Headshots fascinate me… the whole process. They have nothing whatsoever to do with acting but are such an important part of the business of being an actor. They are photographs of us when our work is about being someone else. We have them done so rarely yet beat ourselves up for not being ‘better’ at having them done. They play a key part in whether we get seen for a role but can give no inkling as to our talent. And most of us put having them taken on a par with a trip to the dentist.
When I was in my final year at drama school I had four lots of headshots done. The first set was unrecognisable – another student literally asked me who they were of. The second set was just dull. The third set was really glamorous – and not me or my casting at all. The final set was wonderful because I looked at them and recognised myself, albeit on a good day. They managed to capture something energetic that suggested who was going to walk through the door. I looked alive and interesting, rather than the usual frightened rabbit who somehow kept appearing in my photos.
I started taking headshots because I didn’t like having my own taken and got fed up with leaving sessions feeling like a bad model, having spent lots of money and with photos of someone who I wouldn’t want to have a cup of tea with, let alone employ. I figured there had to be a way of photographing actors that was more actor-friendly than the usual headshot experience and so set about creating it.
I didn’t want conveyor belt photography – in and out in an hour – but I did want to take time listening to what the actor knows about himself, their face, their casting, thereby creating the session together. I actively sought to move away from the idea of someone who has never met you before imposing their idea of who you are on a very important marketing tool. It fascinates me watching people ‘switch on’ at a certain point during a session. It is at this point that I get an inkling of who they are on stage, rather than just the person in my studio who doesn’t really relish the thought of the headshot process. It’s terribly exciting and rather a privilege. I believe everyone looks beautiful when you get the ‘stuff’ out of the way – there is a purity that shines through and it feels like you are looking right into someone and you know who they are.
These are a few of my thoughts on what makes a good headshot – I want to see the actor in the photograph before I see the style of the person who took the picture. While looking at the chosen shot, I want the feeling that the person is looking back at me; I will then look at it longer because somehow there is a silent communication between the viewer and the sitter. I want to be informed, in a very subtle manner, of the casting range of the actor (are you a Romeo or a Mercutio, a Rosalind or a Portia, for example?). Finally, I want to be drawn into the photograph. Basically, I am seeking charisma.
My advice when choosing a photographer is to do your research. Go to Spotlight and look at photographs of actors who are similar in category, age and sex. Notice whose photographs you like and look at for longer. Do you notice someone's 'house style', or the person in the shot? Then call and see who you feel comfortable with on the phone and decide whether you think you would get on well together. How long does a session last? How are your questions or concerns answered? And go with your instinct. There is something very intimate about being photographed - you are asking a stranger to capture the essence of you in a photograph so feeling safe, heard and comfortable will help you shine more. This is the same concept as risk-taking with a good director because you feel safe with them and trust them not to let you out there looking foolish.
Lastly, do your prep – think about when you are having them done, rather than squeezing them in because you want to tick them off your list. Having your headshots done when you are starting a bug, going through a break-up, or shattered from too many late nights just isn’t going to work. Photos, as you have undoubtedly discovered, are expensive, so protect your investment and prepare as you would for an important audition. Most importantly – don’t underestimate how important you headshot is in getting you through doors. Some of my favourite emails are from clients saying that they are now getting seen by people who wouldn’t previously meet them – it means their pics are working. Your headshots need to work for you.
Charlie Carter is a photographer. You can see her work here.