell you what a good headshot is not.
1) Your high school yearbook picture
2) What you think you look like
3) What your Mom, Dad, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, grandparent, priest girlfriend or best buddy thinks you look like
4) Something created at Sears, Penny’s, Glamour Shots or Willie’s Weddings Unlimited
5) A display ad for Cover Girl Makeup, Fashion Gal, Jim’s Jewelry, Adidas sportswear, Garfield, The Simpsons, Harley Davidson, ad infinatum, etc., and so on
A Good Headshot:
1) Really looks like you, as determined by:
(A) Your acting teacher
(B) A professional photographer in the business of snapping headshots for actors
(C) A professional actor who is not also a close, personal friend
(D) A total stranger off the street
2) Doesn’t hide the dime-sized purple birthmark on the bridge of your nose
3) Looks like the camera caught you unaware that you were being photographed, and that you were really thinking about something specific,not just trying to look good for the camera
4) Communicates your “essence” through your eyes, so that whatever you were specifically thinking about when the photo was snapped is something that will attract the viewer of the photo in a powerful way, so that the viewer will think, “Who is this person?”
Let’s look at examples A-E at the top of the page.
A) This is one of three headshots I currently use. It was picked out by my agent from about 180 different shots on the contact sheets. The agent uses this shot to submit me for commercial, industrial and theatrical auditions. This is a scan of the original. The one the agent uses has my name and the agency name printed on it at the bottom left and right corner. I don’t like it, but the agent does, so that’s that. Get used to it.
B) This is one an agent I had in Los Angeles picked out from several contact sheets. It was one of my favorites, and I used it for a few years, mostly for film and television. My concentration was good in this one, and I feel the eyes show it.
C) This was an early shot picked out by a commercial agent in Los Angeles. He told me that casting directors “loved that face”. What he meant by that was that everything about the face is warm, friendly and open. The smile on the mouth matched the smile in the eyes. That happened because I was happy that day. If you are not happy, and just make your mouth smile, the eyes won’t match. The shot may still work. I see a lot of those kinds of shots. I call them “phony”, but they still work for those actors. A lot of people in the business don’t really pay that much attention. But if you get the right shot, it will stand out from the rest. It will just pop off the page, and grab the viewer. That’s what you hope for. So be real.
D & E) These are both shots that were used at various times as part of a “composite”. A composite is an 8-1/2 x 11 with a combination of pictures on the front and sometimes the back of the page. The idea is to show different “looks” or “types” you can represent, and they are usually specifically meant to be used for commercial, rather than theatrical submissions. The two photos were taken on the same day. The photographer followed me around to various places which I had predetermined. I knew what I wanted before I scheduled the photo shoot. I even rented a cop uniform from Western Costume, and had the photographer climb a tree and snap the shot looking down on me as I was rescuing a stranded cat (the shot was from the imaginary cat’s point of view). It didn’t work, because there were too many shadows in the tree. The photographer grumbled all day long about having to climb the tree, but she did it. She was a good sport. Also, since I was paying her, and that’s what I wanted, it was the right thing for her to do. Don’t forget: It’s your money, and you are hiring them. Make sure you know their limitations, in case you have an active imagination.
Where do you get a good headshot?
If you are living in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, the appropriate question would likely be “How do I choose from the hundreds of good, professional photographers who specialize in actors’ headshots?” And the answer would be, “Let your wallet or purse help pick the photographer for you.”
In those cities, good photographers are a penny a dozen. Some of them are actors trying to make a living while they are waiting to make a living at acting. Others are photographers trying to make a living while competing with hundreds of other photographers trying to make a living while all living within a fifty mile radius of the film and television studios.
I have spent as little as $50 for a headshot session, which included several clothing changes, several rolls of film, several 8 x 10’s, contact sheets and the negatives in the bargain (many keep the negatives so they can make money charging you every time you need new original prints). And those photos served me well for a couple of years, working in Los Angeles, Chicago and points around the rest of the nation.
I have never spent more than $100 for a headshot session. I personally can’t justify blowing more than that knowing that 95% of the printed copies of the headshot will end up under a pile of garbage at the city dump. That’s correct. You read it right. Most of your “business cards” get tossed if you are not selected for the part, and in many cases, even if you are selected for the part. Let’s face it, what would an agent or casting person do with 50,000 pictures, many of which are unsolicited from the hoards of hopefuls in the first place?
When you are interviewing photographers, ask to see examples of their work. Let them explain to you what they do, and how they achieve a good headshot session. Are their examples clearly in focus? Is the actor in the shot prominently separated from any background objects, such as trees or brick walls (if the shots were outdoors)?
Most importantly, in my opinion, how do you personally feel about the photographer? Does the photographer make you feel relaxed? Does the photographer listen to you, or try to dominate the conversation? Do you feel like the photographer is rushed, and trying to hurry you through the interview? Does the photographer make you feel stupid because you are new to the business?
You should look for a photographer who makes you feel relaxed, listens to your questions, and doesn’t rush you. Be wary of those photographers who want to “pose” you in every shot. Real actors don’t pose. It should be the responsibility of the photographer to snap the actor when the actor is concentrated on something specific that will make a dynamic headshot. The usual procedure, even with the better photographers, is based on the concept “shoot first, ask questions later”. The hope is that by snapping several rolls of film in rapid succession, the actor might find one, two or three good shots.
In fairness to the photographers, it is understandable that they might not want to spend all day shooting an actor, at least not with their camera. Especially if they don’t charge very much for the service. But I would rather take my time and get one great roll of film, with several good choices, than rush through several rolls to get one, two or three questionably good choices.
What should you wear? That depends on the final purpose of the headshot session. There are commercial headshots and theatrical headshots.
The commercial headshot will show the actor… well… like you see them in the commercials. Warm, friendly, perfect white teeth, well groomed, well dressed, ready to sell soap. You may want to bring several changes of clothing so that you can present different “types” you feel you can represent, e.g.”construction worker”, “doctor”, “bartender”, “athlete”, etc. The same principle applies to men and women.
However, we have seen a trend in the past several years where advertisers are using “real people” in commercials. And sometimes, they really are “real” people, literally off the streets. But usually, they are actors who have learned how to act “real” in a certain “commercial way”. There are talent agencies who specialize in just this sort of commercial actor. And schools who will train the man or woman off the street with just enough “technique” to keep them from tripping over the cables in the studio, or looking directly in the camera lens when they’re not supposed to, but not enough to make them look like actors, because looking like an actor is not what certain ad agencies want in certain commercials anymore. As a matter of fact, this trend is found everywhere on television these days. “America’s Funniest People”, “Cops” and “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol” are good examples of how savvy producers have cashed in on America’s boredom with the same old “acting” on television. Real life is many times much more interesting to watch than some fiction thought up by a recent graduate of a film school, still too young to know much about real life, and brought to life by this generation’s “act by the numbers” players.
The theatrical headshot presents the actor in a more direct way. You may or may not have perfect teeth, you may or may not be wearing a suit or dress, you may or may not smile and you don’t have to sell soap. You just have to be you. The real you. The relaxed you. The confident you. The concentrated and interesting you. After all, in plays, television and film, we find characters of all types. Dustin Hoffman, Earnest Borgnine and Danny DeVito are good examples of how real looking people have succeeded in achieving enormous success as actors. The best way to achieve being “you” is by finding something specific on which to concentrate while you are looking in the lens: A friend, a pet, a boyfriend/girlfriend, a sunset at the beach, etc. If you have difficulty concentrating on something that is not there (“method” actors don’t have this problem), you can try multiplying two large numbers, such as 913 and 274, in your head. If you really try to come up with an answer, you will be snapped in a state of concentration. When you are concentrated, the real you usually comes through. This might sound strange to you, but it works.
And you can wear basically anything you like, as long as it doesn’t clash with your skin tone (like a black T-shirt would if you have a light complexion) or detract from your face (like plaid shirts, or odd designs on your shirt). It’s recommended that women don’t wear jewelry. Just a simple, straightforward headshot, making sure the hair doesn’t get in the way of the forehead and eyes.
Are you commercial, theatrical or both? Almost anyone can be a theatrical actor (if they have the talent), but commercial actors are somewhat limited by certain “types”. I say “somewhat” limited, because there are always exceptions. That pea sized wart on your chin just must be the perfect look when Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups is mounting their Halloween campaign and need an actor to be a witch, gremlin or troll. But typically, the commercial actor is the “happy, all-American, guy or girl next door type”, “the business type”, or the “model type”. Of course, exceptions apply here also. We’ve all seen those New York cab drivers, with their “earthy” attitudes and less than perfect appearance telling us how they couldn’t make it through the day without their Tums for the tummy.
The bottom line is, especially when you are just starting out, the agent who shows an interest in you will decide for you what type you are. Which brings me to another important suggestion for you regarding your photos.
The photographer might suggest to you that you have several 8 x 10 originals made from your session. The first couple are included in the price of the session, but anything after that might cost you as much as $15 apiece. My suggestion is to ask the photographer to postpone printing any 8×10 originals until you have had the chance to submit the contact sheets (or “proof sheets” as they are sometimes called) to various agents to get a response. A contact sheet is an entire roll of film developed on one piece of photo paper. The pictures are about the same size as the negative. The agent can look at the whole role at once, viewing each picture with a magnifier called a “lupe”. Then the agent will choose which shot or shots s/he wants.
Before you submit them, you might then take the contact sheets to Kinkos and have several laser prints made so you can send the laser prints and save the originals. Why? To save money on extra proof sheet copies, so you can make multiple submissions to agents without spending all your dog or cat food money. So why waste time and money?
What if you don’t live in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago?
Most medium and larger cities have photographers you can locate who are skilled at snapping headhsots for actors. You can call any of your local talent agencies for referrals, but make sure the talent agency doesn’t try to charge you a fee for this courtesy. You should never pay a talent agent anything but a 10% commission on jobs the agency helped you get. Be very wary of those “agencies” that want to give you a “package” deal”: Acting or modeling lessons and photos for just $800. Run. Run fast. Don’t look back.
If you are in a small town that doesn’t have a talent agency in it, and you can’t find photographers who deal in actors headshots, then don’t get headshots until you relocate somewhere where you will need them. Actors are working all across the United States. Phoenix, Denver, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Boston, Atlanta, Memphis, Miami, Dallas, Detroit and countless other metropolitan communities use actors for all kinds of things. You don’t have to live in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago to work as an actor. But it’s better to live in one of those places if you are planning to dedicate your entire life to living and working as an actor whose goal is to be a major film, television or Broadway star, or, for that matter, a well respected character actor — the type whose face you see all the time, but whose name you don’t really know.
You’ll know when. When you are tired of just dreaming about doing something, when you are sick of your regular job, when nothing but acting interests you, when you feel life is slipping by and that “something is missing” feeling begins to dominate you all day and night, when you can’t watch the Academy Awards ceremony without crying, when you’ve lost something in common with most of your friends, when your mom or dad or brother or sister or aunt or uncle says, “You’re crazy”, you’ll know that “when” is “now”.
Just make sure you are ready when you get your chance. And if you apply yourself diligently, with enormous discipline, you will get your chance.
I think the “why” question regarding headshots has been answered already. But for your information, I’ll ask you this question: “Why does Robert DeNiro need headshots when he’s already famous?”
Strictly for publicity. But at this point in his career, he doesn’t have to go far to find somebody to “shoot” him.