Don't be Penny-wise When It Comes to Headshots

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When Back Stage asked me to share my thoughts on digital photography and how it figures into the process of an actor securing work, I thought about some unexpected changes that came with the technology. I've been photographing actors with digital cameras exclusively for 10 years. When I used to write about digital technology, so much of it was new. But now it's everywhere and we take it for granted. Today I've been writing on my laptop, unplugged, at the park, at the library, and on my couch. Pictures and text pop up on my iPhone as I work. How can we not think of digital photography as easy and "instant"? But there are still some aspects of it you have to consider.

Regardless of how it is created, your headshot is still your calling card, your best foot forward. Our goal with any camera is to capture something authentic about you as an actor. Everyone should be able to look at your photo and have a great idea of who is going to walk in the door when you have an audition or a callback. One thing technology has changed is that, rather than an 8-by-10 print, casting directors are going to be seeing a small image of you on a computer screen, mixed with several dozen other actors' photos. It's more important than ever that your picture stand out.

A Digital Camera Walks Into a Bar…

As everyone knows, things have changed since the days when black-and-white photos shot on film were the norm. Headshots are typically seen in color now and they're distributed and displayed online, as well as being printed on paper. I was already working with actors when, in 1999, I bought the original Nikon D1. It was the camera that enabled photojournalists to work digitally, and I saw that it would also work for me. I set the camera to shoot in black-and-white at first, but I quickly realized it was better to shoot in color, to capture more information that could be interpreted later—even for a black-and-white print. There was also the new issue of white balance, which we'd seen before with video cameras. Setting the white balance correctly helps you avoid a color cast in the photo, as when you see a picture that looks too magenta or orange.

The ability to shoot and reproduce color pictures affordably encouraged the shift to color headshots, and people wanted to try something different. In the past, if someone spent the extra money to use color pictures, it looked a little desperate and unnecessary. Gradually, though, more people started using color to stand out, and over time it caught on.

Photos by Brad Buckman

Hey, I've Got a Camera!

People have always had cameras, but something changed with the advent of digital photography. Today, everyone and his brother—literally—has a digital camera. It's fantastic that everyone is sharing photos on sites like Tumblr, Flickr, and Facebook and that more people are exploring their visual creativity. Some take the next step and offer their services as "professionals," but in many cases, they are providing a disservice to their friends, their clients, and their community.

We all have voices, but we don't all decide to offer our services as vocal coaches. I've got a car, but I'm not going to start a taxi service. Yet because everyone has a camera, almost anyone will offer to take your headshot. Just because they can take a picture of your face, does that really get you the professional headshot that you need?

An analogy for performers would be the emergence of reality TV and the notion that anybody can be an "actor." This impacts the industry in a negative way, and there is a true concern for the decline of quality in programming. This change creates fewer opportunities for talented, professional actors to exercise their craft and to earn a living.

Now, I know that everyone is on a budget. I get it. But too often, actors are only concerned about price. But here's a situation I see frequently: An actor tells me there's a guy in his acting class who says he has a camera and will shoot him for free. After the session, the actor takes some time to pick a couple of shots. He figures if he gets them retouched, then maybe they'll look pretty good. He picks them up and posts them online and waits to see if they work. After a few weeks, or months, or even years, he decides that they did not.

What truly bothers me is that I see so many actors lose months, and even years, of their acting careers simply because they tried to save a little money on their headshots. It's unfortunate, but your pictures are that important. They get you called in or they don't, so they really have to work. My favorite part of doing this work is hearing that clients' new pictures have helped them get more auditions or new representation, and it's always fun to see them in films and on TV.

Besides a really good camera, what you get from a professional is consistency, someone who takes great pictures every day. Anyone can take a few decent pictures to promote themselves, but you have to get it right time and time again to have agents, managers, and others in the film and TV community refer people to you consistently. The photographer who specializes in working with actors can help you relax and express yourself and then capture something authentic about you in your new photos.


The ability to review pictures on the back of the camera makes it easier for anyone to shoot, but the care that goes into each step in photography is getting lost. There is a perception that you take a picture and it's done. But just as with film, that file only represents the original captured image, with several more steps to go. The legendary photographer Ansel Adams explained, "The negative is the score, and the print is the performance." The finished picture is an artistic interpretation of the original information in the negative or the digital file.

With film, an experienced photo printer would go into the darkroom and make the best possible print from your negative. He or she would adjust the brightness, contrast, and sharpness of the image and make some other selective adjustments by dodging and burning areas of the picture. This same step is necessary with digital "negatives" as well, but we actually have more control now over the final image.

We refer to this as "development" or "image processing," and it's confusing to some people. As soon as we mention processing, or Photoshop, people think we are talking about retouching. In a nutshell, in processing we are making adjustments to the overall picture, while retouching involves specific changes, like eliminating stray hairs or blemishes on the skin. We start with a great original file, and in postproduction we can fine-tune the color, contrast, and skin tone. We dodge and burn to put the attention where it belongs, and we have special techniques to bring additional focus to the eyes and face. Properly processed images have more depth and vibrance, and they attract more attention as thumbnails online. Take a look at any online casting service and you'll see the difference between pictures that catch your eye and those that blend in.

When you shoot digitally, your goal is to maintain all the detailed information you can. You can set the camera to shoot brighter, with more contrast, and the picture will look great on the back of the camera. But when it's time to process the high-resolution master and print your picture, you find that the bright areas of skin don't look very good. The camera simply can't make the same types of adjustments that a trained professional can.

The amateur who "has a camera" may not know the best way to set the exposure and white balance and may not understand that processing is necessary. Many are happy to take some pictures, then give you a disc with all the files and wish you "good luck." That's a bit like taking a roll of unprocessed film out of the camera after a shoot and handing it to the client.

While we are happy to release the original digital files, we encourage you to let us perform our custom processing to bring the best out in your finished photos. We always appreciate the feedback that our pictures stand out, that there's "something in the eyes," and that you really get a sense of the person from his or her picture. Digital photography offers many advantages in the process of creating your new headshots, and it's important to ensure that you get the best from every step. Some photographers, retouchers, and photo labs offer these services, so be sure to have a professional process your picture so that it looks its best.

Brad Buckman is an award-winning portrait, architectural, and fine-art photographer based in Hollywood, Calif. He works with actors just about every day and currently has a fine-art photography exhibit on display at ArcLight Hollywood through May 17. Websites: and