No More Bad Pictures!

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There are a lot of headshot photographers out there, and some of you are very good at what you do. You understand the art of taking pictures. You place the needs of your subject first. You get the job done. That's why your names are at the top of my list. So please understand, this letter is not meant for you. This letter is for all the unskilled pretenders who make a living by picking the pockets of actors who have no money. I'm talking about all the untrained morons who picked up a cheap digital camera on some website and are charging unsuspecting actors for inferior headshots.

I'd like to start by asking a simple question: How dare you? Just because you own a camera doesn't mean you know how to use it. Photography is an art form, no different from composing music or painting a landscape. As a headshot photographer, it's your responsibility to capture an actor's essence, so agents can use that image as a marketing tool. This involves understanding technical elements like composition, focal length, lighting, and background-foreground tension. It also means you need to appreciate human nature, so you can interact with your subjects and understand their needs.

We live in a world of electronic submissions, so an actor, now more than ever, needs to have an eye-catching headshot. That's why it's in my best interest to educate you. I'm not good enough to make you a great photographer, but if you listen to me, I can definitely make you a better photographer.

Let's start with composition. If you hold up your camera and look at it closely, you'll see a bright glass rectangle that shows you what the lens is seeing. That's your frame. (If it's dark, try turning the camera on.) The image you compose inside that frame is your picture. Now here's the important part: You don't want to be in too tight on the subject. I know it's called a headshot, but that doesn't mean the actor's head has to completely fill your frame. If I want a tight picture, I can have the printer crop the shot. If not, I can just leave it alone. But I need to have that option. So please don't take it away from me by doing all the cropping inside your camera. Five hundred pictures of my client, all framed from chin to forehead, are worthless.

Now let's talk about backgrounds. During a shoot, actors are very focused on what they're trying to project. They rarely take time to consider what's behind them. That's your job. So if you're inside shooting against a dark blue background, please don't allow my client to pose in a dark blue shirt. His or her body will disappear in the picture. And if you're shooting outside, I want you to be twice as careful about what's in the background. It can't be anything distracting, like a wall of flowers or a colorful mural. The actor must be the focus point, not the Hollywood sign or Washington Square Park.

Next, I need you to learn how a camera creates emotion based on what angle you decide to shoot from. You can suggest different feelings by shooting up or down at your subject. Not every shot has to be eye level. Watch some good movies. Study the frames. You might learn something.

Also, please tell your makeup "artists" to stop turning my beautiful female clients into ugly whores. You may not be the one who applies the makeup, but it's your job to make sure it looks good on camera.

I hope these tips help, because the next headshot photographer who tells me he or she can fix something with Photoshop is going to get beaten to death with a copy of the Nestor Almendros book "A Man With a Camera."

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Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man is a Los Angeles–based talent agent and our resident tell-all columnist. Writing anonymously, he dishes out the candid and honest industry insight all actors need to hear.
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