Monday, December 28, 2009

What's in a Headshot?

A musing about those headshots...

How important is it? Very.

What is the point? YOU.

Headshots are crucial in our business - and in all aspects of our business!

Finding a photographer can take time, but finding someone you can trust to find YOU in that picture is crucial!

More expensive is not necessarily better - know what you are paying for: this is a service. Look at portfolios - see what you respond to, positively AND negatively.

What are some of the things to consider as you talk to your photographer about your shoot? So often, we expect the professional to create the magic and make us fabulous but they can only work with what we give them, and what we are willing to give to ourselves.

First, know your business. Commercial shots will not be the same as opera shots, will not be the same as music theatre shots, will not be the same as cabaret shots. Many of us wear numerous hats, so make sure to discuss this with your photographer so he/she knows what you are looking for.

What do you want people to see when they look at that headshot? "Hire me" isn't enough!!! What do you want them to SEE?

That headshot needs to look at like you so when you walk into the room, there isn't a disconnect! It can be another "look" to then show the versatility of your look, but it still must be you! A glamour shot is not a headshot. A more formal shot isn't necessarily a glamour shot!

I would rather someone say "You look even better in person" than "Wow, you don't look anything like your headshot!" as in that shot is better than you are!

The headshot is a calling card - an opportunity to not give it all away, but to entice and draw the person viewing it to stop a second and ponder...

Your hair and makeup might be flawless...your touchups might be Vogue-perfect...but if your eyes say NOTHING, they will pass by that photo so quickly it will leave you chilled!

Theatre isn't about modelling - it's about showing YOU. The eyes need to show what you are about - or what you want to show about you! What do you want them to see? How do you want them to see it within the structure of the photo?

The photographer brings his/her expertise with lighting, balance et al; the hair/makeup expert (and please use this - it can really make a difference!) will bring his/her artistry to bringing out the features you have that need to be brought out, and balancing those features with the lighting the photographer uses.

YOU are the crucial and important part of this! Decide what you want to be captured. A type? A fach? A personality? An energy? A what?

Be as specific as you can be...the more specific you are, the more that will show in your eyes and your inflection!! You don't have to be "perfect", but you have to be REAL.

This is business, and so it needs to reflect what you are selling and trying to be seen as. Know what that is. "Ingenue" isn't enough. "Dramatic Soprano" isn't enough. "Lyric Tenor" isn't enough. Why? Because it doesn't tell us anything personal or individual!

Sit down and create adjectives for yourself. Don't be shy. Ask the people you trust - not your mom or dad or your wife or husband if they aren't in the business - you need BUSINESS words. Use your business and team assets for this one.

Ask the photographer what they see in your energy in meeting you. They will be honest. Is that what you want when someone sees you or not? How can you change it or make it larger or more specific?

This will help you in choosing clothing, colours, jewellry and help your photographer on poses/backgrounds and lightening, and your makeup artist on colours and how he/she paints you!

Every aspect of the business needs a different headshot focus...the theatre ingenue is not the same as the operatic soubrette, is not the same as the film/tv ingenue...know how you can change that "look" and know how to describe her in YOU.

Get creative!!! It's business, but it can be creative.

What do the eyes say? Approachable? Pliable? Open? Closed? Hard? Needy? Available? Trying too hard?

What do you want them to say? Make a decision!!! "I take my work seriously but I have a great sense of humour"; "I am approachable and pliable, but don't piss me off"; "I'm quirky and coy but don't dumb"...."I am noble, expressive and regal"...the possibilities are endless, and the individuality is up to you!

That photo is your foot in the door to any CD, Director, AD, Producer, Agent - so it needs to represent YOU - who you are, what you are about, what you are in the business for.

We want to be individuals and we ARE individual but sometimes getting help from people you trust in the business by asking for 3 names of actors/singers that your energy/voice/look or any combination thereof that you remind them of in ANY way is an interesting way to see how you are SEEN. It can give you a larger perspective that isn't quite so internal and give you a chance to see yourself from the outside in, rather than the inside out.

Take all this information into your photographer. He/she will welcome your input - because YOU are the centre of the project and he/she wants you to shine!

Headshots are an investment. They are a very important investment and need your thoughts, time and energy to allow for a great result!!

What's in a headshot? Everything you want to be there - and a little mystery to intrigue the other side of the table to look at the resume or simply call you in!


  1. Now that I'm taking headshots as well as needing my own, this is a subject becoming increasingly important to me!!

    I've always felt that it was harder than it should be to get a good headshot and that all too often the resulting shots were more about the photographer's "vision" (and photographic technique) rather than the performer's personality, but now that I'm increasing my activity as a photographer, I feel even more strongly about it!

    My own first headshot experience (between undergrad and graduate studies, before I knew ANYTHING about the business) is a case in point: I was visiting my parents out in So Cal where they were based at the time, and a family friend made arrangements for a Big Name Hollywood Photographer to squeeze me in before a Vanity Fair shoot and take some shots for me. He had a beautiful studio in his Hollywood Hills home, the excellent makeup artist worked magic on my face and hair and the beautifully lit, carefully posed, technically perfect shots represented NOTHING of who I am. Even now I look at them and think, "Who IS that person?".

    Of late as I expand my lifelong photographic hobby into a rather more, I've been contributing regularly to a couple of photographer forums, and whenever the "headshot" question comes up have been trying to get across to those who may be taking them for the first time (often with no particular understanding of how the performing arts work) that headshots are a great deal more than "just" a flattering picture and that it's vital for the photographer to capture something of what the subect is "selling" as a performer, and making sure that the picture is engaging enough, and "speaks" with a pair of sparkling eyes. Some photographers seem to understand this and how to extract it from those who may be surprisingly uncomfortable in front of the camera, and some don't, but I'm making a real effort to try an bridge the gap between performer and photographer, feeling uniquely qualified with a foot in both worlds!!

    As for the Photoshop issue, it's very easy for a client to ask a photographer to be light-handed with digital retouching and "post processing". My own philosophy is that any retouching should look like a very skillful makeup job rather than "digital enhancement" - it's entirely possible to achieve this if you know what you're going for, although it's often more time-consuming than using the default settings of many of the popular "portrait" software packages. Also, as a client I would ALWAYS ask to see a final edit before it's considered "done" - these things are so often a matter of personal taste that it can be difficult for a photographer to judge how much is "too much" without some guidance from the client.

    Sorry to leave such a long comment, but this is a hot topic for me!

  2. PS Two other excellent articles about headshots can be found here and here. They're three years old so some of the specifics are a touch out of date, but I think the multiple examples and explanations behind why they work (or don't) are still really helpful for performer and photographer alike!

  3. Thanks MG - and Bonnie's input is EXCEPTIONAL on many topics - including headshots!!!

  4. Great post; I hope people stop and really think about it. I've seen SO many headshots which looked beautiful, but nothing like the performer when they walked in, to the point where I felt immediately disappointed (which, naturally, is not quite the emotion we all wish to start our auditions evoking in the panel!).