What Should an Actor Look for in a Headshot Retoucher?

A.J. Jhaveri
Owner, Argentum Photo Lab, Los Angeles

The most important thing an actor should look for is a professional retoucher who also does headshots. Look for people who specialize in headshot retouching, because they see hundreds and hundreds of headshots every week. They know the headshot has to represent the actor, so they know the right amount of retouching needed.

When actors walk into an audition, they must look like they did in the headshot. Performing-arts retouchers usually know what to do, what to remove, what not to remove, how far to go, unlike a higher-level retoucher, who might overdo it. For instance, someone who works primarily with fashion won't make it look like a headshot. The result might look great, but it won't help actors if they walk into an audition and look different from their headshot.

Also, don't use a friend, a roommate, or someone who happens to have Photoshop. Owning Photoshop does not make you a retoucher, the same way owning a car does not make you a race car driver.

Jason Homa

Owner, Jason Homa
Photography, New York

Retouchers should make people look like the best version of themselves. They should take out any temporary flaws, like blemishes, and they should improve lines on the face, but the result should not be a Barbie doll.

Be sure to find a retoucher who will work with you—a professional who is in tune with the market for actors, experienced in seeing headshots, and will sit down with you and say, "We can take it to this level or that level." You don't want someone who will simply pick up a CD, then drop it off when finished.

There are different levels of retouching, so actors should find retouchers who are used to working with actors and retouching in this field, as opposed to the more glamorous high-end stuff. Retouchers who have experience helping actors will have a grasp on the reality of the field.

Jim Lafferty

Owner, Jim Lafferty
Photography, New York

Actors should want their retouchers to stay away from taking things out that are part of their natural character. Actresses sometimes have beauty marks that are part of their appeal and should be kept in. Things like that often are part of an actor's identity and should not be removed.

A good retoucher wants to work with you in collaboration. An in-person consultation is best for communicating how the headshot can be better tailored to the actor. Actors should be skeptical of retouchers who take shortcuts, who don't devote enough time to their headshots. Some photographers spend five minutes at most retouching a headshot—that is not enough. So it's up to actors to look at a retoucher's past work to get a sense of whether they wish to work with him or her. Good retouchers will have a before-and-after portfolio, to show headshots before and after alterations were made. Also, actors should consider getting a second opinion from a knowledgeable source to be sure the finished product is realistic.

Ten years ago, there was very little detail in headshots, as actors were heavily made up and often looked plastic. Then came the transition to digital film, and now the emphasis is on a natural aesthetic, which is why actors should look for retouchers who take pride in retaining the actor's natural appearance during retouching.

Eric Dolgins

General Manager,
Reproductions, New York

There are three general philosophies of retouching. Some people don't want anything done. Our school of thought at Reproductions is somewhere in the middle, bringing a headshot back to daily perception. Then there are those who like dramatic changes. But the general consensus in the community is that retouching should look natural and the headshot should be very representative of the actor for when he or she appears in person with it.

There are certain things in a photo shoot that can change the appearance of an actor—it could be lighting, a blemish, hair, or conditions specific to the day. These should be addressed by retouching. But I would guide actors to avoid going too far. Stick with light retouching. Some might even get away with no retouching. But going overboard can be damaging and not serve you well. A good general rule: Don't remove something, like a scar, that cannot be completely concealed by makeup. And consider the type of acting you're pursuing. For example, in film, blemishes are very obvious, but they might be impossible to see on stage given the distance between the audience and the actor.

Actors should want to see their untouched photo on paper first, because images look different on paper than on a monitor. They should know what their concerns are and be ready to make suggestions, but they should listen to the opinion of the retoucher about things they might not even consider.