A Top Photographer on 6 Surefire Ways to Ruin Your Headshots

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When photographing headshots, I always try to put myself in a casting director’s shoes. If a thousand people who all looked like the person I’m photographing were in a room, how could I make this one person stand out? What’s different and unique about them?

It isn’t enough to just make someone look attractive and send them on their way—this industry is full of attractive people. And these photos aren’t for Instagram likes; a headshot is a marketing tool an actor uses to pitch himself for a job portraying a character who tells a specific story.

On any casting call, a casting director can receive hundreds of submissions from people who all look similar and they have to make quick choices to narrow down the pool. So your headshot needs to pop or your personality won’t be seen. If your headshot isn’t standing out, and you have no connections to this casting director, why would they choose to call you in?

While there are always going to be exceptions, there are a few things that make a headshot weak, so be sure to avoid them at your next shoot.

1. Deer in the Headlights
You’re promoting yourself as an actor, a person who gets paid to make an audience feel something. A photograph of you with no personality isn’t going to excite anyone about working with you. Sure, there are deadpan characters or stoic looks, but there are ways to make that interesting in a photograph. Your eyes should always tell a story. When you put a headshot of a person not making choices next to one of someone who is, the difference is obvious. Your headshot photographer should be working with you to make sure you’re achieving this.

2. No Clear Vision
A casting director will spend seconds with your headshot when trying to narrow down their choice of actors. So you want your headshot to be a clear statement of who you are. Know who your headshot is targeting. What types of shows do you want to appeal to? What genre? What’s the personality of the person in the picture? Of course, we want a headshot to be able to cover different projects but be careful about trying to have a single image cover too many bases. If you’re trying to get on a Disney kid’s show playing a loving dad, you might not want to use the same shot you use for the serial killer roles.  Don’t make casting directors work to figure you out or use their imagination.

READ: Headshots: Everything You Need to Know

3. A Distracting Background
Backgrounds that are too busy will take away from the most important part of your headshot: your eyes. You don’t want your background to compete with you, so anything behind you should be out of focus so it gives depth to the shot and makes you stand out.

You also don’t want to blend into the background. If you have dark hair or are wearing dark clothing, don’t use a dark background. Make sure the background contrasts. You don’t want it to look like you’re a floating face because your hair and clothes disappear into the background.

4. Bad Makeup
Poorly done makeup is distracting and makes you look less professional. What looks amazing day to day may not photograph well. Eye makeup that’s too heavy, foundation that looks gray or like clay, mismatching skin tones, colors that compete with your personality/age/character—these are a few makeup mistakes that can take away from your headshot. If you know that you’re great at doing makeup for photography, go for it. But if you’re unsure, hire a professional. Either way, discuss your makeup with the photographer; you want to make sure your makeup style goes well with their photography.

5. Distracting Wardrobe
Your wardrobe choices can suggest the characters you wish to play but don’t need to be costumes or props. Be careful of shiny buttons or snaps, patterns, and designs that call attention first or compete with your face when someone looks at your photograph. Your wardrobe should be the last thing someone notices or cares about when looking at your headshot.

6. Bad Lighting
Casting directors want to see what they’re working with. If faces are poorly lit or too much shadow is covering the face, it can be misleading or not reveal enough information about the actor. A little shadow to suggest an edgier character is fine, but you want to make sure you can still see the details of the whole face. It’s stronger if you can see both eyes so they can tell the story of your photograph. Remember that you’re selling yourself as an actor, not the cool, dramatic lighting techniques of your photographer.  

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Marc Cartwright
Marc Cartwright is an L.A.–based photographer who has lent his experience and expertise to various aspects of the entertainment industry for over 25 years.
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