Headshot Photography Basics

Before you start digging through the phone book and looking at countless galleries online, take a moment and learn what a headshot is and what purpose it serves.

The need is simple: You need an acting or modeling headshot. The problem is, you’re not quite sure what a headshot is or how to go about finding a photographer who can give you what you need. Before you start digging through the phone book and looking at countless galleries online, take a moment and learn what a headshot is and what purpose it serves. The specifics may vary by market, but the general definition is consistent:

A headshot is a style of picture that is used and accepted by the professional modeling and acting communities for the purpose of marketing the subject.

That’s it. But let’s start with the second part of the definition. The purpose of a headshot is to get you noticed, whether it be for your next job or – if you’re an acting student – your next school or theater program. That means going up against a lot of competition and having very little time to make an impression. As such, a headshot has to do two things:

  1. Commercial Headshot SampleIt has to provide a clear and accurate representation of what you really look like. Although there may be a bit more latitude when it comes to theatrical headshots and casting for specific roles, the idea is that you need to show up looking like the same person that’s in the photograph. Makeup for women should be clean and natural; men should limit makeup to glare-reducing translucent powder. On the photographic end, the lighting should be flat and even, and the shot should be crisp. Retouching of the final photograph should be kept to a minimum and limited to correcting transient flaws, like acne. Permanent features – like moles and scars – should be left alone. Some photographers can get a bit heavy-handed with post-shoot retouching, and the look can end up being artificial. While it may be flattering, if you don’t walk in the door looking like you did in your headshot, you’re going to have problems. Your head shot should capture your best and most unique features while remaining true to your actual image.
  2. It has to have enough impact to make someone want to take a second look. For that to happen, the head shot needs to create a relationship between you and the viewer. As Allentown, Pennsylvania photographer Joe Edelman aptly puts it, “a great headshot will intrigue the viewer and make them want to meet you. It will hint at certain aspects of your personality and leave the viewer curious and wanting more.” While a head shot for commercial modeling is about smiles and being likeable, theatrical headshots may take on a more serious tone; either way your photo needs to engage the viewer and capture their attention.

Acting Headshot Photography SampleNow, back to the first part of the above definition of a headshot: What is used and accepted by the professional communities. Up until recently, black & white glossy prints were the standard. The New York and Los Angeles markets seem to be changing the standard, however, and headshots are now just as often – if not more often – in color. When printed, modeling headshots are typically 9″x12″, while headshots for actors are 8″x10″. With the variety of options emerging in the market, it’s always best to check with your casting director or agent to see what’s recommended or preferred and make sure that your photographer is able to deliver the type and quality of shot that you need.

Keep these things in mind as you search for your headshot photographer. When you find someone whose work you like and who you think may be up to the task, talk with them and, if possible, meet with them before the shoot. Make sure you’re comfortable with them and that you’re able to communicate freely with one another; if you’re not, that lack of comfort and communication will show in the final image and you may not end up with what you hoped for – much less what you needed.

Remember: There’s truth to the saying, “you only get one chance to make a good first impression”. When the first impression you give is a photograph, will it be what it needs to be?

Author: Galen

Combining a lifelong passion for photography with an ever growing fascination with the properties of light, Galen specializes in portrait, fashion, and fine art photography with the goal of producing dynamic, quality images through focused effort and attention to detail.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *