Sweat the Small Stuff, Headshot Edition (craploads of actor tips, part I)

Oct 12, 2009 by     No Comments    Posted under: Marketing, Resources, Thousands of Stories
I enjoy sweating the small stuff. It adds to my fitness routine.

"I enjoy sweating the small stuff. It adds to my fitness workout."

Here’s the deal. In L.A. (and elsewhere), actor supply FAR exceeds demand. When you submit yourself, even for a student film or the like, the casting people are getting literally hundreds of submissions…even for the tiniest bit parts. Having been fortunate enough to book over a dozen of these kinds of projects in the past couple months I asked around to those who did the casting and found out that the small stuff matters. I continually heard things like this:

We needed to narrow down from 400 actors to the 30 audition spots we had…we were looking for any excuse to nix people

Basically, people are looking for any tiny thing in this town that they can use an excuse to not look at you/bring you in. This makes sense. How the hell else would you narrow down hundreds or thousands of people for a single role? Here’s the good news, these are the types of things that you have control over! And there are tons of them. The more of these things you do, the better chance you have of getting in the room/cast.

Originally I was going to do this all in one large post, but I realized there are so many in each category, that I’m going to break them up. Today’s edition: headshots.


  • Have a GREAT headshot
    • Having something is certainly better than nothing, but your headshot is the #1 thing CDs use to decide whether to call you in or not!!!
    • This was repeated with EVERY person I’ve talked to who cast me in a project out here. The easiest way for people to narrow down from hundreds of people to a couple dozen is by your headshot…they don’t have time to look at 342 resumes, much less reels…they go by headshots.
  • Price
    • Today in LA, for a full session (~5 looks) anything less than $200 is probably a scam, and anything more than $500 is a total rip-off
    • You should also be able to get all of the pictures, on a DVD, full-res, without paying any extra money
    • You should also have full rights to your pictures after the shoot
  • Captain Obvious (defender of duh!) says: Make sure it looks like you
    • I don’t know who these “actors” are out there who have headshots that don’t look like them, but I still hear from agents/CDs all the time that it happens. Don’t be “that guy”
  • Have a vertical headshot
    • I don’t know why no one ever told me this until a few months in LA, but vertical headshots are what you need in today’s electronic world because: Horizontal headshots appear MUCH smaller when CDs are looking through thumbnails on a computer
    • When you meet with your headshot photographer (and you should meet with your headshot photographer before you shoot), be sure to tell them exactly what you want/are looking for…i.e. having all (at least over 90%) of your headshots be vertical
  • “Looks”
    • Headshot photographers generally charge by the “look.” A different look should be Catholic School Girl vs. Puerto Rican Diva. Simply changing your shirt or something shouldn’t be a different look. Good photographers will generally ensure that you get whatever you need…however many looks that might be. What they’re trying to avoid, is having you totally change your hair/makeup/clothes for 15 minutes inbetween each look and having the photo session take longer than 2 hours (at which point most people get tired and pictures start going dramatically downhill)
    • For me, what was most helpful in my last session was spending a lot of time going through my wardrobe and figuring out what different looks I needed and what clothes I would wear for them. One of the most helpful things, was to pick out what specific TV shows I could get cast on tomorrow, see what they’re wearing and match that…take headshots that will make you look like the other people on the shows you’re auditioning for. Here are the looks I had picked out before hand:
      • Facial Hair: Although it’s not super common for guys my age to have facial hair on screen, I end up getting asked to have scruff for a variety of shoots, so I made sure to have a couple looks with facial hair. One of these was a “dark” (emotional energy, not lighting) photo for more sinister, serial killer types
      • Commercial: Needed something with fairly bright colors, super upbeat (Whatever shot you’re going to use for commercials definitely needs to have you smiling)
      • Comedy: Similar to whatever commercial shots I was taking, I was sure to have a few goofy/slightly off-kilter (again, energy wise) looks when I was shooting
      • Military: I wanted a more serious, chiseled-jaw bone soldier type shot
      • Business: I made sure one of my looks included a business jacket with a button-down for the young businessman type. This is also a common commercial look for my type
  • What to Wear
    • Mostly, you’ll want to go by the different looks you want (see above). Goal here is to look like you’re on whatever show it is that you want to (or have best chance of) getting on.
    • No logos/sayings on your shirts…they’re distracting. Solid colors are almost always the best
    • Shirts with unique or interesting textures tend to look a lot better
    • Layers also often look very appealing (i.e. a light jacket over a t-shirt)
    • Also, wear bright colors (especially for commercial shots). I’ve noticed that brighter colors almost always tend to look better in headshots…I’m not talkin’ crazy fuchsia here, but inviting, bright colors stand out more in today’s world of color headshots, and especially in a sea of thumbnails. (You do know that headshots are supposed to be in color, don’t you? Ok, phew. You had me worried there for a sec.)
  • Don’t let the background be more interesting than you
    • I’ve seen a LOT of headshots where the background is totally cool/interesting/intriguing/whatever which looks great in a photo album, but not for headshots
    • I tend to be pretty “old school” on this, but your headshot should be that…a picture of your head…call me crazy
  • Makeup
    • I’ve heard a number of different arguments for whether or not to use makeup. For women, the advice is to generally just do your own makeup, because that’s gonna look most like you anyway (see: tip 2 above)
    • For guys, if you do use any makeup, it should be very minimal. I ended up having a makeup artist do some minimal makeup on my last photo shoot and was very happy with the results…no darker lines under my eyes, and no need to photo re-touch anything
    • Basically, it’s kind of up to you
  • “Head Tilties”
    • Because, once again, your headshot must look great as a thumbnail, having your head be tilted anything from pretty much straight up and down ends up looking super-weird
  • How to Pick
    • It’s a weird phenomenon that you end up taking around 400 pictures and needing to narrow it down to 4 – 6 pics. Having people you trust (acting coaches, your agent, etc.) help you narrow down your options is very helpful
    • Another recommendation I have is to narrow down to say the top 10 pictures of any given look you’re doing, and print them off as 4x6s at your local Target…it’s like 15 cents per picture and gives you a better sense of what they’ll look like as a printed 8×10
    • Finally, I recommend using Picasa (best. program. ever.) to look at your pictures as thumbnails and see what pops at that size
  • Posting Pics
    • I had a number of casting people say that it very much helps to have 4 – 6 pictures posted on your Actors Access and other casting websites. Any more is probably unnecessary, but only have 1 or 2 hurts your chances.
    • It also helps to have one 3/4 shot posted in case someone wants to see your body type/size (note: never use this 3/4 shot as the primary submission photo, because 3/4 shots look very poor in a sea of thumbnails)

Final Word

Have fun! Doing all this prep work should allow you to have a great time during your actual photo shoot. Know where you’re going. Show up on time. You’ve already spent the money and committed to it, so just go and have fun getting to be a star for 2 hours! =)

These are the most important tips I have, and think they cover most of the headshot issues. Would love to hear any other suggestions you have!

My Headshots

For your reference, here are some of my most recent headshot pics (taken by John Arrington).

Ben Whitehair is the Los Angeles contingent of this blog. Find out more information and view his materials on his website, or read the rest of his blog posts.