(Left photo from 2012, by a Photographer Who Must Not Be Named, right photo from last week's session with Paul Smith, www.paulsmithphotography.com)
Here’s the thing, entertainers.
Headshots are everything. Listen!
Headshots. Are. Everything.
The first expensive headshot I took in Los Angeles was around 2012, and the images were crushingly disappointing (see left photo above). Some of that was the photographers’ fault, but ultimately I failed to research, communicate my needs, and speak up during the shoot.
A thousand dollars later, I couldn’t use any of the photos. I had to re-shoot with someone cheaper, and I'm banging my head on the desk as I type this bitter memory.
About two years later, I finally found brilliant results with another photographer. Agents, audition appointments, and work followed naturally and abundantly once I had my toolkit in order!
Turns out, it’s not a crapshoot at all. There are steps we can take to maximize our experience. My most recent headshot with the exceptional Paul Smith is featured on the right (above).
If you are an actor, singer, or entertainer, you know a great headshot is our business card. The consequences of a bad headshot are numerous and damning:
It won’t look like us. Seriously. Who is the girl in that left photo? I don’t know, and neither would anyone else, because that is not the girl casting directors meet in person. In fact, no one has met her, becuase I would never go anywhere looking like that.
It will brand us in the wrong direction, which reads as awkward. Pearls and caviar are different than beer and nachos, you dig? And trying to look younger than we are reads desperate.
It will bring out the worst in our body, skin and face. Look at those shadows, unflattering angles, and the cold, dull quality of my skin.
It will be boring or unmemorable. Elly who?
A great headshot looks “just like me”. I prefer to do my own makeup for headshots. I want casting directors and agents to say, “Wow, you look JUST like your headshot!” Tons of makeup and excessive Photoshop are unnecessary when the photographer is a master of light. Good lighting will do most of the work.
A great headshot executes a clear brand. For example, I’m interested in roles that play to my true age, sophistication, elegance, credibility, and sexiness. But would you cast that girl on the left as a rich housewife? Or an elegant politician? Or for a high-end luxury brand? No way, no how. She looks like she’s trying (and failing) to compete with the twenty-year old fresh-faced talent, going out for Burger King commercials. Branding is key!
A great headshot stands out among pages of thumbnails with an “IT” factor. Creating that subtext of, “I know something you don’t know”, or “I have a secret,” creates a bit of mystery. Casting directors have a reason to get to know you.
So how can we get as close as possible to headshot nirvana?
First, we must honestly assess ourselves and know our types. There are articles, workshops, and books on personal branding. Do your research. Then have a conversation with your photographer about what types of characters you currently book, or would like to book.
Get a recommended photographer. I chose the first guy who looked “ok” on a Google search, and I paid dearly for that mistake. Anyone can make an amazing looking website. Get a personal recommendation.
Be prepared to spend some money. People who know what they are doing are somewhat expensive. Don't go to the taco stand expecting filet, and don't try to get filet for the price of a taco. Spend the money. It cost me twice as much to correct my terrible headshots with mediocre ones than it cost me to do it with the right photographer.
Look for chemistry between you and the photographer. Do you like this person? Do they listen and understand your needs, or are they more interested in playing “director” and forcing the outcomes?
The session should feel natural and flowing, like you’re shooting a video. On my first shoot, it felt like he was hitting the gas, hitting the breaks, hitting the gas, hitting the breaks. I got so seasick I wanted to barf. I should have figured out that we wouldn’t play well together before I paid him. My bad.
Lastly—and this one is personal advice—show up to your consultation, and to your shoot, in “audition mode”. At my first shoot, I thought, they are doing my hair and makeup, so why should I bother getting all prettied up? They need to know who they are shooting, that’s why! And if we show up looking all tired and pedestrian, they have to work twice as hard to figure us out.
We can help them right off the bat by projecting the correct image. I can hardly blame a photographer for his disinterest if I arrive in yoga pants and a scrunchie. What's so special about her? Unfortunately, that muddied branding gets reflected in the final product. So when I shot with Paul, I made sure that he had a sense of my identity as soon as I walked in the door.
So no more bad headshots. Ok? I’m glad we had this talk.