"The label you give yourself cannot impact external forces that are not motivated by your own psychology or influenced by a third party's pre-existing consciousness of you. We are all presented with reasons to struggle which come from completely external forces; to pretend that one is not struggling is either arrogance or an admission of defeat. To admit that one is struggling is a sign and a source of strength." - Evan A. Baker

Monday, March 9, 2009

Headshots 101

Out of the blue, someone asked me for some guidance on taking headshots.

Headshots are extremely hard for some actors to take, which is really silly considering we all want to work in front of a camera.

Now, I'm so old, I remember when they did headshots in black and white. And used film. Ancient, right? (There's no WAY I should be playing 22!) Today it's color and digital.

Headshots and reproductions are the most expensive things for a struggling actress. More often than not, you are looking for an agent. You save up all your money for a headshot photo shoot($300-700, not including the $125-175 makeup artist), then reproduce two of your favorite pictures (both your theatrical serious picture and your commercial smiley picture(probably 100 each, so about $225), and then you send them all out by mail to agents. (You redo your resume, make 100 copies at about $8 plus $1.25 to cut them to 8x10, then get manilla envelopes at about $18, and then mail about 100 of them at about $10. So let's see, that's $688-1,125. Holy Shit!)

And once an agent meets you ,they say, wow, you need new pictures.

But that rarely happens for me because I know how to take a good picture. Half of it is just sheer luck and hamminess, the other half is learning from my own experience.

So here's 101.

Know your type. Are you chubby and round faced and always told how cute you are? Then you are not a smoldering sexy leading lady. You're best friend! You will find lots of luck in commercials and sitcoms.
Are you a size two with double d's and plain faced? Then you are not a best friend. You are a sexy leading lady! You will find this out when the makeup artist is done with you. And you'll find lots of work regardless, especially if you don't mind going topless.
(I once had an acting class where we all stood up and were judged which type we ladies were. I was both. "Oh great," I had sighed, but the instructor thought it was a boon to me. He said I get to choose which one I want to be at every audition. But it's also a lot more work.)

You only get 3-4 looks with most headshot photo shoots. Use them wisely. I didn't. I did a sexy lady look several years back. Guess which look I never blew up into an 8x10. No one wants to see a sexy chubby girl. (Chubby in the midwest is what, 14? In LA chubby is a size 6. If you want to be a leading lady you can be no larger than a 4)

If you don't know your type, ask your friends. Ask your family. If they're not sure what you mean, ask them to imagine a commercial that you're in. What's it for and who do you play? (I always get "shampoo commercial!" So I became a hair model. I'll teach you how to do that too.) Same thing with your theatrical looks. Who do you play on CSI? The investigator? The suspect? The corpse?

So by now you probably have a few "characters" that your friends and family agree are your type. Excellent! Now go through your closet. You got 14 Old Navy tank tops in various colors? Hmm, that won't help. Go to your friends' closets. Okay, better. Alright, now go to Forever 21 and Ross. There! Finished! You've got some clothes to work with!

Back in the days of black and white, jewelry was frowned upon for headshots. That doesn't seem to really matter anymore. If you've got some great earrings, cool. Wear em. Just don't let them be of the incredibly large and dangly variety.

What you DO need to do, however, is LAYER your clothes. I do not want to see any bare shoulders, ladies, I'm serious! If you must wear your spaghetti strap camisole, fine, but there better be a colorful cardigan on top of it! So much bare skin looks weird on blown up 8x10s. Even weirder as thumbnails on breakdown express, the submission website your agents and managers use to submit you. If you have trouble layering things, check out the Gap and see how they do it. They seem to be geniuses about that stuff.

These are color headshots, so make your clothes colorful! And know you're color wheel. Blue and Yellow, Green and Red, Purple and Orange, those colors all compliment each other. If you don't believe me, fine, I hate you and never want to see you again! Okay, just kidding. Come back! No seriously, I was joking. I was acting. ::sigh:: Sarcastic text never translates.

Oh, you're still here! Great!

You can wear black. But I'll grumble about it. The black better be layered. I wore a bright pink tank under a black v neck. It looked nice.
If you are pasty white like me and can see veins in your arms, cover them up! If you're dark skinned, bright bold colors compliment your skin beautifully.

Do NOT wear white. White reflects all the light from the flash and is the brightest thing in your photo. Our eyes immediately go to the brightest thing in your photo. Your white tank top pulls focus from your face, and if you're a girl, flattens your bust.
We want to focus on your eyes, as it's your most important feature. Period. We need to see who you are through your eyes.

So yay, we covered the colors that are on you. Now how about behind you?
I once had a photographer hang up a background that matched my burgundy shirt perfectly. "That's a pretty background," I said, cause compliments are always good right before a diss, "but I was wondering if you had any dark green colors." Don't you dare make me all matchy matchy and get lost in the background so it looks like my face is floating! How dare you! Do you even Know what you're Charging me to take these pictures?!
But I knew a dark green would compliment the color I was wearing and make my headshot prettier. Just know your shizz, ya'll.

Especially since some photographers will throw shizz at you. I mean, ladies, come on. Why does a photographer send you to a corner and then have you put your hands on the wall and look at the camera? It looks retarded! It looks like this! Great for thong underwear, bad for headshots! You just look stupid.

And as lame and as silly as it sounds, this works extremely well: Interior monologing while your photo is being taken. Now, I am as far from "Bad Girl" as you can get, but I really love auditioning for those roles. The Mean Girl is fun! So I asked the makeup artist to give me heavy eye makeup and we blew out my hair, and while my picture was being taken, I kept thinking, "What the fuck are you looking at?" "Leave me alone!" "Idiot," and since I was thinking them, they came up in the pictures, very subtle. I had the hardest time picking out which of these shots to blow up because they were all super awesome, if I do say so myself. And look, I just did.

GET YOUR PICTURES RETOUCHED. A lot of times, you'll see one "free" retouched photo per look in your headshot package. Great! But oftentimes, you'll blow up another one and not feel like paying the $15-35 it costs to photoshop you photo. DO IT. It is seriously the determining factor on whether or not your photo is professional. If your photo doesn't look professional, the actor doesn't look professional. And green actors do not get called in for co-star roles.
A retouched photo isn't only just getting rid of stray hairs and small blemishes, they'll whiten your teeth and your eyes a bit, and the best part: they'll burn your background. I know only basic basic photoshop, so I might even have that word wrong, but they'll blur the background a bit so that you are the only thing in focus. And your skin looks amazing, and your eyes sparkle! GET IT DONE!

So what about photographers? There's so many! So do yourself a favor, ask all your friends for their Actors Access link, like this one, and look at the photos. If you like it ask who did their headshots. In the example in the one I gave you there are three great photos: The first is a GREAT theatrical shot. This guy looks like he solves crimes and has his own show about it. The second photo is a perfect example of a goofy commercial headshot, and since this guy has been doing improv for so long and is excellent at it, he can also use this photo as a postcard to promote his improv shows. The third one is a pretty good theatrical shot as well. I do, however, wish there was a regular smiling picture of this guy for a commercial shot. Commercial casting directors want to see your teeth. But check out the lighting on pics 1 and 2. That's some good lighting!

If you want me to critique your photos, hells yeah, I'll totally do it. Just send me your link.

And I believe that covers it for 101.

Class dismissed.


  1. What if you don't a chubby cute face, but you're also flat as a board?

    I'm heading to LA soon and really, really want to act professionally (I've only been in high school plays and an unpaid extra in a film), but I have no idea what I'd have a chance to be cast as!

    Would you mind telling me, if I sent you a picture?

  2. This is wonderful advice I am going to put to use when I move to New York City. But one question of mine is, what if you are thin and wear a size 4 in dresses and are a 36C cup size but 6 in pants because you have a huge ass? Does that still count as chubby?

    1. No. And I defy you to find a woman who doesn't have a larger pants size than their top.

      ....okay. Maybe there are some out there.

      But to give you an idea, I wear a size 6 dress and a size 8 pant and no one has ever looked at me funny.

  3. Question: Are you using imperial of metric measurements when you say "8x10"?

    1. Inches. We in the states haven't gone metric yet. It drives all the science teachers crazy.

  4. This article, while old, still has a lot of valuable information. Unfortunately, some of the links I have may no longer be what I intended.

  5. Hi,

    I don't have experience acting so I don't have headshots, but I found out about a look-a-like audition for Disney this Friday and I'd like to attend. What can I do in this case?

    1. Hi Selene,

      I'm pretty sure I've been to the same Face Character auditions you're going to, back when I was in college.

      You will not need to have a headshot with you. You'll probably be given a number and they'll refer to you that way during the day long process of auditions as they audition you on:
      - character resemblance
      - voice acting
      - dance

      I'm sure there's more, but I got cut because I couldn't remember all the 8 counts they taught us.

      Good luck!

  6. Wow you know a lot about this subject! My daughter is going into acting and these tips are great! I am currently in the process of finding her a photographer. http://alixcloudphotography.com/category/professional/

  7. I just saw the first professional headshot of actress Donna Mills on page 56 of Soap Opera Digest December 8, 2014. Then I looked up images of her but didn't see that one included. It was a lovely picture in black and white. She had her hair up with a pony-tail on one side. She has had a great career; too many pictures to name. But among some are Knots Landing and Play Misty For Me....Reminded me of my twin nieces, one models. Must be nice to look like Donna Mills at any age! Beautiful lady and such a talent!

  8. Wondering who took the lovely photo on your IMDB page? It is a closeup and you have a blue shirt on.

  9. Booking a photographer is only the first step in achieving a successful headshot. theatrical headshots


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