Actor Headshot DOs & DON’Ts
[Note: Paul Russell steps aside this week and hands the keyboard over to a respected, entertainment industry guest.]
Guest Answers for Actors Contributor
Jack D. Menashe
What makes your headshots stand out? What makes for a good headshot? What is it that you might be lacking in a shot?
One good answer to those actor questions by me — as a talent agency owner for nearly two decades — is an answer I’ve provided for many years: Since ninety-five percent of the performing artists out there might possibly be doing something wrong in their presentation of a headshot… what’s gonna make you stand out is doing everything right. Below, I list a few major things which industry professionals, such as agents and casting directors look for in a headshot.
But let’s get down-n-dirty first with what’s being done wrong by some actors (we’ll get to the good stuff later, I promise).
Many performers believe they have wonderful headshots. But often they’re mistaken. And they don’t realize that their shots aren’t so wonderful until long after their headshot doesn’t receive a response to audition inquiries. The actor with a bad headshot loses a lot of opportunities for work because of a sub-par headshot.
Many of the images which are sent in mailings are oddly angled and overly-lit, and many of them are airbrushed within an inch of their 8×10 lives. Often these travesties don’t come close to documenting an authentic likeness and honest qualities of the artist who has set out to achieve for possessing a highly effective marketing tool.
Any opportunity an artist gets to have an opinion formed about them from casting, producers, directors or talent representatives is a valuable commodity. In my office, all of the headshots received in the mail have been looked at by either agents or assistants. What I find disappointing is the lack of knowledge that many artists have about the fact that bad headshots actually have a higher impact than the really good ones–in a really negative way. Bad headshots are so much more memorable… believe me!
My least favorite are the composite photographs where an actor feels it is necessary to include images of themselves in every costume possible, from preacher to rabbi and from doctor to old lady.
Too many artists are trying too hard to stand out. Their misguided efforts to be ‘unique’ often sacrifice quality. In the entertainment industry (as with life) the better the quality the better the response by goals and those you’re seeking. As a professional in the business with a heart, that only wants the best for performers, I have to say that it is really important to get valuable feedback from an extremely reliable source before putting your materials out there to be criticized or judged in this business.
Actor Headshot Marketing Misfires:
Your marketing materials are most likely to be scrutinized before they are praised.
What I and industry love in a headshot is:
1: It looks like you!
2: Your eyes radiate life.
3. Your make-up is light and clean (for females), minimal (for males).
4. Less is more. Simplicity.
5. Proper lighting.
6. Proper cropping. Have your photo lab where you have your shots reproduced aid you in the proper positioning of your image within the photograph.
7. You’re the star of your shot, not the background that you’re positioned before.
8. High grade, photographic prints on quality paper (No home computer print outs).
9. Natural positioning– (No riding of a motorcycle or feeding-of-animals-at-the-zoo shots! I know of casting directors and agents who have several of those side-show headshots from actors in their ‘Freak File’.)
10. You look like someone who I feel like I want to get to know as a person just from seeing your picture!!!!
11. Your picture exemplifies you both in personality and in type/branding. A good photographer will work hard to bring out the best qualities of each actor before their lens. Unfortunately some photographers, in a hurry to get to the next actor, rush photo sessions and treat the actor like a product on an assembly line. And often the rushed results show in a poor, end product.
12. Your headshot does not look exactly like the 5,000 other actors who’ve just gone to the same photographer. (My least favorites are the headshots where one photographer has every actor sitting and/or squatting on a cobblestone SoHo street in New York. And then there’s the horizontal-headshot-before-a-white background-photographer who charges over a grand for repeating the same look and shot. Every actor looks the same. There’s no individuality.)
About fifteen years ago, as a then young talent agent being fed up with clients of mine being charged thousands of dollars for terrible headshots, I enrolled in The New School’s professional photography program. I wanted to be able to re-shoot my clients’ headshots (pro bono), in order to get the audition appointments which I needed to get them work.
Low and behold, the payoff was tremendous! What I set out to learn was all true– all it took was a beautiful, honest, professional headshot to push the actor from being a possible appointment to becoming one of the select top-tier actors on the casting list for tapings and director meetings. My actors booked like wildfire because the new photos got them through the door. My clients already had the goods to book the jobs. They just needed casting to recognize their potential!
Finding a great deal of enjoyment in capturing images of my clients, I soon set out for, and was granted SAG approval to begin working as the only SAG franchised, professional headshot photographer in New York.
A good headshot photographer shoots headshots because of their affinity and connection to performing artists. Like you, the goal is to create a beautiful work of art that captures your look, energy and personality. It is an opportunity for both you and your photographer to bring out all of the qualities that make you unique and marketable. It’s important to enjoy your time shooting… after-all your photographer wants to have you at your best. You work hard to be able to invest in your acting career.
What you can do to make your headshot session the best:
1. Make every minute count and savor your experience of having your likeness captured proudly for all within the industry to see.
2. Try to set aside the day of your shoot entirely to positive activities.
3. Get rest the night prior to your shoot to catch as much sleep as possible.
4. As far as make-up goes…
LADIES: Natural and minimal. You don’t want to look too made up–it’s distracting, and the industry will be wondering what you are hiding. Most photographers have make-up artists on hand…however, many photographers, like myself are make-up artists as well and prepare you for your shoot. You should have full input on your make-up colors and glosses, as you will be expected to look like the person in the headshot when showing up for auditions–plus, you want to feel both beautiful and comfortable.
MEN: Little to no make-up is always a good rule of thumb…nothing is more unattractive in a male headshot than heavy base, painted eyebrows and lipstick. Rather, if you sport various looks in your real-life and auditions both with and without facial hair, you might want to consider photographing with some facial hair, and then doing a mid-photo-shoot clean-shave.
I can’t stress enough to you how important it is to have a photo that not only shows who you are as a performer, but ‘speaks’ for who you are as a business person.
In our industry, those who hire or represent performing artists seek to work with artists who demonstrate qualities which reflect success. After my spending a lifetime in entertainment I can honestly say that at the first glance of a headshot most seasoned industry professionals behind the casting/representation table can judge with certainty whether or not an actor has wisely invested time, education and money into an acting career.
The frustrating truth is that for most of an actor’s career the headshot is often your only calling card. Your ad. Your representative. Your brand. Don’t waste time using a headshot that doesn’t do you the justice you deserve. Set yourself apart. Stand out by using a headshot that works for you. Carefully evaluate the feedback that you’ve gotten on your current picture.
All in all, if you feel that a new headshot is in order, then you might just be on the road to opening up many doors that you could not jar before.
Jack Menashe’s history as a talent representative includes being the owner of Independent Artists Agency. As a headshot photographer Jack’s clients include Golden Globe, TONY, Emmy winners and nominees.
His photography has appeared in New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, Playbill, Dramatists Magazine, Back Stage, CD covers and in performing arts books which highlight his work as headshots-to-have. Visit JackMenashe.com for his portfolio and client feedback.