Select Page

In my last post, I promised to get back to the topic of how you can articulate your vision  to a photographer so that you get the kind of headshots / promo shots you want AND need to get work.

I look at head-shots a bit differently from most agents or event planners because I’m also trained as a professional photographer, so I can dissect what makes one headshot awesome while another one sucks. While I’m consciously aware of these criteria, most people notice them and still use them to categorize the good from the bad – it’s just that most people who are NOT pro photographers will do this subconsciously and may not be able to articulate why they feel one image is good and another pales in comparison. But they’ll get the same impression.

So here are the first things I look for in a headshot:

The first thing I notice is connection. This is established through eye contact, in a photo just the same as it does in person. So if your photo doesn’t have you looking at the camera, it is not a proper headshot. At least not for this business. Your headshot needs to project the image that will SELL you to your ideal client. [This is not the modeling world where you can get away with looking away from the camera and looking sulky or pissed off. And last time I checked, none of my clients have ever said they want to work with a thought leader who has a foul mood or a diva attitude.]

A good headshot should be in tack-sharp focus around your eyes. The focus may fall off or soften elsewhere, but the closest eye to the camera should be the sharpest in focus. It shouldn’t fall off so far that the rest of the picture is flat-out blurry, but it can definitely be a bit softer on your shoulders if it’s just a headshot.

That being said, if it’s a full body shot or even a 3/4 or 1/2 body shot, the whole image should be nice and sharp. But always, your eyes should be the sharpest thing in the image.

It truly is all about the eyes because the next thing I notice is whether there is light in the eyes. If not, eyes tend to look dead and dull. Look around at some pictures on the internet and see if you can notice what we call catchlights in the eyes of the person. I can look at a model’s eyes and figure out how the photographer lit the image based on the reflection of lights in his or her eyes. You’ll want nice, pretty catchlights in your eyes because again, this is right where you want your viewer to be drawn to. Big, pretty catchlights make eyes look alive. It’s that little “twinkle” in the eyes that makes them look interesting and engaging.

Expression is the next most important factor. You don’t have to be smiling like a toothpaste ad (or as my Russian friends used to tease me when I was a foreign exchange student, “You Americans smile with all 32 teeth!”), but you should look pleasant and approachable. Think of your headshots as COMMERCIAL headshots and not THEATRICAL headshots. In the acting world, theatrical headshots project a serious, moody image that is meant to show that you can tackle gritty roles as an actor, and perhaps to make you look a bit older than you really are. Commerical headshots are meant to make you look fresh, friendly, and perhaps a bit younger than you really are – like someone who’s easy to work with and very likable.

Now let’s talk about those body shots… One of the most painful things to look at is someone who is so obviously posed and NOT comfortable in front of the camera. Make sure you get that good vibe with your photographer and ask them to coach you through a series of movements – stay AWAY from the standard poses! Don’t get all stiff and rigid, or it will totally show in your finished pictures.

The best thing you can do to get natural body language is get to a point where you trust your photographer and feel confident allowing them to guide your movement. A pro photographer should know which angles are most flattering on your body type and be encouraging you the whole time to keep you engaged and feeling the flow. That’s THEIR job, not yours. Again, this is why it’s important to hire a professional to do this, not your random uncle who owns a fancy camera. The pros know how to coach clients to get the best results, the ones that deliver the images you asked them for, and that will quickly repay you in gigs for the investment you had to make to get the pictures taken.

Ask your photographer NOT to retouch your skin so much that you look like your skin is plastic. If you’re really 40, you don’t need to look like you’re 20 – this goes for guys as well as ladies! Ask the photographer to have their retouching artist remove obvious blemishes or flaws (say your cat scratched your cheek or something like that), but the images still need to be an accurate representation of you. Just think of it as you on your best day, rested and polished. Most flaws can be corrected before the image is taken – like stray hairs or wrinkles in clothes – so be proactive during your session. Do a quick mirror-check before you start shooting to make sure you don’t have lipstick on your teeth or something obvious like that.

And if you haven’t updated your headshots in the past year, please do. Nothing looks as bad as a picture that’s obviously dated – whether by hairstyle or wardrobe or the photography style itself. That tells me that you’re either too cheap to keep your image updated, or you haven’t worked in several years, both of which would render you irrelevant and outdated. Most professional actors get new headshots done every year at the least. You age – that’s natural. So should your pictures. Just do it gracefully.

One of the best things you can do is to have your headshots taken on a plain white background. Then your designer can easily cut you out of the pictures and drop them into your promo pieces. Nothing is quite as much of a pain as trying to cut someone out of those mottled blue or gray or brown high-school portrait backgrounds (that’s one of my  biggest peeves, from having had to do this myself many times).

Now that being said, properly lighting a white background is pretty tricky and it takes SEVERAL lights to do it right so you don’t get funky shadows in the background. So you’ll have to ask your photographer to make sure they light you so it’s easy to separate you from the background. This is called high key lighting, and if you can ask them for that, then it’s easier to translate what you want into their language.

All of this doesn’t cover styling or grooming, but I figure that should go without saying. It helps to consult a professional stylist when putting together your outfits. And you should definitely show up looking your best: hair styled nicely, face looking spiffy – facial hair manicured nicely for guys, make-up done nicely for ladies. Think of your photo session as the ultimate job interview – so show up looking like you are there to get HIRED, because these pictures are going to be the visual resume that could generate you hundreds or thousands of new job offers!