Headshot advice from a Casting DirectorActors headshot advice by Carl Proctor, one of London's leading casting directors and also an actors headshot photographer.
Actors’ headshot advice by Carl Proctor – Casting Director and Actors’ Headshot Photographer.
This actors’ headshot advice is shared widely in the UK, Ireland, Europe and US on social media and is forwarded to actors by many agents and to students by drama schools. I hope you find it useful.
As a Casting Director www.carlproctorcasting.com I have a clear understanding of what makes good actors’ photos – what works and what doesn’t – and what is required to maximize potential. I hope that my experience of having been an actor, producer, director and now a casting director and actors’ headshot photographer www.carlproctorphotography.com gives me a unique insight and combines to make the following advice accurate, reliable and worth taking heed of, whilst also providing information on how the industry is changing.
There is a lot of conflicting advice about Actors’ Headshot Photography available online, much of it from photographers who might have less knowledge than you do about what casting directors like and what makes good actors’ headshots, etc.
We see far too many photos that are either not good or that don’t represent the actor or their range as well as they should. We hear too many stories of bad deals, bad advice, rushed sessions, wasted money and disappointing results. Some headshot photographers might be slow to react to the changing needs of actors, agents and casting directors. I hope to explode a few myths and help actors to avoid some pitfalls. Who knows – perhaps it will influence some photographers to adjust their process or the packages they offer.
Keep the advice below in mind when looking for a headshot photographer, but also during and after the session. I hope that it will help you to choose the right photographer and increase your chances of getting a good deal and some good photos that will work well for you.
Who will give the best advice?
Photographers know that the technical side of taking actors headshots isn’t usually very complicated, provided they use suitable high-end equipment. Far more important is a knowledge of what works, what employers and casting directors react well to, and getting a range of genuinely contrasting looks that cover your range. So, who is most qualified to give advice?
Casting directors and directors. They make decisions about whether or not to offer you a meeting, based initially on looking at your photos. If it is a suitable photo for the role being cast, that will make them choose to look at your CV and showreel and then hopefully bring you into a casting.
Agents and actors. They experience first-hand how a new set of photos or a photo that suits a role, makes a real difference to the number of castings they get.
I think you should take your advice from these people if you need it. When looking at photographers’ websites, or advice from photographers generally, though some advice is good, I would concentrate on looking at their photos, the package and prices, instead of what they have to say about what casting directors are looking for.
Choosing your photographer
A lot of actors start by looking at Instagram etc. and then go to the photographers’ websites. On Casting Call Pro, now Mandy.com and Headshot Hunter you can find a lot of headshot photographers’ profiles with a few examples of their work and make your own comparisons, prior to viewing websites. The Headshot Hunters website is well worth looking at as it has very useful search facilities and functions that allow you to shortlist favourite photographers and compare packages. Instagram is becoming the starting point for a lot of younger actors when looking for a photographer.
A lot of actors start by looking at adverts in Contacts (now online) or elsewhere and then go to the photographers’ web-sites. On Casting Call Pro (now Mandy.com) and Headshot Hunter, you can find a lot of headshot photographers’ profiles with a few examples of their work and make your own comparisons, prior to viewing web-sites. The Headshot Hunters web-site is well worth looking at as it has very useful search facilities and functions that allow you to shortlist favorite photographers and compare packages.
Look for testimonials on websites from actors. If it is apparent that a lot of actors have enjoyed the process and were very happy with the results from a particular photographer, this would be a strong indication that they are worth considering.
We are always pleased as photographers, to be recommended to actors by their agents and many agents have a few favourites that they will encourage you to consider. Not many agents insist that you use a specific photographer but there are one or two. I don’t think this is fair, it’s your money, so whilst you might be happy to use one that they recommend, I think it should be your choice ultimately.
A strong recommendation from a friend is worth taking note of. If you have a recommendation from a friend or agent and would prefer not to spend time looking at a number of photographers, I think you should at least look at that photographer’s web-site before booking and check that they offer everything that you think the process should include as well as a good deal.
If you can find examples of what you think might cover your range on a photographer’s website, you like their work and they tick all the other boxes, maybe he/she is the one for you. You can sometimes get an impression of a photographers’ personality and how they view their job, from their website. If a photographer imposes time restrictions, strict terms and conditions, insists on a deposit, advance payment, cancellation fees and has rigid price packages with high fees, etc. you could be forgiven for thinking that they might see it all much more as just business and less as also an enjoyable and creative collaboration. If this is a concern with a photographer whose work you like, I would advise having a chat on the phone, before booking.
Which photographers are most popular changes frequently. I know of a number of agents who had their favourite for a while but then stopped recommending them for one reason or another. The name of your photographer or their individual style isn’t likely to make any difference to your prospects. I think some of the photographers with a particular style give the viewer more of an impression of the photographer than of the person in the photo. Signature low crops, designer crops (off centre), shady, etc. Often interesting photos, but not likely to influence a casting director. I would ignore lists of best photographers that you might find online. I saw one recently titled ‘22 Best Headshot Photographers in London’, which includes hardly any of the most successful headshot photographers but does include Kodak Express. Enough said.
Photographer groups / associations
I think that associations or groups of headshot photographers exist primarily to attract you towards using one of their members. They are not likely to offer a more professional service, a higher standard or a better package than the many successful headshot photographers who choose not to be a part of any group. So, don’t limit your search for a photographer by only looking at members of one of these groups.
Some headshot photographers might not be able to fit you in for several weeks, often because they also work in other fields – theatre production shots, journalism, children’s photography, corporate, presenters, models, singers, dancers, etc. If you need new photos you should try to get them as soon as possible rather than waiting a couple of months or more, so look at your other favorites before agreeing to wait. Most of the better photographers who don’t also work in other fields, should be able to fit you in soon, so you shouldn’t need to wait too long. Some photographers will put you on a waiting list so you might get a session sooner, if they get a cancellation.
Do actors make good headshot photographers?
There are a handful of successful photographers who also work as actors. Well worth considering these photographers if you like their work, as you are likely to relate to them and they might have a good idea of what range of looks to go for with a specific actor.
Doing a free session with an actor mate who probably doesn’t have a high-end camera and lens, might be useful as a practice session for both of you, but the results that I have seen over the years, are rarely good enough. Much better to find the money and go with an experienced photographer.
Session fee and additional charges
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the most expensive photographers are better than the reasonably priced ones. Sometimes they are offering you more for their higher rates, but there are enough photographers who offer good packages for reasonable rates. Some of the photographers that charge the lowest rates will be less experienced, but some are offering you less time or a reduced package for the reduced rate. Plenty of the best and most popular headshot photographers offer their full package for under £300. You only need to compare images on websites or on Headshot Hunter to see that the standard is no higher from the more expensive photographers.
I don’t think many photographers insist on being paid in cash or in advance, but some do. I think you should be able to pay on the day by cash, cheque or a bank transfer, which ever works best for you. Some photographers have card machines.
Cancellation fees & deposits
I don’t think photographers should ask for a deposit or charge you anything if you have to cancel. We know that actors often get calls late in the afternoon about a casting the following morning or that a job might get confirmed at the last minute. If you wake up ill you probably don’t want to be having your photo taken that morning. Hopefully your chosen photographer will view cancellations as an unavoidable part of the process, and you are likely to be setting another date with them anyway.
Splitting a session (for the price of one) with a friend is often a false economy. A photographer should want to spend as long as it takes with an actor to get plenty of good and varied shots. If you have half the time, you might be getting half the package/half the number of good photos to choose from.
If you already have some good photos but just need a couple of different looks to complete the range, you could ask a photographer to do a shorter session. It will be cheaper, and you will hopefully get what you need. Consider this carefully though as a full session might get you some better photos altogether
If you need new photos but can’t afford them immediately, you could ask a photographer if they will consider taking installments or being paid at a later date. They might say no, but I think it’s worth asking.
Be clear about exactly what is included in the package and any additional charges.
If you are a student, you will hopefully be given a discount. Most good photographers do, even if they don’t need the work, because they believe that it is appropriate to help newcomers who might not be as well off as already working actors. Some that don’t offer a discount might not be as keen to attract students.
Viewing as you go along
I would suggest that you ask a photographer if there will be time and if they are set up to be able to let you view the photos as you go along on a large monitor, not the back of the camera. Stopping and viewing periodically during the session is extremely useful in my opinion and can hugely increase the likelihood of you going away with good, natural looking photos and the range you need. It will enable you to know when you have got what you need from the session, rather than leaving the photographer to make that judgement. More on this below.
Length of session (2.5 hours +)
You need a photographer who understands how important the session is to you and cares as much as you do about getting the best out of it. Hopefully most of the good ones do, but watch out for any who just see it as business and want to get you in and out as quickly as possible. Always ask how long the session will be. Be sure that you will be given enough time to get plenty of good main shot options, but also a number of shots for the Spotlight portfolio that show your range and provide an appropriate photo for any submission. A lot of photographers seem to offer around three hours, which is plenty of time in most cases, for you to have a relaxed and un-rushed experience and also check your hair and make-up at the start and throughout the session. But some photographers offer just one to one and a half hours with their basic/standard packages. I don’t think this is long enough, so you should decide whether or not a photographers’ more expensive package, still makes them worth considering. Some photographers offer shorter sessions at a reduced rate, so that might be the way to go, if you already have some good photos but need a couple of others to add to your range. In short, I think a BASIC package session should be up to 3 hours.
Number of re-touched photos included (not less than 5)
A lot of photographers offer about five touched up photos as part of the package. This is often enough. A good photo session with a photographer who understands the importance of range and how to achieve it, will easily be able to provide at least five very different looks that will work well for a wide range of casting briefs. There are a lot of photographers who give enough time to get range but then only include two or three touched up photos in the package. So as soon as you book that photographer, you put yourself in the position of having to pay more money for additional retouching in order to get photos that cover enough range. I think all photographers should offer NO LESS THAN FIVE RE-TOUCHED PHOTOS AS PART OF THEIR BASIC PACKAGE – at least two crops of each and in colour (and black and white, if required). A range of looks is what is useful to casting directors and employers, so photographers should ensure that their basic (cheapest) packages enable you to give us what we need. The main purpose of the folio on Spotlight is to show range, so don’t listen to anyone who suggests that you only need one photo or that casting directors want to be able to put you in one casting bracket. We all have range and a casting director will enjoy nothing more than successfully casting an actor as a type that they might not have seemed obvious for.
Cost of additional re-touching
Some photos might take a while to retouch effectively, but in my experience, most can be done quite quickly, so I don’t think you should be charged much if you want more images than are included in the package (£10-15 max) As part of the package, you might also hope to be given more than one crop of each photo, at no extra cost.
Memory stick, DVD or download of the whole session
Ask photographers if they will put all photos from the session on a DVD or memory stick or enable you to download the whole session in a high-resolution format, not just the ones that they have re-touched for you. Personally, I see little point in them withholding a few hundred photos of you on a hard drive, only to be deleted one day. As your photographer will retain ownership of copyright, he/she might ask that you come back to them for retouching, if you wish to use any of the photos in the future. It takes a few minutes and costs hardly anything to provide you with a DVD or an option to download, so I think it should be a part of the package and not an additional charge. USB, envelope, stamp – about £5, so £40 – £80 is very unfair in my opinion. Download – no cost to anyone. You might expect to be asked to pay the cost price for a memory stick or you could provide one.
Unless you are being paid rather than paying for the shoot, I would avoid agreeing to let a photographer sell your photographs or use them for any purpose other than to promote their photography work. Be sure that there are no unreasonable limits as to what you can use them for. You will need a photographer’s permission for an image to be used in a publication, etc. but beyond that, I think you should be able to use your photos as you wish.
Terms and conditions
Many photographers are relaxed and trusting enough not to feel the need to have terms and conditions on their web-sites, but some do. Check that they are not too restrictive. Most actors know that its not appropriate to alter a photograph significantly, but if, for example, you want to crop a photo, I think you should be allowed to.
What makes a good headshot?
I think that all photos should look real and organic, not posed or deliberate. A relaxed and natural looking photo gives the impression that you very probably look like that in the flesh. If your main shot is engaging and energised, the casting director is more likely to click and view the other images in the Spotlight folio. Some photographers are now trying to give a lot of their shots more of the feel or look of being a still from film or TV and want to move on from a traditional a studio lit / ‘having my photo taken’ look.
I think that a good main shot should have a warm confidence (confident, capable and pleasant to work with). In some cases, it can make an actor look as much like a friendly person as it can someone not to be messed with. However, you no longer need one shot to say it all. Most actors have range, and many can be as convincingly edgy as they can be friendly and much in between. So, for the Spotlight folio you need a few good headshots that show genuine range. An agent can then choose which photo to attach to a submission. A photo that has nothing of the feel of the character that you are being suggested for might get you overlooked. I was told recently of a photographer who tells clients that all of their photos should have a neutral expression so that a director or casting director can project what he/she is looking for onto your face. This is clearly very bad advice and is very likely to lead to all your photos having the same blank expression. The same expression in different tops, isn’t range. To get real range, you might do some shots standing, some sitting, looking away, captured, some outside, different settings, different framing, different light, landscape as well as portrait crops. Some looking warm, smiling, serious, edgy, hard, professional etc, etc, whist always still looking real and organic and not posed or forced. Some can look like a still from a film, others can look like you don’t know that you are being photographed. All of this is easy to get in one session of the right length, but not if all the photos are taken with you standing up, face on to the camera and staring down the lens. This isn’t likely to get range, nor is it conducive to you being relaxed and natural looking. There are some photographers who take great portraits or shots of actors in production or on set, but in their actors’ headshot work, we sometimes see the same old, standard, images with very little range beyond most looking serious / humourless and one or two with a smile. Take charge if this is how the session seems to be going, or you might not go away with the range that casting directors and employers will want to see.
The right crop of a photo can increase its impact immensely. Cropping is quick and easy so I think a photographer should be prepared to give you more than just one crop of a photo. A lot of wider crops show us far too much of the background and don’t draw us to your face. 10 x 8 need not be seen as the norm any more as actors and agents are increasingly choosing different crops. Longer and narrower often looks better, particularly with mid or full-length shots. Spotlight don’t insist on 10 x 8.
Widely used in America and Europe, landscape shots are useful as they look more like a still from a film or TV screen. Ideally a photographer will include a few on the contact sheets and be prepared to give you them as well as the standard portrait crops at no extra cost. I often prefer closer crops but be sure that your photographer doesn’t take the shots too tightly, as you can’t then go wider if you want to. More about crops below
Famous people can get away with any old photo because it has little on nothing to do with them getting work. They sometimes use a still from a film or a heavily lit, stylised portrait taken for a magazine. I don’t think this type of shot will help to get a lesser known actor seen for leading roles in film or TV. I am all for getting some edgy looks in the mix, photos that look captured or like stills and anything that jumps out, but don’t let them all look very different from what you really look like and covers range.
Often a bit more glamorous, made up, posed, etc. Good American actors are as uninterested in having this type of photo as good British actors are. It isn’t the successful American actors that go for them. I think there are a few US agents who push to get some of their good looking actors into the glossy soaps by sending them for this type of session. Most US casting directors will respond to a range of good and natural looking photos in the same way that British casting directors do. It is often useful to have a few shots with a bit more lipstick or more obviously made up look. If you want this or have been asked to get some ‘American style’ photos, your photographer will hopefully be happy to include them, but be sure that it is just a small part of the session. Landscape crops are popular in America and are becoming increasingly popular here and in Europe.
French Style ?
A couple of actors have recently mentioned that some people in France like to see soft focus photos and I have seen a few Spotlight profiles with eyes soft in all images. This might look lovely in a magazine, but in the context of actors headshots, they just look out of focus. Any style that makes you less clear to the viewer is best avoided.
What can a good headshot do for me?
Good photos are what make us look further. It doesn’t matter how impressive your CV or showreel is if we don’t look beyond your photos. This is why good photos are essential and potentially career altering.
Above all, a handful of good photos that cover a useful range are likely to get you more meetings. Bad or uninteresting photos can work against you.
Good photos will help you to get an agent or will enthuse your current agent to really push you, knowing that they have images of you that suit a number of casting briefs.
Preparing for your headshot session
As an actors, its always advisable to look after yourself and to try to look healthy for your session. Its obviously best not to go out or have a late night before your session, but much can be fixed in Photoshop, so I wouldn’t stress too much if you don’t feel that you look your best. A recent client told me that she had read that its best to avoid coffee and sugar for a month before a session. That is obviously going too far, so enjoy a coffee before your shoot if you like. Try to arrive with an idea of what you want from the session. No harm in aiming to look like yourself on a good day, but hair, make-up and what you wear should just look fine but not pull focus. I think you should check that your photographer has a bathroom or at least a large mirror and a plug socket close by. For actors’ headshots, you don’t need a stylist or a hair or make-up artist, so I wouldn’t consider paying extra for any of this or visiting one before your session.
I think it’s fine to enhance but ideally you should look like you are not wearing any for the majority of shots, so keep it minimal for most of the session. If it is apparent that you are wearing a lot of make-up, you are showing us that this is not necessarily what you look like in real life and this defeats the main function of the photo. For some women it might be useful to have a more made-up look as part of their range, but it would be limiting if they were all like that.
For most people, having your hair done before the session is not necessary. It can look too neat and you might want to do different things with your hair throughout the session anyway. So just not too neat or too scruffy. Women should be given time to put hair up, straighten or curl it. Women’s hair often looks better with a bit of volume. Men can arrive unshaven and shave during the session if they wish to so you have both looks covered. Don’t restrict your hair style to the way it usually looks when you go into a casting. This isn’t what a casting director needs or expects most of the time.
I think darker, solid colours tend to work best. Colour is good, but more subdued than bright is usually best. Don’t just take black or very dark coloured tops. Take a few options. Layers are good and varied neck lines but not all too wide or low so that we still see some of the top and allow it to frame your face, even in the tighter crops. White isn’t good in my experience, but you might include one or two lighter coloured tops for variation. A white shirt under a jacket is fine. T-shirts with low necklines can look like dance tops on men so not necessarily ideal for headshots. Maybe a casual jacket and a smarter one if you like. For men some shots in a shirt and jacket with and without a tie on might be useful to include if a corporate / business look is an obvious part of your range. So whilst what you wear can help to suggest types and range, in most photos, the look should not be too much about what you are wearing.
If you wear glasses, take them with you and get a few shots. Even if you never use contact lenses, don’t have all of your photos taken wearing glasses.
Be sure to check that your photographer has a bathroom or a suitable place to change.
A photographer should be able to fix things on the computer if you have a spot or bags under your eyes, etc. This is easy to do so if you have checked that your photographer is willing and able to do the work, don’t consider cancelling if you have a blemish.
Having considered all of the above, if you are also confident that you have chosen a good photographer who offers a good package and price, there is no need to think too much in advance. Just try to arrive feeling confident, relaxed and open.
During the session
Viewing and selecting as you go along
All of the actors that I have photographed have found it extremely useful to spend time viewing the images on a large monitor during the session, but I believe that a lot of headshot photographers still don’t do this. Viewing the photos as you go along (on a larger screen than on the back of the camera) allows you to see that an expression or the subtlety you were aiming for, might not be registering quite as you intended it to. What feels like a natural, relaxed expression, often looks much more serious and what feels subtle often looks forced. Spotlight is full of photos with deadly serious facial expressions, often because the photo is the best of a bad bunch or the warmest shot there was from the session.
Viewing can also make you feel more involved in the process and ensures that the contact sheets are made up of photos that you have already decided that you like. I know that a lot of photographers go through the 400 + images themselves and select which photos go on the contact sheets. I think you should be involved in making these choices and only by viewing as you go along, is that possible. Obviously a photographer knows to eliminate the duds – eyes closed, blank expressions, odd mouth shape, out of focus, etc, but beyond that, you are likely to be most qualified to judge which looks might be of most use to you and your agent. By viewing during the session, the duds can be deleted immediately, and you can discuss and select images for the contact sheets together. A model is being paid and therefore just does as he/she is asked, but as you are paying the photographer, I think you should be able to see the shots as you go along, so that you know what’s working, what to do differently, what you have enough of, what you need more of, what you haven’t got yet, what tops are working best, how the hair and make-up are looking, if you are doing too much or too little or if some of your expressions are looking too posed or empty, if your eyes are too closed or your mouth too tight, etc. So, keep some control. Even if you are confident that your photographer is qualified to advise you on what makes good actors’ photos, you should be prepared to stay in charge to a degree during the session. Tell us what you need and by viewing the photos as you go along, you will be able to make your own judgement as to whether or not we are getting the shots that you want and are covering your range.
A couple of the actors that I photographed, had just had sessions with other photographers, but both the actors and their agents didn’t like or want to use any of the shots. One actor paid over £350. For that price I would certainly expect a guarantee of a re-shoot or a refund, if I wasn’t happy. Neither was offered. The other photographer, after one hour, looked at the back of the camera and said, “Right, I think we’re done” The actor hadn’t been shown any photos during the session. If they had been viewing images as the shoot progressed, they would have been able to politely point out that they were nowhere near “done” and that so far, they had not seen any shots that they liked. Instead the actor and agent saw them the next day and felt that none were usable.
Some photographers seem only to focus on getting the main shot and might not be aware of the need for range. Others might not make the right decisions about a range of looks that are useful to you. Or you just might not be seeing any or enough shots that you like. Too many actors are unhappy with photo sessions and have to spend more money on another session with a different photographer. I don’t think this should happen. In short, to eliminate or minimize the risk of a wasted session, I think it is very useful if an actor is able to clearly view photos periodically throughout the session and not just on the back of the camera.
Thinking of something/someone that makes you happy or sad or angry etc. doesn’t usually work in my experience. It means that you are internalizing, and it is unlikely to register as an interesting look. It is more likely to just lead to a blank, un-engaged expression. If a photographer asks you to imagine a particular scenario, you are probably not really going to do that very effectively. You are more likely to be thinking “am I doing the look he wants?” and by being distracted by that, you will not look focused or engaged. A good photographer will be able to get a range of genuinely organic and natural looks from you without putting you through any of that. I don’t think many headshot photographers have experience of directing actors in performance, but some still confidently take on that role in a photo shoot. Something to be aware of and another reason for you to be viewing and making your own judgement as you go along. A lot of actors are not clear in their own heads about what looks they should be going for, so trusting the photographer and just doing what they tell you to do, often seems like the best option, even when it doesn’t feel right. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably won’t look right.
For a lot people opening the eyes a little wider makes them look more alert and engaged and avoids them having a slightly sleepy look. It also helps to correct things if you have one eye that opens a little less than the other.
Don’t stay too still
To be still and have personality is a bit of an unnatural challenge. What starts out as organic will just turn into a fixed expression if you hold it for too long, so look away and back as often as you like to keep the face relaxed and also so that we can get some natural looking away shots. Looking around also allows you to keep rediscovering and prevents the mouth getting tight. This is important as the mouth dictates the look of the photos more than anything else.
Sitting or standing?
Being completely upright can often look a little removed, even arrogant. This can be a useful look to have in the mix, but you wouldn’t want all of your photos to give that impression. Its less of an issue when standing upright. I think standing up in outdoor shots works better.
Standing or sitting completely face on can look very stiff and posed. It can be useful to get a few completely face on shots but I think very slight angles can look much more relaxed and natural, so try turning your head away a little, just enough for us to see less of one ear than the other (not too much) when either looking away or to camera. People also tend to raise their heads a little when being photographed which draws us more to your chin than your eyes. Much better to lower your chin very slightly, I think. Leaning in very slightly when sitting, will also draw us to your eyes and makes them the focus. Leaning in directly to camera can look a little too keen in my experience, so if your body is slightly turned away the position will look more relaxed and confident and less ‘having my photo taken’. No hands
Off camera / looking away shots
Unless you are a presenter, we don’t see you looking at camera, so looking away shots can make it easier for us to imagine you in the role. At their best they can look like a still or a rehearsal shot or at least have a captured, not knowing you’re being photographed look about them. With these shots I think it’s good to appear to be looking at someone rather than looking deep in thought. It is easy enough to do convincingly without having to think about who you are looking at or what they are saying to you. Off camera shots work well in the Spotlight folio and in my experience, they are popular with agents and casting directors. Some photographers might choose to take some off-camera shots for you to include in the mix. Others might not include them as standard. If you agree that they can work well and help to add a bit of range, you could ask your photographer to take some.
Full length / mid-shots
Its useful to get some full length shots which you have the option to crop to mid shots. All casting directors will appreciate being able to see your size and shape so don’t listen to anyone who tells you that a body shot isn’t useful. These shots often look better if cropped narrower than 10 x 8.
As well as indoor shots, I think it’s useful to also have outdoor ones, although not all actors want or need them. They often look and feel more like a still from film or TV rather than a photo shoot. At the very least outdoor shots can look like a different shoot to the indoor ones, which adds to the range. I think mid shots work well outdoors.
In my experience a lot of people favour natural light or a mix of natural and studio lighting that gives the same look. Natural light can give a clear impression of the individual, whilst still being flattering and more importantly, a sense that this is what you look like. Studio lighting is often apparent in a photo. We don’t expect to be aware of lighting when we watch you on TV or film, so we don’t need to be aware of it in your headshots. Some photographers are able to use studio lighting well, but from others, we still see an awful lot of bleached out, over lit photos that show us very little of what the actor looks like.
In my opinion a blurred but natural, in-situ looking background will always look much better than a clinical and flat studio back drop. Studio shots unavoidably scream photo shoot. Natural settings can give your photos more of a film or TV still feel. I see studio shots taken, perhaps by some of the less experienced headshot photographers, where the actor is so close to the white or light-coloured backdrop or wall, that we see a very strong shadow in the background. These don’t look like professionally taken photos to me. Even the passport office is likely to reject photos like this. I think lighter or darker backgrounds can work regardless of whether you have dark or fair hair. It easy to separate you from a background with a bit of back lighting.
After the session
You might not find many photographers that are prepared to spend the time doing this, but I think some of the photos should be cropped for the contact sheets, to give you a clearer idea of what the final images might look like.
I think a session fee should include no less than five different photos with at least two crops of each. Be sure that you and your agent are invited to select all of the final selection, rather than your photographer selecting any of them for you. Ask your photographer to copy in your agent when sending contact sheets or a link to them.
How many photos should go on Spotlight?
There are no rules and it depends on how many genuinely contrasting looks you achieved at your photo sessions. Seven isn’t too many if they are all genuinely different and show genuine range. Three is too many if they are all the same. Five, one of which might be a body shot, is often enough and they can be complimented with a handful of genuinely interesting screen grabs or theatre production shots. A body shot could be a screen grab if you have a good one.
Whether it is brightening it up a bit, improving the contrast or colour, tidying up the hair, softening lines under the eyes, removing blemishes, etc. almost all photos will benefit from a bit of re-touching. From looking at a lot of Spotlight photos, it is apparent that some photographers don’t do any or enough work on photos and some do too much. Be sure to check that your photographer will re-touch your final selection at no extra cost and that they are happy to do further tweaking if you think any need it. A lot of headshot photographers pay other people to do their re-touching, so might not be willing to do further tweaking if you are not entirely happy with the work. Hair is often left messy or with wispy bits sticking out. It can be quite time consuming to fix hair, particularly if outside in a breeze, so you might find this is the reason that some photographers don’t do it.
Choose a good range, get opinions. You probably only need about five photos to cover range. More than that and you might be repeating yourself. You don’t need black and white versions of the same photo. You don’t really need any black and white ones at all. A mid shot is often a useful addition to a portfolio. It could be from the shoot or you might have a good production still that does the job. Your agent should agree with your choices. Don’t give them photos that they are not happy with. Often an agent will make the choices for you or with you and you should find that you at least largely agree.
Get all your photos in colour. If you do want some in black and white for any reason (perhaps to add some variation to a website) it is very easy to turn a colour photo into a black and white one, but impossible to do the opposite. Your photographer should be happy to do this for you at no cost.
More about crops
The crop of a photo can make a huge difference to how good it looks and how much impact it has. I suggest asking your photographer (before you book them) if they will include at least two crops of your final selection and also if you can request different crops (free of charge) if you want one wider / tighter than what they have chosen to do. I think many actors’ headshots are cropped too wide, showing too much superfluous information. We don’t need to see a lot of background. We don’t look at hard copies of photos very much these days. We just see the small Spotlight images either on their website or on a hard copy of your CV, so the more face we see, the more impact the photo will have. Aside from mid or full-length shots, I find that a lot of agents and actors favour the tighter crops of a headshot. No harm of course in including a wider shot showing the full glory of your hair if it is a feature or very long. The best crop for a head shot might sometimes be 10 x 8, but some photos will look better with a different crop. A 10 x 8 full length body shot will have a lot of unnecessary background at either side of you, so a longer / narrower crop might look better. Hopefully your photographer will take most of the photos widely enough for all options to be available.
Production shots / screen grabs
Two or three screen grabs from film or TV or theatre production shots, if they are good, clear and interesting, can add to the mix and range nicely. You wouldn’t want to turn up to a photo session with a period costume, a military, police or nurses uniform etc. but if you have any good stills of you playing particular professions, they can very usefully add to the range and provide evidence of types that you have been cast as.
You don’t need them to be included in the package. One 10 x 8 print of a photo is of little use as reproes are not taken from hard copies anymore and you wouldn’t want to send off the only one you have to anyone. Get prints as and when you need them. A lot of photographers don’t include prints but instead will refer you to a printer if you need any. Be sure that you are not obliged to use the printers that a photographer recommends as you then have no control over how much you pay for prints. We rarely use prints as part of the casting process these days, so their main use is when you have a job – for the production office wall or theatre foyer.
Nowhere else in the world, is there a more comprehensive or advanced database of actors, than Spotlight. In most European countries, the biggest concern for actors is that it is difficult to get themselves known to casting directors and production companies etc. All they are able to do is write to us or hope that we see them in something. Spotlight can be accessed from anywhere in the world and you can send a link to your profile to anyone in the world without them needing to be a subscriber. So, it’s well worth keeping it up to date and complete and ensuring that your photos are the best they can be at all times. There is no better website than your Spotlight page.
The book has gone, there are now no deadlines and you can upload new photos at any time, so there is no longer an appropriate time of year to get new photos taken. www.spotlight.com
I would hope that disputes with photographers are rare. I have photographed well over 4000 actors and have never had a dispute with an actor or an agent. I assume this is the same with most experienced photographers. A photographer’s reputation is everything, so I believe that all professional photographers should be keen to resolve disputes to your satisfaction, without fear of being reported to anyone. The risk of being named and shamed should be enough for you to be sure of getting satisfaction. A bit of additional Photoshop work will often fix problems that you might have with a photo, but if another session or part session is the only solution, then you should hope that your photographer is open to discussing that.