Commercial vs. Theatrical Headshots

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I am often asked what the difference is between a theatrical headshot and a commercial headshot. More specifically: Are they interchangeable? To answer this, you really want to consider the uses of each type of acting headshot. Below is a breakdown of theatrical versus commercial headshots—plus, a third type of headshot that can serve as a middle ground between the two.

What is a theatrical headshot?

Theatrical headshots are geared toward being cast in plays, TV shows, and films. In theatrical headshots, you really want to see the layers of an actor’s personality. Generally speaking, theatrical headshots show a little more emotional depth than a commercial headshot. In commercial headshots, it is important to come across as trustworthy so you can sell a product. In theatrical headshots, you are selling an identifiable personality type, whether it’s a trustworthy one or not.

What is a commercial headshot?

Commercial headshots are designed to appeal to the advertising industry. The purpose of a commercial is to promote a product to a specific demographic. In your commercial headshot, you really want to consider what demographic you fall into. It’s important for the personality types in commercials to be easily identifiable since there are only a few seconds to connect with the viewer. Are you the upscale luxury car driver or the college student compact car driver? What is your authentic age range? Are you the stylish hipster phone commercial type or the nerdy, quirky office type? As always, you want to show unique qualities in your headshot. But keep in mind, commercial headshots are really about that broader appeal.

Should I smile in my theatrical vs. commercial headshot?

Typically, theatrical headshots are thought of as confident expressions without a smile, but it really depends on the types of characters you’re going out for. Sometimes a knowing smirk or vulnerability behind the eyes better exemplifies who you are as an actor. Not all theatrical shots need to be stoic and serious. I like to think of the theatrical headshot as feeling more grounded.

For commercial headshots, it really depends on your type—but for the most part, smiling is recommended. You want to have energy and charisma in a commercial headshot. If you typically play tougher characters, your commercial shot should be your character on a good day. Your commercial headshot must be relatable and engaging. The goal of your photographer should be to capture an authentic moment that feels alive, not just a plastered on smile and a head tilt.

What should I wear for a theatrical vs. commercial headshot?

The types of characters you go out for will determine wardrobe in theatrical headshots, but I tend to like earthy tones. While I try and stay away from black or white shirts, I do find some grays acceptable in theatrical headshots. Just make sure that there is an adequate contrast ratio between wardrobe, background, and hair. You don’t want your headshot to be muddy or dull just because it’s theatrical. I find that earth tones can be rich in color to stand out, but still subtle enough to give focus to the actor.

Your commercial headshot, on the other hand, should be warm and bright so you come across as likable. It’s best to wear a color that pops, like jewel tones that draw attention to a shot without overshadowing the actor. Blacks or grays tend to take away from the warmth and energy of a shot. If you only have dark clothing, make sure your background is brighter.

What about comedic headshots?

As a side note, I believe the middle ground between the commercial and theatrical headshot is the comedic headshot. Comedic headshots are geared toward sitcoms, standup comedy, romantic comedies, etc. Just as in a commercial headshot, you want your comedic headshot light and your personality colorful.

However, there is a bit more character in the comedic headshot. Your comedic headshot should hint at the type of humor you do. Are you the sarcastic, dry character or the quirky slapstick type? I don’t suggest a cartoony, over-the-top approach unless your act is really over-the-top. Subtlety can be very effective and read as more authentic, even in comedy.

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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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