This weekend, I received a comment on a recent post about professional headshots and it brought up an ongoing misconception that many actors have:
“I suggest you rename this article to “How to scare actors into thinking that headshot photography is a specialized field that needs to be done by ‘professionals'”. Even lighting, shallow depth of field, and a 10 minute photoshop touchup are not hard to explain. This is why I shoot headshots for my working actor friends for free. Guys like you are greedy @$$holes that spread disinformation. Nice DIY category, can I expect any updates soon?” — James (last name omitted)
Open hostility aside, the commenter brings up a few points that are worth clearing up.
Are Actor Headshots Really That Hard to Take?
When I left college for New York, I knew I would be auditioning, and that I would need headshots with a resume attached. According to everything I had read about acting, my photo “needed to look like me”, it needed to be in 8 x10 format, and it needed to be of good quality. I enlisted the help of a friend, and ended up with what I thought were two fantastic photos (click for larger versions):
These certainly weren’t bad photos–and compared to what many of my classmates were using, they were actually pretty good! The consensus among the theater community in my town (and among the other actors I knew) was “those photos are amazing, and you’re going to go so far!” I thought my own opinion was pretty valid, especially since I had worked as an assistant to a photographer in my home town, and I had my own darkroom at home for developing my own photos.
And those photos were fine–for Springfield, Missouri (coincidentally, home to ABC Pictures–one of the largest acting-related photographic reproduction facilities in the USA).
What I found out, after spending a lot of money on reproductions, a lot of money on postage, and a lot of time, energy, and emotional investment in mailings and auditions, was that those photos were not fine for New York City.
They were missing something. They just didn’t work.
What Exactly is a Professional Headshot?
A professional headshot goes beyond merely being a good picture.
Ideally, a professional headshot captures your essence and distills it in a marketable way–it projects you off the page in a way that nails your age, your type, and your unique traits, making a casting director or agent take notice. And it does this without being overly pushy, “arty”, or trendy.
James claims that an actor’s headshot only requires “even lighting, shallow depth of field, and a 10 minute photoshop touchup”.
Let’s apply that theory to my college headshots–
- Even lighting? Check.
- Shallow depth of field? Check.
- 10 minute Photoshop touchup? Well–I didn’t get them retouched, so, no.
But I didn’t get my first set of New York headshots retouched either–so I think we can pass on that bit (for now).
The fact of the matter is, my college headshots just don’t look professional. They are fine photos, but they don’t pop! They don’t have oomph–and they look like a friend of mine took them in a park with on-camera flash (which is exactly what we did).
If every actor in New York and LA used mediocre photos that their friends took, James’s theories might hold water. But they don’t!
A professional actor will be auditioning (ideally) for projects worth hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of dollars. That’s a lot at stake! And somewhere along the way, a smart agent realized that his clients would stand out from the crowd (and have a better shot at some of that money) if he or she had a better picture than the other guys and gals.
And you know what? That agent was right!
With all else being equal, a professional headshot will win out every time over the photos that you or your friend are capable of taking in your backyard.
Are Professional Headshots Really Better?
When I first moved to New York, I found it very hard to get someone interested in me as an actor (for a variety of reasons, including that I was very naive). But when I finally invested in a set of professional headshots (by Dave Cross, who would become my photography mentor) I suddenly found that I was getting some response! My dreams of feature film stardom didn’t suddenly get answered overnight, but I found that people actually took me seriously, and I was able to make progress in my career.
You do not need a professional headshot if you are going to audition for student projects outside of New York and LA (more on that in a moment) or community theater productions (although I’ve seen some impressively professionally-operated community theaters in my days).
But like it or not, the reality is that the profession of acting is a business–and in order to compete with the millions of other actors out there, you need a headshot that competes–and it isn’t likely to be taken by your friend (even if he or she is a competent photographer).
A professional headshot photographer has the benefit of experience on his or her side–that photographer knows what makes a good headshot, and has a lot of practice helping actors achieve a photo that gets them in the door. Your friend (more than likely) does not have that experience. Your friend might take excellent photos, and might be very enthusiastic about helping you with your career (a good friend to have), but if they convince you to forgo professional headshots completely, they are hurting your career.
There is so much that goes into creating a good headshot that is would take dozens of posts, this length or longer, to even scratch the surface.
I wasted close to a year with my college headshots. A year of frustration, anxiety, and confusion. Why wasn’t I getting auditions? Why wasn’t I getting phone calls? What was wrong with me?
I wonder what my career path would have been like if I hadn’t been sabotaging my career with my second-rate photographs?
Do Casting Directors and Agents Really Care if My Headshots are “Professional’?
YES! THEY CARE!
Your agent cares, because he or she knows that casting directors care.
When a casting director is going through submissions, they are under pressure of a deadline. They have a limited amount of time to look through stacks of headshots. They may look at an actor’s head shot for an average of three seconds. That’s being generous.
As a result, your headshot needs to stand out and represent you accurately (and yes professionally) and make them want to call you–and it needs to be able to make that response happen when they’ve looked at it for less than five seconds.
Are you really going to trust your friend to deliver on that kind of shot?
Do you think an agent is going to respect you if you do?
Do you think a multi-million dollar earning producer is going to respect you for making that decision?
Why Would I Need a Professional Headshot for Student Productions?
It’s a hard reality that new actors in New York and LA (and to some extent Chicago and other bigger cities) get a little screwed–when you submit for a student production in either city, you could very well be submitting for the same role as a seasoned veteran of the business. Most student productions in NY and LA sign contracts with the acting unions, which give them access to union talent.
Which means professional actors.
Which means professional headshots.
Which means you will need them too.
Some student productions in NYC and LA even enlist the services of well-known casting directors!
It’s just part of the reality of the business.
To be clear: if you are only taking class you do not need a professional headshot. But if you live in NYC or LA and are auditioning, and you are going to be up against established actors, you’re going to need the same caliber of materials.
Seeing a theme yet?
No matter your acting market, you’re going to need materials that match the caliber of the materials used by other actors in that market. And in the big cities, it means you need pro headshots.
Incidentally, I’m seeing more and more clients from out of state, who are looking to get a leg up on the actors near them who still aren’t shooting with professional headshot photographers. There are links coming in to my site from as far away as Michigan.
So–is My Headshot Photographer a Greedy @$$hole?
I don’t know every photographer–I can only speak for myself.
Personally, I try to keep my prices as affordable as possible, while still covering my (considerable) overhead.
In order to offer the best headshots in the business, I maintain a great natural light studio (not cheap), top of the line equipment (really not cheap), and work long hours keeping up to date on my skills and techniques (maybe you think my time isn’t worth much, but I tend to think it’s pretty valuable). I also read the industry trades, and keep up with casting directors and agents who write online (although to be fair, I am also an actor, and that falls in line with an actor’s responsibilities too).
I do think there are headshot photographers who charge more than what an actor should pay–but I don’t know what their overhead is like, or their attitude and philosophy.
Regardless of how long you’ve been in the acting business, you need to judge for yourself what you’re willing (or able) to invest in your headshots. Your agent can help you with a list of photographers, as can your teachers or acting coaches. If you have none of these, you shouldn’t be getting headshots yet anyway (actors–please study acting).
- A free headshot isn’t really free if it wastes a year of your life.
- A $99 headshot isn’t really cheap if no one calls you because of it.
- And a $1,200 headshot isn’t necessarily great if it keeps you from having the money to send it out to casting directors.
So I Shouldn’t Take Pictures with My Friend, Right?
Of course you should!
But take those photos for fun and don’t use them as your tool in your career.
I’ve taken my share of free headshots for my friends, but when I was doing that, I was learning–I would never try to convince them my shots were better than a pro (they weren’t).
And to be honest about it, here’s some of the first headshots I ever took, back in Missouri in 1997 (none of these would be acceptable as a pro headshot, and I took all of them):
I have great memories of shooting these headshots, and it helped me learn what works and what doesn’t work in a headshot session.
I’m sure the actors were grateful for the photos, and who knows–maybe they tried to use them professionally (I hope not).
But the point I’m trying to make is that, ego aside, they just aren’t good enough to work in a professional environment.
So James, I appreciate you sticking up for actors and their pocketbooks, and I’m sure your actor friends appreciate the free photos–but I’m afraid your view on what works for acting headshots is very naive, and possibly even damaging for the careers of the actors you’ve advised.
Or I could be wrong!
You might be an amazing headshot photographer with a decade of steady headshot experience, heroically shooting headshots for free–in which case I would make the argument that your experience means you are a pro– just maybe not a greedy @$$hole.