I came across one of those comical memes the other day on Instagram that read: "Headshots, I see headshots everywhere!" With so many people needing/wanting headshots for a variety of reasons and so many photographers shooting them, I thought I'd do a quick post about "what a headshot is exactly." I'm going to focus mostly on headshots for actors as I figure that when most people think of a headshot they think of actors. If you're an actor, your headshot is one of the most critical tools to your career. Before getting a new one, it's important to have an idea of what a headshot is exactly. Your headshot should be an accurate representation of you that allows others to see you and consider you for a particular role. The key is not to try and play a role in your headshot but to simply play YOU. If you're the shy quiet type, girl or guy next door, your headshot should reflect that. On the other hand, if you're the vixen or hunk next door, then your shot should reflect that. Just don't get headshots that make you look like the exact opposite of who you really are simply because you want to go out for other types of roles.
Now, let's talk about how headshots have changed over the last 10 years or so. Prior to the explosion of digital photography, headshots were shot on film and were pretty standard: portrait orientation and in black & white. In recent times most headshots are the exact opposite: landscape orientation and in color. The reasons for the change from b&w to color is pretty much because of the lower cost of digital over film. As for the orientation, just as our home televisions went from a "square" to the more theatrical rectangle (widescreen), the headshots these days just seem to look more...well....theatrical when presented in landscape orientation and overall, that's a better look for actors. It allows for casting directors and whomever to see the actor as they would on screen. This of course, is not hard science. Do people still do b&w, portrait orientation headshots? Probably not so much b&w and the orientation is just a matter of choice but in my opinion, landscape is the new preferred standard and quite popular.
Here's my "old school" acting headshot from awhile back. B&W / Portrait orientation.
Okay, so with that out of the way, I'd like to get into more specifics about the actual "shot." I have seen photos labeled as "headshots" and they're full length body photos or three-quarter shots. The full length "modeling" shot is in my opinion DEFINITELY NOT appropriate for a headshot. The three-quarter shot, that's more a matter of taste. However, I will say it's not the standard these days and it's not the best shot for an actor. A headshot should be exactly what it says - A shot of the actor's head! Okay, well, not just their head. The best shots work from about chest level up. I personally like to produce headshots that are pretty tightly cropped and in close. I think it's best to put the actors eyes, smile, personality right in your face! When casting directors and such are pursuing hundreds of photos, they want to come across your shot and be immediately drawn in. A three-quarter shot does not offer the same connection. On the other hand, for corporate shots or a real estate headshot, the three-quarter will usually be fine and is pretty typical. Again, as with the previous information, this is all a matter of opinion and quite subjective. There are a few other considerations regarding a proper headshot like wardrobe choices and whether indoor studio shots or outdoor location shots are best. Either work and truly, it's just a matter of taste.
Above is a 3/4 shot I did some time ago. This doesn't really work for a headshot. More a corp/real estate shot or even LinkedIn profile shot.
Something else to address when it comes to headshots, is the type of headshot an actor requires. There are two basic shots - Theatrical and commercial. The theatrical is more, leading man/leading lady shot that tends to be dramatic and usually serious. A commercial shot is more....fun and will usually showcase the actor with a big, bright, welcoming smile that says "hey, I can sell toothpaste and Toyotas! It's not that a theatrical shot can' t feature a smile, it's just the type of smile and the type of energy the shot conveys will be slightly different. I'm writing all of this from the perspective of a photographer that shoots headshots. Which leads me to the next point. With so many photographers out there and so many claiming to do headshots, it's critically important to make sure you're actually hiring a HEADSHOT photographer to shoot yours. A photographer that only shoots hotels and real estate interiors may very well know how to take a picture of someone but it's not their expertise. A person who shoots fashion models of course can shoot people (sometimes, lol.) , but again, the specifics of a headshot, the nuance and understanding the process is something that takes time, practice and a dedication to that one specific genre. Just learning to coach actors to get the best out of them for their shots is completely different than directing the facial expressions and poses of a model. Understanding the positioning, angles and subtle changes in head tilt and position are what a seasoned headshot photographer will offer. Not to mention the proper lighting and quality of the overall image. You want a photographer that's seasoned at getting the very best out of you as an actor to convey who you really are and what roles you're best for.
Headshot from recent session with a New York actress Kayla. Color, landscape and pretty close crop.
So in closing, if you're pursuing headshot photography, really take the time to understand what exactly a headshot is and for what purpose(s) such headshot(s) may be used for. Understand the differences and provide your clients the understanding even when they don't fully comprehend the differences themselves. Don't be surprised if a client doesn't have any idea what type of headshot they need or what makes a great one. That's what they come to you for! It's a huge responsibility shooting actors headshots. Their pictures are either going to get them in the door or....not. Sometimes, it's truly just a matter of having the RIGHT shot that says enough about the person. If you're an actor in need of headshots, take your time, understand what makes a great headshot and research photographers before putting your money down. If you find a photographer that's a "Jack or Jane of all trades" you may want to think twice and find someone who truly knows their craft and has the experience. If you're taking yourself and career as an actor seriously at all, find a HEADSHOT photographer, NOT a photographer that also does....headshots.