Actor Headshots: Everything You Need to Know

Article Image
Photo Source: Shutterstock

Headshots are the key to breaking in as a professional actor. It’s just a fact. It doesn’t matter how brilliantly talented you are; without the right headshot, the chances of anyone taking the time to discover that brilliance plummet. Headshots for actors are like business cards for busy corporate climbers or stunning Instagram grids for aspiring influencers. An actor’s headshot is their professional calling card—and the best ones don’t just catch a casting director’s attention in the moment. A great headshot is also memorable enough to pop back into the CD’s mind the next time a role suited for your type crosses their desk.

Is that a lot to ask of a single photograph? Of course! That’s why headshots are so vitally important to building your acting career. This guide will give you the inside scoop on everything you need to take a perfect actor headshot—how to find a headshot photographer, how much professional headshot sessions cost, top headshot tips from industry professionals, and much more.

JUMP TO

What is a headshot?

A headshot is a high-quality portrait that focuses on your face, often formatted as an 8 x 10-inch printed photograph or a digital thumbnail on a casting website. As an actor, headshots are the foundation of your professional brand. Your headshot is sent to casting directors when you’re up for a role and to agents when you’re looking for representation. In short: your audition begins the moment you walk into the room—but your headshot may determine if you get the chance to walk into that room in the first place.

Why do actors need headshots?

Actors need headshots for:

  • Online casting profiles
  • Submitting to agents and managers for possible representation
  • Personal actor websites
  • Professional social media profiles
  • Marketing materials (i.e., postcards, business cards)

Your headshot should serve as the cornerstone of your marketing materials, tying together your website, social media, casting profiles, postcards, business cards, and résumé. Just like the Nike swoosh or McDonald’s Golden Arches, your headshot should make you instantly recognizable across channels. As an actor, you are pitching yourself as a product—and your headshot should be the image that best represents that product. (For that reason, many actors like to make their headshot the profile image for their Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.)

Establishing your brand is the big-picture reason you need acting headshots. On a more practical level, however, an actor needs headshots just to be considered for most roles. These days, most auditions ask for online submissions, so in addition to hard copies (which are still important), you’ll also need digital copies of your headshot to upload onto online casting profiles. Projects will not even allow you to submit unless your profile has a headshot, and the first thing casting directors see with your submission is your headshot.

For theater auditions, it is standard practice to bring a hard copy of your headshot, so you should always come to an EPA (Equity Principal Audition) armed with your headshot. Many theater casting offices ask actors to mail their headshots and résumés to the office for consideration. For film, commercials, and print auditions, hard copies are less common, but it's never a bad idea to bring one.

When you submit yourself to agencies for possible representation, whether by email or mail, a headshot is the first item on the list of materials required for consideration. And any time you go to a workshop with a casting director or agent, you should always bring a headshot.

How should actors format their headshots?

Actors should format their printed headshots as follows:

  • In color
  • 8 x 10 inches in size
  • With their name printed on the front

Black-and-white headshots are all but obsolete, so you should always print in color. Most actors print their headshots vertically (“portrait”), though some print horizontally (“landscape”). It’s a matter of personal preference, but printing vertically does make it slightly more intuitive for a casting director to flip your headshot over to read your résumé on the back.

Even though your headshot will be attached to your résumé, it's important to have your name printed somewhere on the photo. There’s no standard font, but it should be easy to read. If you choose to have an external white or black border framing your headshot, your name can be printed within this border.

Digital headshots need formatting, too. Raw camera images are too large for most websites to process. Although the specifics may vary, for most websites you'll need digital headshots that are:

  • Compressed: Compressed images are usually .jpeg, .jpg, and .png file types. Some casting sites also accept .tiff files.
  • High-resolution: Resolution is usually expressed as dots-per-inch (dpi). You want your digital headshot to be at least 300dpi, so it looks great as a thumbnail or a larger image.
  • Without names: Unlike your printed headshots, digital headshots usually don’t include your name.

For casting websites, where your headshot will be posted alongside many others, consider a tighter crop on the face “so that the eyes can be seen easier,” recommends headshot photographer Marc Cartwright. “A three-quarters shot won't stand out as much in an online gallery of actor headshots.”

How should I attach a headshot to my acting résumé?

Headshots should be stapled to the back of your acting résumé. Résumés should be cut down to size or printed on matching 8 x 10-inch paper. You should staple your headshot to your résumé on all four corners, with the staples positioned a quarter of an inch away from the photo’s edges. Staple them together with the headshot facing up, so that the staples’ pinchers are visible on the résumé side.

Alternatively, you can opt to have your résumé printed directly on the back of your headshot. Some casting directors discourage this, however, as they prefer to separate your headshot and résumé for filing. Printing your acting résumé directly on the back of your headshot can also make it more complicated to update your résumé.

What makes a good headshot?

Most importantly, a good actor headshot looks like you in real life. It also provides casting directors with an accurate sense of who you are as an actor and the characters you might play, so they can call you in for the right auditions.

Ideally, your acting headshot will convey not just your general look, but your brand, your type, your age range, your possible occupations, your professionalism, your socioeconomic background, your personality traits, and even hints of your inner emotional life. Casting directors have specific ideas about the roles they have to fill. They don’t have time to ponder your myriad possible characters; they will take you at face value. Even if you want to play against type, it’s important to recognize how you may initially be viewed. Especially when starting out, your headshot will determine what types of roles you get called in for. 

As headshot photographer Marc Cartwright explains, “You want to get called in for projects that are right for you. This doesn’t happen if you are deceiving the casting director with headshots that don’t look like you.”

WATCH:

What are some acting headshot dos and don’ts?

Some headshot tips are obvious—for instance, don’t use a selfie. Others are a little more nuanced—for example, don’t show so much skin that it distracts from your face. If thinking about how to get the perfect acting headshot makes you nervous, here are a few guidelines:

Headshot Dos: 

  • Do shop around for a photographer that makes you feel comfortable.  
  • Do wear a little makeup (even if it’s just powder).
  • Do wear flattering, solid colors.
  • Do prepare your looks based on your unique talents and booking goals.
  • Do professionally format your headshot to industry standards.

Headshot Don’ts: 

  • Don’t use your senior yearbook photo (or a selfie) as an acting headshot.
  • Don’t wear so much makeup that you’re unrecognizable.
  • Don’t wear distracting patterns or colors.
  • Don’t choose a pose or look that plays against the types you intend to audition for.
  • Don’t airbrush out all your freckles or laugh lines.

How do I find a good headshot photographer?

The best way to find a good headshot photographer is to ask for referrals. Look at your actor friends’ headshots. Make a list of your favorites, and ask your friends to connect you to the photographers who took the shots. Take the opportunity to also ask your friends what their shoots were like and if they enjoyed working with the photographer. Like everything in the acting world, finding a good collaborator makes the finished product stronger.

It might be tempting to have a friend with a camera take your headshot (or worse, take some selfies). Your friend might photograph great landscapes, but a good general photographer is not necessarily a good headshot photographer. Headshot photography is all about capturing essence and expression. When your headshot’s quality directly reflects on your professionalism, it’s essential to get it right. Many headshot photographers offer free consultations. Take the time to schedule one and ask the right questions before moving forward. 

These are some of the best questions to ask a headshot photographer:

  • Do you have a portfolio of your past work?
  • What are your rates? What’s included in your rate?
  • Do you shoot indoors or outdoors?
  • How many looks does your session include?
  • How long is a session?
  • Do you recommend anyone for makeup, hair, retouching?

Do your research on any prospective headshot photographer. Look at their website and browse galleries of their past work. Before committing to a session, have a conversation to make sure you have compatible visions for the final product.

WATCH:

How much does a headshot session cost?

Headshot sessions can cost between $400-1,500. A typical headshot session will be priced based on duration and number of looks. Adding another hour or another look will usually increase the price by a fixed rate. Some photographers also include photo editing and light retouching in their baseline price. Be sure to ask for an estimate before signing on. You’ll usually pay a deposit in advance, and the remainder on the day of your photo session.  

And remember that a headshot session involves more than just taking photos. Most photographers charge a flat fee for the session itself, but you should expect to spend additional money on the following:

  • Hair and makeup
  • Retouching
  • Photo formatting
  • Printing
  • Editing

You don’t have to break the bank to get a great headshot. But you don’t want to cut corners either. Your headshot is a direct reflection of your professionalism, so it’s an investment in your career.

How should I dress for an actor headshot?

Actors should wear simple, non-distracting clothing for their headshot sessions. Simplicity is key. The focus in your headshot should be squarely on you, not your clothes. Busy patterns and large, distracting jewelry are a no-go. Solid primary colors and bright jewel tones are great. But you know what looks best on you. Pick colors that bring out your eyes and complement your skin tone. Stay away from white (which can wash you out) and black (which can give the illusion of absorbing light from the rest of the photo).

If you play more buttoned-up characters, wear a jacket. If you play more free-spirited or characters, you can show a bit more skin. But don't over-do it; wearing clothing that is too revealing can take the focus away from your face. When selecting your headshot wardrobe, ask yourself:

  • What types of projects do I want to work on? If you want to work on noir shows or late-night crime dramas, a dark, gritty-looking headshot fits the tone. If you aspire to be SNL's newest cast member or a sitcom darling, a bright, goofy shot is a better idea.
  • Which types of roles do I want to play? If you're going out for a high-powered executive, your hair, makeup, and clothing should be polished. If you're going for a high school queen bee, make sure your wardrobe and makeup are age-appropriate.

 

What’s the best background for a headshot?

The best backgrounds for headshot photos are simple and well-lit. Outdoor or indoor is a matter of personal preference. Natural light gives a softer quality, while studio lighting is sharper and more dramatic. Indoor lighting can also lend a polished quality and leave you less at the mercy of the elements. Look for contrast in your headshot backgrounds. If you have dark hair, you can melt into a shadowy background. Lighter grey or cream will make you pop.

It’s worth asking a photographer if they have their own studio setup or which specific outdoor locations they typically use for shoots. But when it comes to headshot backgrounds, a professional headshot photographer will guide you in the right direction. A headshot is your calling card as an actor, but it’s also an example of the photographer’s work. 

WATCH:

What should I bring to my headshot session?

You should bring all your wardrobe changes to your headshot session. If you don't have a makeup artist on hand, you should also bring essential makeup and a small mirror for touch-ups. Even actors who don’t typically need makeup should bring translucent powder. You can get hot under studio lighting and may need to combat shine on your nose and forehead.  

If you're shooting outdoors, bring comfortable shoes. You may need to walk to multiple locations, and your feet won’t be in the shot anyway. Since outdoor shoots may not have changing facilities, you may want to bring a towel to cover you during quick changes (or stick close to public restrooms).

WATCH:

How should I pose for a headshot?

When you pose for a headshot, you should be relaxed. These photos are all about your face, and any tension will show up there. The best headshot poses combine strong posture with great facial angles.

These classic headshot poses can get your creative juices flowing:

  • Head-on, facing the camera: This is a classic for a reason. The camera gets to see you and all of you.
  • Leaning in: Leaning slightly toward the camera lens looks you are in the middle of a conversation. It's easy to give off a “best friend” vibe when you lean in.
  • Over the shoulder: This angle is slightly more mysterious, unusual, and edgy.

You want your headshot poses to capture your strongest qualities, and your eyes need to tell a story. The irony of a headshot is that, though it's a still image, you shouldn't look still. The last thing your headshot should be is boring. There should be some attention-grabbing quality leaping out at the viewer, whether that's an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile, a mischievous glance, a pensive stare... you get the idea. Think of a headshot as a freeze-frame of you in action.

How many headshots should I have as an actor?

You should have at least two looks for a headshot session. This will give you at least two distinct headshots to choose from when going after roles. It’s standard to have a more serious theatrical shot and a smiling commercial shot

If you have a niche skill or bookable talent, you’ll want a few snaps that reflect that. For example, if you are a bodybuilder, you should show off your guns. If you’re a musician, your instrument can play a supporting role. But be careful. If you take a headshot holding a guitar, you’d better know how to play if a casting director asks in an audition.

How do I pick the right actor headshot?

To pick the right headshot, ask other people for advice. Industry professionals like agents, managers, casting directors, and other actors are the most helpful (although friends and family can offer feedback, too!).

Your photographer should give you a flash drive, disk, or link to an online gallery of your images from your shoot. Ask people to take a look through the gallery and pick their favorites. Take a tally of the winning shots. Ask them to also say a bit about why they were drawn to their picks, maybe write down some adjectives that came to mind with each image (“You look fierce in this one!”), and some features that pop out at them (“Your eyes are boring into my soul!”). Compare this list with the qualities you were trying to embody: How do they match up? Were you going for bubbly, but ended up with moody? You want to pick the shots that match up with the types of projects and roles you want to book. 

It may seem self-absorbed to ask other people to look at a hundred pictures of your face, but an outside point of view helps. We’re not always the best judges of ourselves!

How many headshots should I print?

You should print between 20 to 100 headshots at a time. The total depends on the number of agents and casting directors you are meeting and how many auditions you are going on. You should be getting new headshots every one to two years, so don't overdo it by printing a thousand headshots.

If you're trying to get an agent, your headshot bank should be well-stocked so you can mail prints to agency offices or bring them to seminars. If you focus on EPAs and theater auditions, you should always bring a headshot and résumé with you. Bringing a hard copy of your headshot is not always mandatory in the film, TV, and commercial world. But many audition postings ask you to bring them, so you should always have some on hand.

A good rule of thumb is to keep 20 prints in your bank. You can always print more when you need them.

Should actors retouch headshots?

Actors should lightly retouch their headshots. You want the photo to be the best possible representation of you, which often involves eliminating distracting visual elements and slightly enhancing your best features. Acceptable retouching includes smoothing stray hairs, evening out skin tone, and bringing out the light in your eyes. Don't go overboard with Photoshop to the point that you're unrecognizable. Retouching is all about striking the right balance.

Los Angeles headshot photographer Marc Cartwright advises actors to keep in mind their realistic age range when retouching: “Skin has texture. Even the smoothest of skin. Skin gets more texture as we age. The first thought that pops up when I see a headshot with overly retouched, plastic-looking skin is, what are they hiding? Something feels off. In overly retouched photos, casting can't trust what the actor will look like, and therefore won't waste time calling that actor in to audition.”

Another thing to keep in mind when retouching is how polished you want your headshots to look. “If your goal is to get cast in roles that portray trashy criminals or people from economically challenged backgrounds, you might want to see all the flaws to help with the illusion,” Cartwright says. “Of course, you still want to be professional. Your retoucher should work with you on striking a balance between what looks character-driven versus what looks like you don't care. On the other hand, if, for example, you are going for the upscale business look, you may want to clean the shot a bit more to give a feeling of impeccability.”

WATCH:

How often should actors update their headshots?

Actors should update their headshots every one or two years, as a general rule. But, any time you change your look, you need new headshots. You should get new headshots any time you: 

  • Cut your hair more than a few inches
  • Dye your hair a different color 
  • Gain or lose a significant amount of weight (more than 10 pounds)

Trends are also something to be mindful of. Headshot photographer Marc Cartwright recommends getting new headshots every two years for adults and every six months for children. “You want to stay current with what casting directors are looking for in a headshot,” he explains. “For instance, at one time black-and-white headshots were popular. If you present a black-and-white shot today, some may assume you haven't auditioned since 2005.”

Have your headshots? Great! Now, apply to casting calls on Backstage!