What you need to know about getting headshots
There will come a point in your course where you start to think about life beyond. What am I going to do when I finish university? How will I get work? Do I need an agent? Do I need headshots? Not all straight forwarded questions but if you have been studying performing arts, musical theatre, dancing, acting, singing, or presenting the answer is, whatever you do after university, regardless of if you get an agent or not, if you want to work, you will need some form of promotional image to submit yourself for castings. In some way, shape or form, this is a headshot.
What Are Headshots
By definition, headshots are 10 by 8 photographs of a person’s head and shoulders. Classically these would be printed, send in large envelopes to agents and casting directors, presented at auditions or if you’ve been super lucky, signed for adoring fans. These days headshots mostly live online and are not always strictly 10 by 8. In fact, they can come in many different forms. There is a difference between actors headshots and dancer headshots and a big difference between business headshots and fashions portraiture, compared to performer headshots. Saying this, the essence of what the headshot is remains the same. A performer headshot is a promotional image which conveys the performer in their best likeness, giving whoever is wielding a job, a solid idea of what the performer looks like that might eventually walk through the casting door.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. This is rarely the case and is a huge grievance of the casting world.
What Headshots Are Not
In order to know what a good headshot is, it’s easier to understand what a bad headshot is. A headshot is not a selfie. A headshot is a professional image and it conveys how professional you are. We get a lot from an image and one of the things we get is a judgment on professionality. It’s not accurate, because that person might not be professional. They may have just taken professional looking headshots and be a terrible actor. The truth is this terrible actor is more likely to be seen by casting professionals than the best actor in the world that has taken a selfie of themselves. This is because the selfie connotes, they are not professional; they therefore don’t take themselves seriously and most likely won’t do a good job. This is not strictly true but is the hard reality of the performing arts industry, and, well, most of the rest of life.
How you present yourself shouldn’t say everything about who you are as a person but in an industry where first impressions make the difference you want your first impression to strike the eye, say something about yourself and convey that you are a dependable professional.
It also goes without saying that headshots are not abstract, artistic angles of your face or multicoloured images of your naked body. Yes, people do that. Headshots can be shot using a wider cinematic style and can also be full body shots but they are always, considered promotional images and still have to look like you.
If you’re headshot does not look like you, you should not be using it as a headshot. It is not serving you. Better to have a simple effective headshot that looks like you with little makeup and basic lighting, than a glammed up, fashion distracting, over airbrushed version of yourself. This might be great for Instagram but won’t get you a job on TV.
Why Are Headshots Important
I’m pretty sure most of you will have a good idea of what a headshot is. However, to really understand why headshots are important, it’s important to know how they are used by those in the industry, that open the gates that lead to jobs, agents, producers, directors, casting directors etc. These days agents submit via email and casting websites like Spotlight, actor profiles to casting directors. These come up on the casting directors screen as 100 small thumbnails that they will go through and mark as yes, no, or maybe until they have a short list. Only then will casting directors look closer at profiles and perhaps see your images a bit larger. Gone are the days of casting directors laying out printed performer headshots on a table like Simon Cowell in the X-Factor.
It’s therefore super important that your headshot stands out. The lighting is good, so we can clearly see your face, your eyes engage the viewer, and you look like you at your professional best.
How to Decide on Headshot Style
There are lots of different styles of headshots. What style you chose will be determined by what sector of the performing arts industry you are in. If you’re going for film, you might want wide shot cinematic headshots, if you are mainly looking at theatre and Shakespearean roles then maybe a studio shoot with slightly moodier lighting would be beneficial. If you are a dancer, you might want a closer image of your head and shoulders, but also top half and full body shots of you showing your dancing and movement capability.
It’s preference on the sort of image you think looks best as to whether it’s an outdoor shoot, using natural light and a natural background, for instance, a park or whether you want indoor lighting and a manufactured ground, or a mixed of both, indoor, studio shoot using natural light. I’ve done all of them and they all can look equally as good, and it really depends on what you like. At the end of the day, they are your headshots, and you must live with them.
Choosing a Headshot Photographer
There are a few factors to consider when choosing a photographer. Cost is the most obvious. Headshots range from £50 to £500 and some, but cheap doesn’t always mean bad and expensive doesn’t always mean good. In general, if you want professional looking headshots from an experienced photographer that will try creating headshots that work for you, it’s going to be an investment and I’d say a worthy investment, worth saving for. I wouldn’t say it’s worth getting into dept or not paying your bills over. Only you can know where to draw the line on that one.
Another factor is location. You will find a lot of amazingly talented headshot photographers in London but you will also find them based all over the UK, so on one hand, looking around might find you a great photographer closer to you but equally, it might be worth travelling in order to get the best photographer for your needs. Once you’ve decided on style, budget and location, it’s worth looking at experience. There are some super wonderful young photographers that have decent gear and can take good headshots. Saying this, there is an industry standard when it comes to professional looking headshots. This changes slightly all the time but in general the key things are the same. Well lit, engaging eyes, head in focus, not cut off, not with distracting background, not with person wearing distracting clothes or jewellery or with a weird look on their face. I’m not sure angry headshots ever got anyone a job. Experienced headshot photographers know how to navigate all of these issues and achieve something for you. They enjoy the job and that’s where the money you pay will go. Great headshots will last you between 2-3 years, if you get them right the first time and can make you the money back in work you will hopefully get in return.
So, now you know what a headshot is and what it isn’t. Hopefully, you’ve decided what sort of headshot you need, what sort of headshot you want, vitally, how much you can afford and which photographer to book in with. All you have to do now is prepare well, that means don’t go out of the lash the night before, drink plenty of water and plan your journey to the shoot. If you turn up looking flustered and sweaty, yes, that’s how your headshots will turn out. I will leave you with this. The more you relax and enjoy the shoot the more energy will come into the final outcome. It’s all about energy!
It’s worth noting, most people don’t like their headshots when they first see them. Give it time. Ask close friends and family what they think, as well as your agent. If they don’t work for you. Yes, they are expensive but it’s not the end of the world. More headshots can be done and sometimes you need to do a few sessions before you realise what you actually need. I’ve always found a use for random headshot shoots I’ve done. In general, if you pick an experienced headshot photographer, they will look after the process. If you like their headshots, you’re likely to like your own headshots.
For more headshot tips, tricks and advice on the actual headshot session, check out Headshot Hunter’s advice on headshots page.