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Headshot Advice

Name That Tune

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Name That Tune
"I Am What I Am" and "I've Gotta Be Me" are two song titles that should be mantras for every actor when it comes to headshots. Your photos should look just like you on a really good day. But as I've learned in my years as a photographer, not every actor has a realistic take on his or her looks or castability.

Several years ago, an actor about to graduate from college came to me to get her first headshots taken. She bore a striking resemblance to Jennifer Aniston. We had an excellent session, resulting in headshots that represented her truthfully and at her best. After seeing the headshots, one of her classmates met with me about possibly doing a session. She too had a great look. She was 4 foot 10, heavyset, with buck teeth, big curly red hair, and a face full of freckles. As she looked through my portfolio, she kept landing on the headshots of leading ladies and proclaiming, "That's what I want to look like in my headshot." When I asked her how she saw herself within the business, she responded, "I'm a Sandra Bullock type."

One of the biggest complaints that casting directors and agents have is when actors don't represent themselves honestly in their photos. A skilled photographer can take headshots of a character actor and make her look like a leading lady through the use of lighting and makeup. This misguided actor then uses the headshot, gets called in for meetings for inappropriate roles, and wastes the time of the agent or casting director. In such instances, I blame the photographer as much as the actor. A headshot photographer must have an understanding of casting and the business and must be honest with an actor when he or she is off-track. Sadly, that is not always the case.

Which brings us back to the character actor looking through my portfolio and expecting me to make her look like Sandra Bullock. The moment of truth: I took a deep breath and told her straight that she was not the leading-lady type but that her unique look would ensure her a fair share of character roles with which she could sustain a very successful career. Her reaction? Exit stage right.

I assumed she went out and found someone to take her headshots in the misleading way she wanted. I was pleasantly surprised a number of weeks later when I received a call from her. She told me that what I said had really jolted her, that she spoke about it with her acting teachers and classmates and they agreed with how I typed her. She asked them how they saw her and what roles they thought she would play. She gained a more realistic insight into the best way to market herself in her headshots. She thanked me for my honesty, booked a session, and turned out to be a delight to photograph. Her headshots looked just like her and helped get her career off to the right start.

So when you interview potential headshot photographers, make sure they take an interest in who you are, what kind of roles you have played, and how they see you being cast. Feedback based on that first impression is very helpful. Additionally, look out for a portfolio that consists of nothing but fashion models, as this may indicate that the photographer doesn't specialize in actors' headshots. You need to see yourself within a photographer's book. If you don't, then politely ask if he or she can show you some images of people who look like you. Celebrate your uniqueness and put your best face forward.

Lighting is another important consideration. There's daylight, studio lighting (flash or continuous lighting), and mixed lighting (a combo of studio and daylight). Photographers often tout the lighting they use as the best thing since Michelangelo. In my opinion, one type of lighting is no better than the next; it all comes down to the skill of the photographer in using that particular type of lighting. Nowadays the key to lighting a headshot is to keep it looking natural. Extreme stylized lighting—headshots that look "lit"—has gone the way of the black-and-white headshot: Both have faded into oblivion. Casting directors want to see the real you, not a photographer's over-the-top concept. A picture says a thousand words, and one look at a headshot photographer's portfolio will give you an illuminating answer as to whether his or her lighting is modern and right for you.

Setting the mood

"Put On a Happy Face" is easier said than done for a lot of actors when faced with the prospect of getting new headshots. When I first started doing headshots, I expected every actor who stepped in front of my camera to be very excited and ready to give 'em the old "Razzle Dazzle." What I have learned over the years is that for many, this could not be further from the truth. For some, a photography studio is a little shop of horrors.

Nothing illustrated this better than when a Broadway star booked a session over the phone after seeing the headshots I had done for a castmate. The day of the shoot arrived, there was a knock on my door, and I expected the actor to enter my studio ready to put on a Broadway show. To my astonishment, when I opened the door I found him collapsed against the door frame, looking like he was about to get a root canal.

"Are you all right?" I asked. "No, I'm not," he said. "I hate getting my headshots done."

I ushered him in, sat him on the couch, and gave him a glass of water. "What have your past sessions been like?" I asked.

"Well, the photographer says, 'Smile,' and I feel phony," he said. "They say, 'Be serious,' and I want to kill them. They pose me and I feel like a prop."

"How do you work with an actor during a headshot session?" is an important question to ask potential photographers. Great headshot photographers need to be great directors. They must have an understanding of the personality they are working with and be willing to change the direction they offer to suit that particular actor. But what do you do if you end up working with a headshot photographer who is not exactly on point when it comes to giving you the right direction?

When you act, you have your script, your acting partner, your method of working. When you're standing in front of the still camera, it's a different genre, so to speak. My suggestion is to bring all your acting skills to your headshot session. You can work with intentions, actions, sense memory. You can communicate into the camera as if you were delivering specific messages to a particular person. You can have music playing that makes you feel a certain way. You can recite a monologue out loud or in your head. You can pretend to be a particular character for the moment, as it may connect you to a side of your personality that will be valuable to have captured in your headshot. You may be extremely connected with your body, so movement might make you feel more relaxed or help tell a story about your personality. All the while, keep in mind that the end result must be a headshot that is true to you.

After sharing these ideas with the camera-shy Broadway actor, he suddenly had an epiphany. "Why haven't I thought of that?" he exclaimed. As the camera shutter clicked away, he "Put On a Happy Face" and brilliantly gave 'em the old "Razzle Dazzle." He was empowered and soon had the headshots to prove it.

So whether you aspire to play Romeo or Juliet, Alban or Albert Peterson, Henry V or Joan of Arc, remember that a great headshot is a killer weapon to have in an industry where you must battle to achieve your dreams.



Douglas Gorenstein just finished photographing headshots for next season's celebrity cast of "The Apprentice." In 2010, he was voted one of two favorite headshot photographers in New York by the readers of Back Stage. He travels to acting programs around the country providing aspiring actors with headshots. His book "Holy Headshot!," published by Simon & Schuster, was endorsed by Jimmy Fallon and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. His website is at www.douglasgorenstein.com.


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