What to Look For
A successful headshot is accurate and evocative. It absolutely must look like you, in the sense that anyone who knows you even casually will immediately recognize you in the headshot, in both your physical appearance and your essential energy. Beyond that, your headshot must evoke interest, curiosity, and intrigue. Bland or generic headshots are a huge missed opportunity, especially when you consider the vast number of photos seen by agents and casting people every day. It's all about grabbing their attention.
But your headshot also needs to market you. Think about your type, your strengths, your castability. If you can clearly define the way you want to be perceived, you'll have essentially a brand identity. That sounds like marketing-speak, I know, but it's important. An acting career is essentially a small business. You have one product: you. And you have to effectively sell that product to your buyers: agents, casting people, and directors. Picking the right headshot will maximize your chances of making an impact and getting noticed.
Step 1: Review the Proofs
First, you need to narrow down the candidates to a manageable number. Rather than try to consider every aspect of each image, just dive in and simply flag every shot that elicits a strong reaction in you—not just the ones you immediately like but also any that make you pause. Don't think about the details; don't stop to compare shots. This is your first pass; just go with your gut. If you spot some sort of flaw but you respond otherwise, that's okay. You can always cut it later. You may decide to go through the images twice at this stage—that's okay too. Just don't deliberate too much over each image.
If you selected every shot you had a strong reaction to, then you can safely eliminate everything you didn't pick. Your headshots are going to have to provoke a reaction on an emotional level from whoever sees them, so you don't need to bother with the less effective ones.
Now, go through this smaller batch a bit more slowly. Here's where you can eliminate shots that are very similar to another shot, or shots that are clearly weaker than others on closer examination. If it takes more than a couple of seconds to decide whether to keep a shot, just keep it for now and move on.
Next, switch gears and examine what you have left from a nonemotional, business-oriented point of view. Is the shot appropriate for one or more of the types of work you want? The character types you're right for?
Think about your brand—your product—and find the shots that tell the story you want the industry to learn about you. Try to keep your emotions and ego in check during this round. It's very tempting to focus on the shots that are the most flattering to your appearance, but that should not be your only criterion, and probably not your primary focus. Find shots that others will view as an accurate representation of you and your unique essence. Oftentimes what we perceive as our "flaws" are distinctive and appealing to others and make us stand out, so resist the urge to disguise them.
But what if you're one of those people who hate looking at pictures of themselves? There are whole books about accepting yourself as you are rather than how you wish you were, and this is a time to heed that advice. Try to see the whole picture instead of immediately darting your eyes to that (probably tiny) flaw you obsess over. No one else but you is going to do this. Everyone else will look at the eyes first and take in the whole image. Try to see the photo as they will, and lock that inner critic in the basement. More than ever, there is a place for every type in this business. Don't focus on what you're not. Focus on how to effectively market what you are.
Step 2: Get Feedback
When you've narrowed the candidates down to a manageable number, you can start getting opinions from others. Ask good friends to go through as many as 50 images, but you shouldn't expect your agent to look at more than 15 or 20 unless he or she requests otherwise.
Sometimes there is a huge convergence, with one or two shots that everyone loves. But sometimes there is a complete lack of consensus, and it can be confusing. To help with that, let's break down whom you can tap to review your shots, and how to consider their feedback:
Your photographer: Knows his or her own work intimately and has a trained eye. If you partnered with your photographer regarding your specific career and marketing goals, he or she should also have informed opinions about which shots are likely to be the most successful for you. Best at judging the overall strength of an image.
Friends and family: These are the people who are most familiar with your outward appearance and energy. They know how you "look." But unless they're in the industry themselves, they are not qualified to evaluate photos as headshots. Family in particular are prone to selecting generic "sweet" or "warm" photos—great to put on the mantel, but not so great as a marketing tool. Also, consider the facets of yourself that you show to each person. You show a different side to a casual co-worker than to your best friend. Very close friends who know you intimately, warts and all, are the best at spotting your essential energy in a photo. Best at judging the accuracy of the image.
Agents, managers, directors, casting directors, coaches: These are people who have likely seen thousands of headshots and have the best overall idea of what a headshot is meant to do for you as a marketing tool. Consider their feedback based on their role. For instance, agents want to see some range, and casting directors want to know immediately how they can use you. Other industry people should also have an immediate reaction as to how you could be cast. Give the most weight to the opinions of these people who have expertise or experience in the business. In particular, your agent and manager are the ones doing the selling, and they want a tool that they believe will help them do that. Best at judging the marketing value of a headshot.
If possible, be present when anyone looks at your proofs. Note which images they look at the longest. Even if they say another shot is their favorite, consider strongly the images they paused on. If you're on the fence about whether an image is a strong choice or off the mark, this is a great indication that it packs a punch.
Step 3: Final selection
You should now be down to a very small number of images to choose from. Before you make that final choice, use this checklist to make sure the shot works on every level:
1. Do the eyes grab you? They should be bright and captivating. Look out for eyes that are not quite fully open (in the process of blinking). It's easy to miss that slightly half-lidded look, and it will dull your energy.
2. Does it look natural and spontaneous? If it looks posed or stiff, then your natural energy is not showing through.
3. Does it look like you? Ego in check: You do not want to waste anyone's time with a headshot that sells a product you can't provide. Be sure the person they see in the headshot looks like the person who will walk into the room.
4. Is it evocative and intriguing? In the context of a dozen other headshots, does it stand a chance of standing out? Grabbing attention?
5. Does it work as a marketing tool? Does it evoke your key qualities and hit your goals for how you want to be perceived? Does it suggest how you might realistically be cast?
Ultimately, it's your career, and you are in charge. No one knows your inner self better than you do. Be truthful about who you are and you can trust your instincts about that final choice. And if you really love your headshot, you will be that much more inspired to get it out there and make it work for you. You have to believe in the product you are marketing, and your enthusiasm is essential to your ultimate success. With a reasoned approach and an effective strategy, you can choose the headshot that will give you the best chance to push your career forward.
James Shubinski is an award-winning New York photographer with a background in theater, film, and advertising. He specializes in headshots and promotional photography for actors, musicians, and models. Over the last 10 years, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers and on several album covers. His website is at www.shupix.com.
Amber Swenson is from the Midwest and has that wholesome "Ivory girl" quality. But she is also strong, frank, ambitious, defiant, and sexy. In shot No. 1, Swenson appears sweet and friendly but not much else—it's generic. In shot No. 2, Swenson looks intense and strong, but her unique essence is buried—people who know her would not pick this shot as quintessential "Amber." Shot No. 3 captures Swenson's strong, sexy confidence along with her wholesome charm, and her eyes and mischievous smile draw in the viewer. It's compelling and truthful, a strong choice to market Swenson to the industry.