She's ready for her close-up.
February 25, 2010 10:56 AM   Subscribe

My mom has discovered acting in her retirement, and wants me to shoot a headshot for her. I can shoot a portrait fine (gear and technique), but I have no idea what to do for an actor's headshot. Can someone in the business tell me what you'd want from a headshot for an older woman?

My mom has been doing some acting in her retirement--some extra work, and a couple of bit parts on TV. She'd like me to shoot some headshots for her to send to casting agents.

I shoot a lot of portraits generally, but I've never shot a headshot. I can't even remember the last time I saw a headshot. For those who know, what do you look for in promo shots for talent?

Some of the variables I'm thinking of off the bat--

What length?

Should they all be smiling?

What poses?

White/black backdrop? On location? (Note that this is in NYC, and anything outside is cold.)

What should she be wearing? Any thoughts on makeup/hair?

How many different setups would you expect to see? One closeup, one 1/2 length?

Since she's an older woman (and primarily expecting character work), should we do one "in character" (i.e., as some sort of lady who lunches)?

Are casting agents for film, theatre and TV looking for different things, or would the same shot(s) suffice for all three?

Any other tips? Thanks!
posted by Admiral Haddock to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't really work in the "industry," but I make independent films, and I'm looking at gobs of headshots right now.

On my first round of screening, I look for people who look like I imagine the character. So yeah, have her dress and look like the type of character she's going for. Even I, a nobody with no budget, get deluged with hundreds of headshots for every role I post. Her best bet is to find a niche and play it up.

if you're going the "old fashioned" route, you send one glossy headshot with a resume on the back. But that's on its way out now. Most submissions are online now, and most of people are using sites like Actor's Access, where you can post as many pictures as you want.

The biggest thing I have taken away from casting, personally, is that everyone seems to think they *have* to look like the cliched headshot. So you get 1000s of pictures that all have that same pose with the head kinda cocked, same lighting, same everything. But the people I give auditions to tend to be the ones that ignored convention and went their own way (within reason).
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:16 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Note that if she has a reel, you can also post that on Actor's Access and other sites. I give preference to people with reels posted (assuming they're good), because I know something about their acting before they come in.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:24 AM on February 25, 2010

I am not a casting director. I'm also a headshot photographer (link in profile; I won't put it here). I think that getting input from a casting director or agent is a great idea. Those in the business will have a better idea of what is needed for her type.

From a photography standpoint: if you know how to shoot a portrait, headshots should be easy. The key is even lighting.

To answer your questions ---
*What length?
Headshots should be 8x10. Typically headshots are portait style (8w x 10h), but they can also be landscape style. The headshot should be composed exactly as it sounds - close in on the face. Most headshots I have seen are three-quarters (shoulders and face) or closer.

*Should they all be smiling?
No. More on this in the answer re:film vs theatre.

*What poses?
The key is for the subject to be comfortable. Try out different things. For the love of God, no chin resting on your hands, this isn't a glamor shot. (This is highly subjective.)

*White/black backdrop? On location? (Note that this is in NYC, and anything outside is cold.)
I would go on white or grey, if you're going to do a solid background. I am a headshot photographer and shoot on location. I don't think it really matters, as long as the background does not distract.

*What should she be wearing? Any thoughts on makeup/hair?
Makeup should be done, not as heavy as stage makeup, but something to even out skin tone and draw attention to the eyes. Neutral makeup is best. Same goes for clothing. Simple cuts, easy colors (I try to steer clients away from white and black, but some people can rock it), no distracting patterns. The point is the face, not the clothes. Hair should be done how your mother prefers to wear it - just make sure it is not in her eyes.

*How many different setups would you expect to see? One closeup, one 1/2 length?
If she's working with an agent, you could ask the agent what they suggest. This is more of a casting director question ...

*Since she's an older woman (and primarily expecting character work), should we do one "in character" (i.e., as some sort of lady who lunches)?
Character headshots are tough to nail, and they can only be used for very specific parts. You'd be better off having her aim for a few looks - "friendly open easy-going" person, and perhaps a "serious wise old woman" - this can be accomplished through expression and framing. Since you're probably not going to be charging her for every different look, try out a few different things.

*Are casting agents for film, theatre and TV looking for different things, or would the same shot(s) suffice for all three?
Yes, they look for different things. If you google for "commercial / theatrical" headshots you'll learn more about this. Typically (though not always), commercial are the smiling, happy ones, and theatrical are more serious.

*Any other tips? Thanks!
Have fun. Shoot a lot. Focus on the eyes. Crop wide in camera, because you'll lose a lot if you're shooting 4x6 when you have to crop it to 8x10 for your finals. Keep it simple. Again, have fun. It will make your mother relaxed, and that's when you'll get a really great shot.

For examples of what I consider to be wonderful headshots, you can look through Jordan Matter's portfolio (he's a NYC photographer), and Peter Hurley's portfolio (he's in LA). I have no personal connection to either of these photographers, I just think they take great photos.

Memail me if you have any specific questions. I'd be happy to elaborate on anything.
posted by kellygrape at 11:36 AM on February 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Regional stage actor and director here.

One color, one black and white. Can be the same or different shot for color/bw. Can be either vertical or horizontal. When submitting, pay attention to see if they are asking for a color or b/w or if they don't care.

Some directors do like a smile because the actors seem personable, but some actors don't smile well, or can do a closed mouth smile.

I would not do a wacky character shot, it seems amateurish to me. Plus, it needs to look like her. The worst thing is to have an actor walk in and look like a totally different person.

Wear solid colors to not distract from the face.

If she has a type, dress like that. If she is playing neighborly, don't wear business attire, and vice versa. If she has more than one type, do one of each. I have a serious one and a sexy one.

8 X 10. Name printed on the bottom of the picture where it fits in a straightforward font.

You can find local websites for photographers who do headshots with examples of their work. Styles differ by media type and location.

Take lots and lots and let her decide her favorites, then when it is narrowed down, poll other people, friends and family. A trend will usually emerge as to what people respond to.

Good luck, this is a great project for both you and your Mom.
posted by rainbaby at 11:45 AM on February 25, 2010

NYC theatre director, here.

The number-one thing I look for is personality. I see some photos in which people look attractive but vacant. They are just smiling pleasantly or whatever. No.

The people who catch my interest are the ones that look engaged -- like there's something going on between their ears.

DON'T try to fake engagement. That leads to over-the-top, creepy, "intense" looks. The only reliable way to capture it is with candid shots. So set up the composition and lighting, and then get your mom talking about (or listening to) something she's passionate about. If there's something the two of you disagree about, that's even better. Ask her to prove her side of the argument to you. Or say, "tell me again why you think Mary shouldn't marry that guy she's dating..."

Snap lots of shots while she's talking and pick the one in which she's most attractive and most engaged, going with engaged over attractive. (It drives me nuts when actor friends do the opposite -- failing to choose a really interesting shot because their hair is a little out of place.) I will want to cast her, because she'll seem like an interesting, confident, committed person. I'll assume she'll attack her lines with the same gusto that she's attacking whatever it is that's going on in the photograph.

I hope you understand that I'm not talking about anything extreme. By "engaged," I don't mean she should be baring her fangs. She can just be thinking or looking into the camera, but she should be thinking about SOMETHING pointed and looking because she has a particular, specific relationship with the camera.

When choosing a shot, play particular attention to her eyes. Do they look like they've grasped ahold of something? Good! Do they look unfocused or just "pleasant"? Bad.

Personally, I think most other stuff is bullshit. I'm just talking about myself and my preferences, but black and white vs. color, glossy vs. matte, smiling vs. not smiling... I don't care. I can't imagine casting or not casting someone because their photo was in black and white instead of color. What I want is to pack my plays with the most interesting people I can find.

The one thing I would absolutely stay away from is a "character shot." I'll invite almost anyone to audition -- except the guy wearing the pirate hat, the nutty professor or the Queen of England. Those photos are huge red flags: CRAZY PERSON. I don't mean I think the woman really believe's she's the Queen of England. I mean that more often than not, these people turn out to be convinced that they're WACKY! or whatever. They are like the people on American Idol who try to impress the judges via some gimmick rather than by just singing.

Even if I'm casting "Mary Stuart," I don't want the Queen of England to show up. What I want is someone interesting, someone involved, someone active.
posted by grumblebee at 12:24 PM on February 25, 2010

My production experience has been in the big-budget Hollywood studio world, TV, commercials, independent film, and theater. That said, my advice is going to contradict some other replies here.

Start with one traditional portrait. Vertically-oriented, studio lighting and a black, white or grey backdrop. Then try a stylized, textural "candid." Here in New York, we see plenty of brick wall or Central Park location shots. This way, your mother will have two good options, and depending on the role, she can submit either.

I can see where drjimmy11 is coming from, but there's no sign this way of doing things is on its way out. Actors Access is simply another tool some actors choose. IMDbPro is another. The list goes on.

Casting directors (and sometimes ADs working on lengthy film shoots) keep loads of printed headshots on file. Even in our digital era. Your YouTube reel or Actors Access profile may be seen by a few independent-minded directors, but these should probably be secondary.

TV and commercial casting directors frequently record actors' auditions and callbacks, then post the footage on a private site for the director and producers to review. This is done on a project-by-project basis.

To secure a legitimate audition or even participate in an open call, your mother will almost certainly be required to present an 8"x10" (or 8.5"x11" -- equally acceptable) headshot with a résumé stapled or printed on the reverse.
posted by xndr at 12:31 PM on February 25, 2010

You might want to take a look at some websites of well-known and respected NYC headshot photographers to get a look at some good shots. Jordan Matter did mine, and he's one of the best in the biz.
posted by Evangeline at 1:45 PM on February 25, 2010

Oh sorry - didn't realize kellygrape had already mentioned Jordan!
posted by Evangeline at 1:48 PM on February 25, 2010

I can see where drjimmy11 is coming from, but there's no sign this way of doing things is on its way out.

Admittedly I speak only for my very low-budget self. The reason I said that is that I read somewhere that some casting agencies were no longer keeping files full of hard-copy photos, but just sending everything out electronically. It does make sense to have the hard copy on-hand too, I agree.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:34 PM on February 25, 2010

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