Like most photographers, from time to time I get requests to provide headshots for actors. Whilst this can be a simple procedure it is very easy to get it wrong. Actors need headshots for two main reasons; for casting purposes or for publicity purposes. The requirements for both types of headshot are very different and could make the difference between the actor being selected for a role or audition, or being rejected.
Therefore, I thought I would provide a few pointers for taking headshots for casting.
First of all, for the photographer…
Don’t rush taking headshots. The client may be used to being on stage or being on set in a TV studio, but that doesn’t mean that they will immediately be comfortable being in front of you and your camera. The American headshot photographer, Peter Hurley, says that portraiture is 90% counselling and 10% photography. You have to build rapport with your client before they will be comfortable and appear natural in front of the camera. They may be actors but they are not robots and they will need time to relax.
In this example , the hair, make-up and clothing are too glamourous for casting headshot purposes.
Dramatic lighting may look really good on some portraits but it’s not for headshots. The lighting needs to be even, soft and flattering. It’s OK to have differentiation between the key light and the fill light, but no more than one to one and a half stops. An artistic portrait with deep shadows is not what casting directors are looking for.
One casting director told me that “the eyes really are the window to the soul”. The eyes have to be pin-sharp in the headshot and should be clear and bright with nice catch-lights. Also, depth of field should be sufficient for the whole of the face to be in focus. As with point two, shallow depth of field may produce an image that is artistically pleasing but the casting director needs to see all of the face clearly.
A simple non-distracting background is absolutely essential. It doesn’t have to be plain white, but it does have to be non-descript. The last thing you want is for the backdrop to take your attention away from the person in the image. Whether taken in-doors our outside make sure you have a simple background and, where possible, throw it out of focus. This also relates to point three and there is often a trade-off between the depth of field being sufficient to get all of the face in focus but shallow enough to throw the background out of focus. Choose your lens and focal length carefully.
5. Pose and composition
As the title suggests, this is a headshot and should include no more than the head and shoulders. A current trend is to crop off the top of the head and although this may be popular it is not suitable for casting purposes – especially in the UK. The pose should be such that at least 75% of the face is visible. It is OK to have the face turned slightly away from the camera but not so much that it is almost a profile shot.
6. Post Production
Casting directors have told me that what they most want to see is a true representation of the person they are going to see when they turn up for audition. A very slight amount of retouching is possible but not the full skin-smoothing glamour process that may be used for a magazine shoot. I use the ‘two week’ rule. If a mark on the face is likely to be there for more than two weeks then it really should stay there in the photograph. It’s OK to remove spots or blemishes that would clear up within a few days but things like moles or permanent facial features should remain. And the same goes for wrinkles I’m afraid. A casting director does not want to see a headshot of someone that looks twenty but looks more like forty when they turn up for audition.
Secondly, for the actor…
A clean, clear image showing the whole of the face is what casting directors want to see
Read the above. You need to arrive at the shoot location early so that you have enough time to relax before you get in front of the camera. The last thing you want is a headshot with a red face because you had to run the last half-mile to the studio to get there on time. You need to look your best and that includes looking fresh and relaxed.
The casting director is looking for a true representation of you; something as close to your normal, everyday look as possible. If you are female it is best that you wear no more than a basic essential layer of make up for headshots, and something that looks natural. You don’t want to look as if you’ve just stopped off for a quick photo session on your way to a night out. Save the glamour look for your publicity shots, not your casting shots.
Please wash your hair the night before or on the day of the shoot. And take a hairbrush or comb with you. I have been surprised on a few occasions by actors that have travelled for an hour on public transport to get to the studio and then not even bothered to tidy their hair for the shoot. Choose a style that keeps your hair away from your face. Also, if you have long hair, make sure you get some shots with the hair up as well as down.
As already mentioned above, this is a headshot session not a glamour or fashion shoot. Keep your clothing simple and understated rather than garish and distracting. Keep the colours plain and simple, something that compliments your eyes and skin tone. Remember, the most important part of the headshot is your head; don’t wear anything that will draw the attention away from it.
In the run up to headshot day make sure you are well rested. Get at least two good nights’ sleep - preferably a week! And keep your body well hydrated. Good sleep and hydration will keep your skin looking fresh and your eyes looking bright and clear.
I hope the above gives you some pointers on getting your headshots right. Whichever side of the camera you end up on, I wish you the very best of luck with your career.
Terry McNamara is a Manchester based freelance and commercial photographer and photography tutor. Here you can keep up to date with the projects Terry is working on and whatever he may be currently thinking about.