The 4 Jobs of a Headshot

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Headshots are the No. 1 marketing tool of actors, and most actors don’t use them to their fullest. A casting director, director, agent, or manager needs to be able to look at your headshot (or you) and know exactly who you are and what they can do with you.

With casting directors often getting over 3000 submissions per role, it is even more important that your headshots deliver on each of these four very specific jobs:

1. Headshots need to look like you—on a good day. Not a great day or your best day, but simply look exactly like you on a good day. Actors tend to treat headshots like Facebook profile pictures. You know, using that one amazing shot when all planets aligned and the light was perfect and for that brief moment you looked like Brad or Angelina. However, casting directors are calling in the person they see in the headshot, and if someone else walks into their office (meaning the “real” you), they’re going to be a little angry and may not call you in again. They have to be able to trust that that same person in the picture is going to be the person who shows up in their office, and ultimately, on set.

2. Headshots need to read your specific type. Type is basically a breakdown for you, just like the breakdowns you see for characters in casting notices. Casting directors or agents need to look at your headshot and know instantly your age range, where you are on the economic scale (upscale, middle class, blue collar, etc.), where you are on the attractive scale (despite what your mother tells you), your role in society (mom, educated professional, victim, CEO, etc.), and various aspects of your innate personality (sweet, friendly, gruff, powerful, etc.).

3. Headshots should target the roles you could be cast in and not emotions. One of the biggest misconceptions about headshots is that you need one smiling shot for commercials and one serious or dramatic shot for theatrical work. I watch a lot of television and there are plenty of people in episodic television who smile, and a lot of grumpy non-smiling people in commercials. In fact, I have a friend who has done over 400 commercials, always playing the snarky neighbor or friend. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her smile in a commercial. While headshots usually do need to read approachable for most commercial roles, it is even more important that they read the specific roles typical for your type/category. For example, if a casting director is looking for a 30-something female lawyer, she is not going to give much thought to a submitted headshot showing a glammed out woman in a tight tank top (whether she’s smiling or not). Or if they’re looking for a bumbling Home Depot dad (who appears in every television show and commercial), they are seeking headshots that show lovable everyman dressed in a flannel shirt and bypassing the powerful men in three-piece suits or the scary guys decked out in leather.

4. Headshots must represent your personal brand. Your personal brand is that which is unique and special about you. Like my “snarky” friend, her neighbor/friend headshot needs to read snarky, because that is so uniquely her. That is her brand. If she submitted a headshot showing a sweet, smiling lady, she would never be called in for the work that she’s perfect for. You want to become known for that thing that you, and only you, do. Once you figure it out, everything in your acting world—postcards, reel, clothing, correspondence, and especially headshots—must be branded you.

So, before your next headshot session figure out your exact type, research the roles that you can be cast in today (not your dream job, or the role you will be right for in five years), identify what is unique and special about you within your type/category (which, again, is your brand), and finally, translate all of that information into your No. 1 marketing tool: your headshots.

Put in the work, so that your headshots will work for you.

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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.

Author Headshot
Tom Burke
Tom Burke is an image consultant, headshot coach, and acting teacher. After transitioning from a successful print model to an accomplished on-camera actor to a proficient on-set acting coach, Burke focused his wealth of knowledge and keen eye to become one of L.A.’s premier image consultants and headshot coaches, and creator of the Castable Actor, a series of workshops, seminars, and advice designed to help actors open doors to a successful career.
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