8 Keys to a Great Headshot Photographer

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Headshots are an actor’s number one marketing tool. They must read your type and brand; target specific roles; have an air of intrigue that will interest an agent, CD, or director; and look exactly like you on a good day. In order to accomplish all of that in one shot, you need a photographer who not only has skill and talent but is also willing and able to help you achieve those goals.

In this digital age when anyone with a camera and a computer can call themselves a headshot photographer, how can you find the right one? Just as with every other aspect of this business, it takes work. If you’re willing to put in the work, I have four guidelines to help you along the way.

A great website does not necessarily make a great photographer.
Anyone with computer skills can create a beautiful website, but does it truly represent the photographer and his or her work? It is difficult to determine if those shots realistically represent the actors depicted in those “beautiful” shots. You also can never guarantee the shots on a site belong to that particular photographer. There are various headshots of me on numerous photographers’ sites, and I haven’t shot with half of them! Do not base your choice of photographers solely on a website.

An amazing deal is usually not all that amazing.
Just because your roommate’s friend’s cousin shoots headshots in his backyard and is willing to give you a great deal if you can shoot this Saturday, doesn’t mean you’re going to get a great deal. You’re probably not. If you want to play in the big leagues, you’ve got to have the right tools. That means that your headshot needs to look as polished and professional as the other 2,999 headshots being submitted for the same role. By all means, go and shoot in that backyard this Saturday. Get as much time in front of the camera as you can to learn your angles, how to connect with the camera, how to target your marketability, how to best show your type and highlight your branding. Learn as much as you can, gain the experience, save the money, and then go to a reputable headshot photographer whose work gets results.

READ: 7 Tips for a Better Headshot

Paying a lot of money does not always mean better headshots.
Yes, there are incredible photographers who charge a high price for high quality shots. However, that’s not always the case. Many times when photographers charge inordinate amounts of money because they believe they’re that much better than everybody else, it becomes more about the photographers’ egos and less about the individual actors they are shooting. Everyone knows who shot those headshots because they all look the same. In my experiences, it is the mid-price-range photographers who really care about bringing out the actor’s type, brand, and individuality and less about creating beautiful shots in “their” style for “their” website.

Not every photographer is the right fit for every actor.
Maybe the guy you work with or the girl in your class got amazing shots from a photographer, but that doesn’t mean you will. Headshot sessions are emotional and personal experiences. If you aren’t comfortable, there’s no way that you can expose your true self in front of a camera. I have watched many headshot sessions crash due to the same thing: the wrong mixture of personalities. For example, a Type A photographer cannot shoot a Type A actor. The entire time they’ll be fighting for control, resulting in stiff-looking pictures. A very green or laidback actor should also never shoot with a Type A photographer. They are not strong enough to exert their individuality and/or power and are led down paths that just aren’t right for their type or brand.

They should understand the business and current trends.
It surprises me that many photographers aren’t aware of how the industry actually works or aren’t up on the current standards and trends. Good photographers get out there and talk with casting directors and agents.

Because CDs are getting thousands of submissions per role and they’re looking at the submissions as thumbnails, it's important the actor be the main focus. You might think that's a given but looking at headshots every day, I’m amazed that some photographers are still shooting in front of brick walls, bushes and trees, or using incredibly busy backgrounds.

Right now, most casting directors and agents are looking for clean, crisp backgrounds (white/gray/monochromatic) allowing the actor to be the focus while highlighting their specific type and branding. Industry trends and standards are constantly changing—make sure that you, your headshots, and your photographer change with them.

They should be open to hearing your thoughts and opinions.
Good photographers know the mechanics of taking a great headshot but they don't know you. You've probably only spoken to them briefly over the phone or during your initial meeting.

Sure, they can see your type and (hopefully) know the roles you should be targeting. But they don't know what makes you special and unique within your type/category. Many photographers feel they “know better” or how to bring out your individuality, but end up saying the exact same things to every actor. This is why so many headshots look exactly the same, with exactly the same expressions.

The right photographer is open to hearing your thoughts and opinions, and will happily work with you to bring out the things that separate you from the other actors in your category.

READ: Headshots: U.K. vs. L.A.

They should make you feel comfortable.
The gender of the photographer doesn’t make them a good or bad photographer, but it can make for good or bad pictures. What I’m trying to say is that it’s a personal preference. Some women, especially those in the 28-32 age group, might be better served shooting with women as female photographers tend to allow actresses more room to explore their strengths and power outside of the narrow category of “sexy.” Certain “guys guy” actors may not be able to tap into their masculine energy unless they shoot with a male photographer.

What’s most important is that the actor feels comfortable, relaxed, and open enough to expose certain aspects of their personality and branding in front of a photographer. Whether it’s a male or female photographer is up to you.

They should come highly recommended.
Just because one photographer worked well for someone you know doesn’t mean they’ll be great for you. Referrals are the best place to start, whether from fellow actors/teachers/image consultants/headshot coaches, etc., but you have to ask the right questions: Did you like working with this photographer? Would you shoot with them again? Are the pictures getting you called in, or more importantly, getting you booked? How does the photographer work with actors? Are they up on all industry needs and trends? Is the photographer willing to meet and talk beforehand? Are they open to the actor’s input?

Agents and managers are also a great reference since they all have a referral list. Besides asking these questions, you also need to ask them when they last updated their list and why they’re referring these particular photographers.

Headshots are an actor's number one marketing tool—don’t jump in blindly. Get out there and do the work, ask questions, and use my eight keys to finding a great photographer who makes sure the end results are headshots that work.

In order to make sure it is the right fit, you need to get out there and meet with photographers. If they don’t have time to meet, they should be willing to have a phone conversation to help you get a feel for the possible working relationship. Beware of photographers who “don’t do that” or only speak through their assistants.

Stay tuned for four more guidelines, coming soon!

Take your new headshot out for a spin with our theater auditions!

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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