Professional advice and guidance for aspiring actors.
The acting headshot is a small but deeply important aspect of your acting career. In fact, if you’re in the developing stage of your career - it’s importance can’t be overstated. Casting Directors and prospective agents or managers will not get to see how talented you are if you have a headshot that doesn’t look right. Your headshot is your professional calling card in the acting business. It’s the first impression you give when building a relationship in the entertainment industry; and just like when you’re acting a scene; it’s allllllll about relationships.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” has never been more true than for an actor who wants more auditions or new representation. Through one look at your headshot, casting directors and potential reps will form a specific idea of what role they think you may fit in. They get thousands of applications, they may open your resume, they may not. But they’ll definitely look at your photo and make a decision based on that. Now if that sounds scary and competitive and totally outside of your control, don’t worry - it’s not. It can actually be quite empowering and creative when approached mindfully.
You want to level up as an actor? Necessary Step = New Headshot. So let’s break it down so that you know how to take headshots for acting that get you out of the career rut that has you reading this blog in the first place.
With just one look, casting directors already have a specific idea of what role you may fit in. They get thousands of applications, that’s why they probably wouldn’t scour through your resume. They’re just going to take a look at your photo and make a decision based on that.
A headshot in its most simple terms, is a picture that focuses on your face. But really, it's so so much more than that. It’s your essence, it’s your energy, it’s who you are as an actor, because it’s who you are as a person. It’s the first thing that a casting director, agent, manager, producers, director, network etc. will look at before they send you an audition request or watch your tape or consider representing you and long (long) before you ever meet in person - if you ever meet in person! Producers who hire you will often not be set when you’re filming, so all they ever see is your headshot followed by your audition tape, followed by your performance on the day.
So yeah, that’s an important picture of your face.
Get a great new acting headshot - get a great new opportunity. I can all but guarantee it.
While your acting work will ultimately determine if you get the job or that new agent; your headshot will determine if you even get the audition or the meeting.
As an actor, your headshot is the front page of your branding. The industry standard is definitely professional photography and ultimately, every actor will have to invest in working with a headshot photographer. But with today’s phone cameras and easy access to photography tutorials, with a bit of work and learning, any aspiring actor can curate 2-3 great headshots that break you into the business.
Figuring out how to style and build a headshot that represents who you are as an actor is a great example of one of the aspects of the actor's job that is totally in your control. And ultimately, if you want to have a successful commercial, film or television acting career - you need to focus exclusively on what’s in your control. Because guess what; what’s out of your control? Is out of your control.
The Laura Mac Method online acting school is all about focusing on the things in your control to build the acting career of your dreams.
So let’s focus on how you can take control of getting a GREAT acting headshot.
-All over social media
-As the front page of your personal acting website
-On industry websites like IMDB
-Submitting yourself to independent local filming opportunities
-Submitting to agents and managers for representation
-And most importantly: for your representation to pitch you directly via email to casting directors for the roles they think you are PERFECT for.
As we at the Laura Mac Method Online Acting School always say, when starting out as an actor, it’s imperative to recognize that every commercial, film and tv production has a problem. Their problem is that they need actors (and a million other things, but let’s stay focused). They need good competent, professional actors to represent each of the characters that exist in their scripts.
Knowing which characters you easily and authentically play, allows you the ability to craft a perfect headshot that informs each different person along the casting process (your business partners!) that you are a fabulous solution to their process.
So put yourself in a box. Whichever box you think you fit in best, a box that matches where you’re at in your career. At the beginning of your journey and live in a city that produces exclusively procedural cop shows? Then you’d better figure out quickly if you’re the rookie cop or the desk clerk, or the teen arrested for petty theft, or the other person in the cell or the barista at the donut shop - And then get a headshot that screams that character.
This might feel counterintuitive, I mean, you’re an actor! You can do everything! That’s why you want to pursue this career in the first place! You don’t want to play just a cop role over and over again forever - but as an actor who has played a waitress 4 times and a cop twice for different major american networks, I can tell you first hand, that putting yourself in a box at the beginning of your career will allow you break out of that box further down the road, and blossom into the actor you know you can be.
Just remember; yes, you’re an actor, you can do everything. But the industry doesn’t need an actor who can do everything; they need an actor to solve their problem. And there isn’t a casting director, agent, manager, director or network exec in the industry who isn’t interested in a new actor they’ve never heard of; who can effectively and UNIQUELY solve their problems. Well, isn’t that your lucky day - I bet a million dollars that you’re unique.
Yes, you are a product that you are selling to an industry in a capitalist market and respecting that and working with that knowledge might feel like a tough pill to swallow creatively, but I promise - there is freedom to be found in owning the fact that the product is you. Just as you are, and exactly as you want to be. The key word there being OWNING IT.
A word of warning here: if you don’t take ownership of telling the industry which product you are; then someone you encounter in the industry will do it for you. A prospective agent or acting coach will look at you and tell you what they see and who they think you are and you can go with that, but it’s risky business, because they don’t know you, like YOU know you, and they may say - you’re definitely the bubbly barista, but if in reality you resonate more with the hard working, intelligent cop, then you’re going to go down a whole path of trying to be a solution to the wrong problem, and that can result in years-long journeys that don’t end up where you want them to, it happens to actors. All. the. Time. All the time. And it ends the careers of many talented actors who get sick of it all because they don’t know what they’re doing wrong.
So put lots of thought into your headshot. Lots of it. Until you’re at a stage in your acting career where you don’t need headshots for acting anymore because everyone hires you all the time and knows exactly who you are. How long that will take varies from person to person, but on average, most working professional actors have 10+ years of their careers where their professional acting headshot is their number 1 key marketing material.
To sum it up: a great acting headshot is a well thought out image that captures your own beautiful unique essence while also solving casting problems in your local entertainment market and most actors will have dozens of headshot shoots over their careers before having an acting headshot is irrelevant.
At the lower end, newer headshot photographers in a busy market will charge about $150 for a session, while experienced professional headshot photographers cost anywhere from $300 to upwards of $1000 dollars for a session.
Each photographer will have a different breakdown of what is included in their photography packages, some charge for time blocks, and you can change your wardrobe or styling as much as you want during that time, some charge per look and they make sure you don’t leave without capturing each look you want.
Take your time to research different photographers in your area and find someone that can capture the image you want in a budget that makes sense for you. And trust me - you DO NOT NEED to go with the “best” or most expensive photographer. Yes, those people are incredibly talented and will absolutely produce brilliant work, but there are many great experienced photographers out there with the skills to capture the image you want, and there are lots of other things you’ll need to invest in as an actor, so be smart with your money.
Short answer - absolutely not. Long answer - yeah probably.
If you are a pro at styling your hair and makeup yourself then do your thing and save your money. If you’re not a pro, then working with a hair and makeup artist can be crucial to getting the image you need in your acting headshot. And many photographers do require you to work with their trusted H/MUA so that they can guarantee that your hair and makeup look perfect under the lights and in their lenses.
What’s important is that you work with both your photographer and your H/MUA before and on the day of your headshot session to understand what you’re trying to achieve with your final images.
Which leads us to:
Preparation, communication and respect is the key to successfully working with professional photographers and hair and makeup artists to get the headshot you want.
This starts with your research and understanding of what you’re trying to achieve in a headshot. When you are prepared for your headshot session, everything comes together! So start by being diligent about deciding which photographer you’d like to work with. Go through their websites and social media pages and find the photographer whose style matches what you’re trying to achieve.
Once you’ve found someone reputable; trust them - They will give you all the information you need about the logistics of the process as well as guide you on working with hair and makeup artists and answer any reasonable questions you may have. Keyword here: reasonable.
Don’t overload them with questions! Photographers are business partners - not mentors! If you need mentorship, then join a community! You don’t have a community? Well, I have one, so come join our team at The Laura Mac Method to get all the answers and support you need to build a great acting headshot!
The bottom line is - respect the time of your photographer and set yourself up for success by really focusing on knowing what image you want to capture.
An Acting Headshot mood board is an easy, fun and creative way to map out the feel of the shot you want and create a great reference to share with your photographer and h/muas. So get pinteresting! Colors you like, imagery that resonates with you, photos of other actors that remind you of the character you’re trying to capture, whatever you like!
Wardrobe choice is key. Different tops with different necklines will give off a different vibe. A plain t-shirt says something different then a plain t-shirt with a plaid shirt over top. So spend time thinking through clothing choices and bring options to your shoot. Solid colors always work well, but don’t be afraid of bringing in a great print option if it helps capture the vibe you’re looking for in your headshot.
Get a good night sleep the night before (and every night, if you’re smart)
Drink lots of water and focus on eating great nutrient dense foods in the days leading up the the shoot (and most days, if you’re smart)
Stretch and warm up your body before your shoot (and before any acting work, if you’re smart)
Arrive at your headshot session on time. Not an hour early, not a minute late. 5 -10 minutes before your scheduled time; TOPS. The work starts when you arrive, so be punctual and respectful.
Be sure to be freshly showered and avoid using any strong perfumes or other scented products. If you’re working with a h/mua, have your hair clean and manageable and your face clean and lightly moisturized. If you’re styling your own hair and makeup yourself - arrive camera ready with a small kit of your favorite products for any touch ups - don’t worry, they'll have lots of mirrors.
Be as relaxed as possible. This may be challenging if you’re new to working in front of the lens, but gets easier the more you do it. Especially if you focus on what’s most important - the RELATIONSHIP you have with the lens that conveys the character you want to capture.
That’s right - shooting a great headshot requires acting - and acting requires actions - and actions happen in relationship with others. So. Decide who you’re looking at:
- Your secret lover?
- The loved one who hurt you?
- A stranger giving you the side eye?
When you’re getting your photo taken, if you’re thinking about trying to get a good acting headshot, it’s going to look like you’re trying to get a good acting headshot. If you imagine you’re looking at a specific person who you have a strong feeling about and you allow yourself to explore that feeling by really staring at that person; that energy gets sent through the camera lens and becomes the compelling, dynamic, unique image you’re after.
Have fun with it! Share all this with your photographer; they’ll almost certainly be down to play with you.
The vibe of the shoot is the vibe of the results, so have fun playing! Most photographers will have speakers available for you to hook up your favorite playlist. You’ve done all the prep work, you’ve got the mood board, the wardrobe, the hair and makeup, you’ve picked out relationships to play through the lens, now’s the time to play! Let your photographer guide you and trust that they will get the shots you need. Your shoot can last anywhere from 1-3 hours, depending on the photographer and you can expect to shoot between 200 and 600+ frames!
Expect a small window of time for your photographer to arrange your proofs - usually a day or so. It is then your responsibility to go through your proofs within a timely manner and decide which shot captures each look you were aiming for. The specifics of how many edited shots you get varies from one photographer to the next, but you’ll generally pick 1-5 to have fully edited. Choosing which shot to use as your acting headshot can be tough, so it’s always great to have an actor buddy or trusted friend go through your proofs and pick which image they think represents the look you’re going for best. Do NOT take too much time to choose - if you wait 6 months, your photographer’s time will likely be occupied with other clients, the sooner you make your choices, the sooner they can start on the final edits.
Keep in mind that you’re going to get a lot of proofs and most of them will not be the right image. For every great acting headshot there are hundreds of not great acting headshots taken that very same day. Don’t focus on the proofs you don’t like, focus on the ones you!
Once you’ve made your choices; Your acting headshot photographer will deliver your edited images in a folder via a file share service like dropbox or wetransfer. Be sure to download your files onto your computer for safe keeping. Your photographer will only store your headshots on their end for a limited time. When you open your folder, you’ll find all the image files of your chosen photo package including name plates*, image files formatted printing and image files for uploading and sharing digitally.
*What’s a name plate? Scroll down to Tips for Printing Headshots to learn more.
While it may be tempting to share every proof of your great new headshots as soon as you get them; always respect that the proofs are not a photographer's final product, so hold off posting on social media or any other public or industry platform until you receive the finalized images from your photographer.
As we alluded to at the beginning of this lil’ blog on acting headshots - if you’re industrious and not afraid to put a bit of work into learning, you can for sure shoot a decent headshot yourself. All you need is a decent phone camera and an acting buddy and then the secret ingredient… Natural light! Well.. the real secret ingredient is acting your headshot by developing a relationship with the camera under “Acting your Headshots” above, but the other secret ingredient is NATURAL LIGHT! And not just any natural light, but indirect natural light.
My dear mentor April Telek once shared a great shoot-your-own-headshot trick called “The Magic Door” - here’s how it works:
Step 1: Enlist the help of a friend to be your photographer
Step 2: On a bright sunny day, find an outside door that is being bathed in gorgeous sun.
Step 3: Have your photographer stand outside in the sun
Step 4: Position yourself a step or two inside the doorframe, far enough inside that you aren’t directly in the sun, where you’re lit by the light bouncing off your surroundings
Step 5: Create a relationship, connect with the camera and act out some headshots!
The goal is for the light to land on your face and everything behind you to be blurred out of focus so we can be drawn into the character you are representing.
If you aren’t ready to invest money into getting a professional acting headshot, give the magic door a try! Snap some great photos and then lightly edit and format them on your computer. Just make sure the file isn’t too big, 15 mb for printing, 1-3 mb for web use and I recommend saving your headshot in a compressed file format like .jpeg, .jpg or .png
Now more than ever, the acting industry exists as a digital enterprise (click here to read my blog on self taping) and thankfully, the days of printing dozens of copies of various headshots is in the past, saving actors so much money! Yay! It’s still a good idea to have one or two prints of your current headshots handy for any meetings you may have with potential reps or in person callbacks you may have with casting, or directors and producers. And hey, if you don’t give them out before you update your material? Well you’ve got yourself a nice physical memento of each stage of your acting journey. The beat up headshots at the bottom of my audition bag will always have a soft spot in my heart.
Black and White had its heyday, but full color is the way today! (Does that rhyme?)
If you’re thinking “but I want to portray a moody stark character and I think a black and white headshot would be rad”; just keep in mind that unless you’re auditioning for something shot in black and white, eliminating the color in your headshot is eliminating key information for your business partners. So play with light and color! And save your black and white shots to use as editorial images.
The only time a printed headshot comes in handy, is if you’re attending an in person meeting with a new potential agent or manager or you're at an in person callback for a film or television project. I say it comes in handy, because they really aren’t required anymore. BUT. If the opportunity presents itself to hand a printed copy of your headshot and resume - you want to make the most out of it by being prepared.
You want to quickly whip out a single piece of paper that has your headshot on one side and your current resume on the other.
The typical image size of a headshot portrait is 8 x 10. Many headshot photographers will include what’s called a “name plate” with your final edits that look like this:
Acting Headshot Name Plate
To create a name plate for yourself, hop on an editing website like Canva and upload your 8 x 10 image onto a 8.5 x 11 standard page size. From there you can control the border color, font and position of your name. Don’t go crazy here - black or white border with opposite color font in the lower left corner is standard.
If you know in your heart that you want your printed acting headshot to have a blue border and yellow writing - who am I (or anyone) to stop you! Go for it! Standards are standards, not rules. Just make sure you’re not going against standards for the sake of breaking the norms. Industry standards exist because they work and black and white keeps the attention on what’s important - you!
I suggest printing your headshots on a semi gloss or even matte cardstock that you can easily run through any standard printer to print your resume directly to the back. What’s most important is the quality of the printing - so I always recommend checking out your local print shop and getting them to assist you.
Now this is how your headshot is used most, ONLINE! And there’s a few things to keep in mind.
When sending your headshot in an email; you can choose whether you want to use your name plate format or image only, as long as you name your file properly: YourFirstName YourLastName - Headshot and not IMG863 or PROOF24601.
Proper labeling is a great business practice in the digital era. This is specifically important when you’re emailing your headshot to prospective agents or managers. Show them that you’ll be able to handle all the specific file naming and formatting instructions casting will throw at you when they start sending you audition requests. Present yourself professionally; label your acting headshot (and all of your materials) clearly.
When uploading your headshot to casting websites like Breakdown Services, Casting Workbook and Casting Networks for your agent or manager to use to submit you to casting directors for professional film, television and commercial productions, it’s important to keep the cropping of your image in mind. When casting sees your headshot, it’s one amongst many on a computer screen:
So make sure to crop your image so that your face is the focus!
Your acting headshot needs to reflect what you look like in person right now. Casting directors, agents, managers, producers, directors - your KEY business partners; they all rely on your headshot to represent what they’ll get if they ask you to put a scene on tape.
If you don’t look like your headshot, you actually risk wasting everyone’s time. You’ve gotten the audition request based on the trust that you look like your picture - if you don’t, you may automatically not be right for the role you’re auditioning for. And you know what role you were right for? The one that fits you perfectly based on exactly who you are and what you look like right now.
If you have changed your look since your last set of headshots, consider this the kick in the pants you’ve been waiting for to get some new headshots lined up pronto.
Your fellow actors can help with photographer recommendations, mood board feedback and help choosing proofs. If you don’t have an acting community, then step one is becoming a part of one. As we’ve discussed at length - the entertainment industry is a digital industry and your acting community can exist online too. Mine sure does and I love it.
Relish in having control over this aspect of your career and have a blast expressing yourself creatively through the process.
What is “perfect” anyway? Your acting career is a journey and each time you step in front of the camera to get a headshot you will get better at stepping in front of the camera to get a headshot.
The journey to getting your great acting headshot starts with knowing who you are as an actor and how you solve problems in your local market. Building that knowledge takes work that no one but you can do. Well, you with the help of my community… and maybe your therapist.
If you want help doing that work for yourself, check out the Laura Mac Method Foundations Online Acting Program. In it, you’ll learn how to create what I call your “acting avatar” - the version of you that you’ll capture in your headshot. The version of you that you’re present to the market. The version of you that you’ll connect with in your acting work.
Click here to check out what’s in the program and to start the course today.