The headshot. It’s more than a photo—it's a first impression. A visual handshake. An opportunity for actors to introduce themselves and a way for a casting director to remember performers after they have left the audition.
Given the importance of a headshot in the theatre industry, the form has become an art in itself with many photographers bringing their creative eye to the genre. Whether you are looking to get new photos in the New Year or a photographer looking to hone your craft, check out these tips from five photographers on creating the perfect headshot.
My best advice for actors getting new headshots: Do the prep work you deem necessary beforehand, but when you walk in for your session, throw caution to the wind. Be open to exploration.
As much as we want to avoid diminishing the artistry for both photographer and actor, we have to acknowledge that headshots are an important marketing tool for actors. Once an actor is in the studio, no matter how they’ve prepared, I’ll help capture a range of moods for different submissions with wardrobe, color, location, and light. The most engaging images will be the ones where people are relaxed and unapologetically themselves. To get an actor into that space, we play with acting prompts, talk about life, make endless silly jokes, dance, and occasionally breathe through moments of quiet. There’s less emphasis during the process on capturing the “perfect” headshot and more focus on being human. I like giving space to actors to reveal through imagery how their unique multidimensional personalities shine beyond the confines of the industry's standard boxes. That may look like expressing themselves with simple/minimal styling and pure energy through the eyes, or inversely with hyper-stylized imagery to “show” how they can break a specific mold. Whatever route an individual takes in the headshot process, the overarching theme is always who the human being in front of the camera is at their core.
I’ve worked as a headshot photographer for over a decade in New York City, and if there’s one key I feel I’ve found in that time, it all boils down to curiosity. The client should be curious to explore the different facets of their personality, and the photographer should be curious to unearth them. Ask lots of questions at your shoot and keep the conversation going.
My approach has always been very social, and above all, I want the client to have fun. If there’s stress involved, it shows in the shot. I aim to create a welcoming, comfortable, enjoyable space from the moment people arrive to the moment they leave. Now, that doesn’t mean we won’t get serious if we need to, but our baseline should always be a place of joy. Don’t be afraid to feel like a fool; that’s usually where the magic happens.
In terms of preparation, a little work can go a long way. Remember that every photographer isn’t right for every client, and when you’re going through the selection process, I always recommend finding a photographer who has worked with people you know. That gives you a chance to see if their portrait looks and feels like the person photographed. Casting directors don’t want a glam, editorial shot; they want you looking like your most authentic self. Before your shoot, get some rest, stay hydrated, and spend some time reflecting on yourself as an artist. That may seem big, but journaling and discussing your career with peers and your management can help you arrive with a clear sense of what you’re trying to convey in your shots.
Once you’ve selected a photographer, take the time to write down a list of goals for the shoot. This can be as abstract as words that describe you and the different facets of your personality, or as specific as saying, “I want this photo to book me a job as Jenna in Waitress." Then think about the clothes that reflect those words and goals. Most importantly, at my shoots, I want you to create a playlist, and don’t afraid to be bold. If Top 40 pop is your jam and you want to feel bopped up all day, go for it. Beethoven? Yes, queen. But more often than not I suggest using music as a character tool for getting into the vibe for the different moods you hope to portray in the image.
I believe my super power is creating a space where people truly feel themselves—where they feel seen and heard. And, with a headshot, a photo that captures your essence is what will set you apart.
I take a collaborative approach, working with the client to give them an edge in the industry with shots that are unique, effortless, and diverse. Along with this, the shoot itself is like hanging out with an old friend and often brings lots of laughter.
Clients walk away with photos that affirm who they are as an artist and as a person and with a new fan (me!).
Oftentimes, we forget exactly what a headshot is. Let’s think about the simplest reason: identification. For around a hundred years, the headshot has served that purpose in our industry, but recently, the stakes have certainly been raised. Headshots are no longer just for identification, they are a tool for the actor to get into the audition room. As the theatre industry has swelled to such a monstrous size, we’ve seen fads and purposes in headshot photography change. Whether or not we need the headshot for our SVU, or Mary Poppins, or King Lear auditions, they tend to require different vibes which capture the attention of a casting director. But just like a "perfect" performance, the “perfect” headshot doesn’t exist. It might serve a purpose for you in that moment and convey what you need, but as our life goes on, our stories will also change; therefore, that photograph won’t suit you anymore.
I have one rule for headshots, and that’s to commit to the story you want to portray in this photographic moment. It’s all about the emotion and the energy of the photo. In my opinion, if you want to use a photo where you’re not even looking at the lens, and you can justify your reason, go for it. A headshot needs to reflect your energies and your efforts as an actor. Every single person will have an opinion on what you can and cannot use in an audition room, but really, you’re the person who gets to decide.
With every session, our main goal is to make our clients feel confident, at ease, and one hundred percent like themselves. If you are feeling great and enjoying yourself, that energy is going to shine through in every photo. Most clients begin by telling us they "hate having their headshots taken,” and that’s no fun for anyone! We are on a mission to change this mentality. With our collective experiences as performers and filmmakers, we understand the importance of having headshots that capture a client’s personality and range while ensuring that their images stand out in a sea of thumbnails. As our industry has shifted so heavily into the digital sphere, headshots are serving as an actor’s first introduction now more than ever.
In our experience, preparation is key to making the most of a headshot session. Talking with representation, peers, teachers, or people who know you and your work, investing time in pulling together wardrobe options, and having a clear idea of what you’d like to capture during your session is what will take a shoot to the next level. There are so many incredible photographers in New York City that regardless of who you work with, you will have great shots to choose from. By putting in that extra effort in advance, you and your photographer will be able to communicate and collaborate on creating images that represent your true self and everything you have to offer.