tips for actor’s headshots that help you clinch an audition

actor's headshot of a young aspiring actress with hooded shirt

an actor’s head shot is a ‘head and shoulder’ photograph that gives a casting agent a good idea of what you look like. while you can have all types of vanity portraits, for an actor, a great headshot should get you noticed by a director when considering you for a role in a movie or play. so your snapshot should pop at a glance. if you’ve been wondering what makes a good headshot for actors, follow these guidelines for great shots that will get you closer to an audition.

1. follow the trends
headshot of an female aspiring actor in washington dcheadshots used to be 8″x10″ black & white prints submitted casting calls. as times change, it’s now acceptable to send color prints. you can also upload to an agency’s website digital files that can be viewed on a computer. so before sending pictures, make sure that you understand what the preferred format and medium are. color gives a more natural-looking photo because it can give information about your hair color, eye color and complexion in a true rendition.

2. make the backdrop plain

since your headshot is about you, your face should be the main focus of the image and nothing should distract from it. when taking photos in a studio, request a plain white, black or neutral grey background. if the shoot is taking place on-location, make sure that the scenery is as uncluttered as possible. a good photographer will make sure that everything behind the subject is as unified in color as possible and will throw it out of focus.

3. look unique

headshot of an aspiring actor in dc with a smirkyou cannot be looking at the camera like you’re taking passport or id photos. an id is just a document that shows your features in a neutral way. a headshot is supposed to dig deeper into your personality and reveal your character. so you must show more than just your face. you can do so by varying expressions, poses and smiles. there’s almost an infinite range of emotions that you can express in every shot the camera captures. make it interesting. make it you-nique

4. look natural

what makes a good headshot is the ability to express something unique about you and show your character. a person looking at an image of you should be able to have an idea if you can fit a role. so when you sit in front of the photographer, you first need to feel relaxed. look straight through the lens as if to make eye contact with someone in front of you. try to act like you’re not in front of a camera and look natural. focus on the persona that you want to audition for and play the part as if you were acting. if a casting director is looking for a character, you have to have something in your look, to grab their attention. try to look the part so that people can easily connect with you. at any rate, be yourself. don’t try to be someone else.

5. focus your eyes
headshot of a young actor in dc looking fixedlylike they say ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’, great focus should be given to your eyes. let your eyes be the window through which people can peek into your mind. it’s important that you look into the lens and pose as if someone is looking at you. just avoid the expressionless look of the wide-open eyes that are appropriately named ‘deer in the headlights’ look. rather, show that you’re pondering, observing something, or expressing a state of mind.  having a straight poised look reveals your character, shows confidence and also says that you don’t have anything to hide.

6. keep lighting simple

though you may have your artistic preferences, keep in mind that you’re trying to sell yourself.  your face is an open book. it should be lit in such a way that no part of it is in such shadow that you cannot distinguish features. for drama, it is acceptable to have high contrast lighting to emphasize some features like a chilling look, enigmatic smile or tension. but for commercial work, it is preferable that you look the way you do in normal lighting. soft light that reveals all the contours of the face always works best.

7. do not obstruct your face

unlike portraiture, in a head shot you cannot let lighting or props hide some of your features. nothing should obstruct from your face. your hair shouldn’t mask your eyes or frame your face in such a way it hides your jawline. you should keep your hands or fingers away from your mouth or cheek. do not rest your chin on your hand, or wrap your face around your palms. anything that’s very close to your face may distract from it. some poses with your fingers may look cool to you or your photographer but someone considering you for an audition may wonder if you’re trying to hide something.

8. keep clothes simple

actor's headshot of a young black man in dcto help keep the focus on your face, wear clothes in neutral colors and in shades that are not too bright. avoid at all costs stripes, checkered patterns, floral and multicolored clothes. the cut of your neckline is also important as showing too much cleavage draws the eye where the focus shouldn’t be. do you have a long neck, short neck? try some variations in the neckline that is more flattering to your shape. v-necks, collared shirts and dresses with scooped necks work better as they follow the contour of the neckline. if you have a long neck, a dark turtleneck will give the impression it’s shorter.

9. do not use props or  accessories

do not wear earrings or accessories that might distract from the face. a small shiny object or one with an unusual shape can draw too much attention to itself. so if you have fancy jewelry, it’s better to replace them with less conspicuous pieces. also avoid headgear and if you have to wear prescription glasses, try to have some shots with and without, so you have options. any other adornments should be kept to a minimum – unless the role calls for tattoos, piercings etc…

10. don’t overdo makeup and hair

headshot of an actress in dc with hair masking part of her eyea head shot is not a glamour shot or a portrait that shows you in a subjective light. don’t go crazy with makeup. women should use a professional makeup artist. if you choose to do it yourself, keep it minimal. if you’re doing your own makeup, also make sure that it’s not too powdery as it may give your photos the look of jcpenney studio portraits. avoid sunscreens. they reflect too much light and can make your pictures look cheesy. you don’t need to use a hairstylist. you can do your hair as you would to look your best. if you have long hair, insist that the photographer take some shots with the hair down and the hair pulled up. make sure that no hair bangs partially mask one eye or cover one side of your face. men may or may not use makeup, as long as they make sure the skin is not too shiny. a decent haircut before the day of the shoot will do fine. add some hair spray to add some sheen and tame those unruly flyaway hair.

11. get impeccable grooming

when you submit your snapshots, there are little details that people will pay attention to. so you should look your best. men should get a haircut a day or two before the shoot and bring some pomade or spray depending on hair type. aside from that, you should be groomed the way you normally look. if you have scars, skin blemishes and other imperfections, hiding them may not be helpful. any gimmick used to alter the photograph, will show a fake image of yourself. men sometimes wonder ‘should I shave or grow a beard?’ there’s no clear-cut answer to that question. it all boils down to which roles do you see yourself playing. if you have a long beard that you want to keep, then you may be stuck with it. but if you shave regularly, the easiest way to solve that issue is to take some photos with a beard and some without. walk into the studio with a stubble and after a few shots, go to the restroom, shave and take a few more with a clean shave.

12. look professional

it may be tempting to take a selfie looking in the mirror but a low quality snapshot will give a poor impression of yourself. find a photography studio that specializes in taking professional headshots. get some recommendations from people you know. read reviews on google or yelp. go to the photographer’s website and look at their work. compare with other photographers in your area. also, importantly, check their prices. you don’t want to spend a fortune for photographs. by all means, try to get the very best product at a price that won’t break the bank.

13. do not sexualize your headshots

when you’re taking your photos, don’t try to look too flirty, unless you want to audition for a seductress. women should avoid dresses that show too much cleavage as it may divert attention from the eyes. if you’re a guy, do not pose in nude torso to show your biceps or have unbuttoned shirts that show too much hairy chest. not only does it distract but it will also send the wrong message about your professionalism. it’s more appropriate to wear something more conservative with  a close neckline and in subdued colors. no shirts with explicit messages. tattoos too close to the face should be hidden unless they are directly on the face – which  should be avoided as they can be limiting.

14. do not fake it

of course your ultimate goal is to impress at casting calls so that you will be called in for an audition.  but a good advice is to keep things in good perspective. check your look and decide what role you can fit. rehearse the part and try to look credible in that role. if you have a goofy look, you can play that up but don’t go overboard. if you’re the more serious type, don’t try look something that you are not. it will come off as fake. any exaggerated poses or expressions will get you noticed for all the wrong reasons. you don’t have to dress like a clown to prove that you can be funny. also, if you have a baby face, you would have a hard time convincing a director that you could play a mobster. in the same vein, if the background is not plain, it should match the part.

15. keep it up to date

actor's headshot of a black man in light pink shirtif you send snapshots for an audition, people expect you to look contemporary. you should avoid trends that make your pictures look dated. it may be clothes, accessories or props, some hair cuts or styles. if your look changes, like you cut your hair short, change its color or you grow a beard, you should update your headshots to your present look.

16. studio or on-location?

you may be wondering should you shoot in studio or in natural light?’ the natural light vs studio lighting debate may be raging but light is light. there are not quality differences. the studio offers the advantage of flexibility because the photographer has complete control over lighting.  when you shoot outside, you will need for the sun to cooperate. there are also environmental factors that come into play. I have written an extensive article on the differences between studio or on-location.

 more headshot advice:

  • prepare for the shoot and be relaxed. gym, good night sleep.
  • find poses that you’re comfortable with. practice in front of a mirror
  • don’t pose in a way that is contrived, unnatural or uncomfortable
  • try to impress your photographer. if the photographer is impressed, maybe a director will be
  • make sure that the picture that you have now looks exactly like you
  • have as many headshots as looks that you believe you can impersonate.
  • have a good supply of prints at all times with you.

further reading

more advice for actor’s headshots from backstage

professional headshots: 7 steps for your best headshot ever – ace your audition

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  1. maxwell says

    Amazing article, and I also like to add that young actors and actresses whole frame is growing and changing, and probably resulting time for an update more frequently.

  2. Jenny Allen says

    Souleye is fantastic–works quickly and reasonably, takes great shots, and makes the session fun.