Successful Shooting

A great headshot works on two levels. First, aesthetically: It looks good to the eye, even upside down. It grabs the viewer's attention and pulls him or her in. Agents and casting directors receive thousands of headshots a month. Yours has to stand out, grabbing that industry insider by the lapels and saying "Look at me!"

Second, a great headshot makes it easy for agents and CDs to mentally cast the actor. They should be able to imagine him or her in certain types of roles: "This actor would make a great romantic lead." "That one would make a great villain." The headshot should be specific enough to define the actor in terms of elements of a type, but not so specific that it limits the actor to only one role. No single headshot can represent all the possible characters that a talented actor could play, but an effective headshot represents qualities that logically suggest how to cast that actor.

To get a great headshot, you need to find the right photographer. Yes, it's possible that your Uncle Charlie who works at the Department of Motor Vehicles could take your picture. It will probably be in focus and look like you to a certain extent. But in the competitive world of acting, the better headshots represent actors as professionals who take pride in their presentation. A casting director or agent who receives a headshot—with a résumé attached to or printed on the back—must decide whether the actor is worth bringing in or to toss the photo in the circular file. (Take a look in the Dumpster behind a CD's office and you might be moved to tears by the lost opportunities.)

First, you need to figure out your budget, then search for the best qualified photographer you can afford. Professional photographers come at all prices, from the ones who offer $99 specials to the $1,500 hotshots. Is more expensive better? Can you get a great headshot for $99? The bottom line is, as with most things in life, quality usually costs more.

It comes down to this: You want a professional who takes pride in his or her work, makes a living at it, has tons of experience, is invested in the result, and has a sense of the acting market and current headshot styles. A photographer who can charge low prices probably depends on volume to make up the difference, meaning he or she must cut back on personal attention and care. Yes, it's theoretically possible to get a great shot for $99. But it's also possible you'll end up paying $99 seven times over before finding a trained, qualified professional who knows the value of his or her work and who depends on positive word-of-mouth to stay in business.

You Get What You Pay For

The next step is to put your ear to the ground. Find actors who are happy with their headshots, as well as with the price they paid. You don't want to break the bank; you just want to pay a reasonable amount for a satisfying product. What's a reasonable price for headshots? Logic dictates that people who do something well are well-compensated for it. That goes for doctors, lawyers, and headshot photographers. So the $99 deal that sounds too good to be true probably is. Most New York photographers charge between $350 and $850 for a headshot session.

Does $850 guarantee a great shot? No. And beware the "flavor of the month"—a photographer who makes a big splash but can't deliver consistent results over time. New York City is the land of hype, and lemmings form a line at every cliff facing the Hudson River. In the $350–$850 range, most photographers will do at least a competent job. But the best shots result from a collaboration between a great professional you connect with personally and an actor who accepts some responsibility in the process.

What is that responsibility? First, you should be clear about the markets in which you want to work. Do you want to book TV commercials? Then you need shots that target the commercial market, presenting your type in a strong, clear way. Are you the businessperson, the suburban mom, the all-American kid next door, the working-class hero? That should be evident in your commercial shot. If you're more than one type, then you need to cover all of them. You might have an 8-by-10 that represents your strongest type and a postcard showcasing you as a different type.

How about film, TV, and theater? That's called a legit shot. It defines the qualities that an actor projects. Are you more intense and edgy or more loose, light, and comic? Are you more likely to be cast as the love interest or the best friend? Are you strongest as a specific type, like a thug, or a general type, like a romantic lead? And within those categories, where do you fall? Characters have nuances. Are you Ross, Joey, or Chandler from "Friends"? Monica, Phoebe, or Rachel?

Actors need to define themselves so that others can see it. A great photographer has the perspective to help you project your type, goosing casting directors in the right direction. If they understand the roles you would be good for, and your headshot accurately and powerfully suggests the qualities of those roles, you'll get called in for them.

The Final Selection

After figuring out your budget, doing research, and defining your type or types, how do you choose the best possible photographer for you? If you don't know much about photography, it's difficult to differentiate levels of quality when looking at a photographer's portfolio. But one thing that should be fairly evident is whether the photographer has a limited formula that he or she stamps onto each client.

Over time, it's not too difficult to master the technical elements of portrait photography, and eventually any photographer can hit upon a repeatable combination of lens and lighting that makes a pretty picture. But what separates the greats from the rest is the ability to generate the style of the headshot from the style of the actor, mastering many forms of lighting and taking a photo that says something about the actor, not the photographer. Many agents pride themselves on being able to tell who took a headshot. But the goal should be to sell you, not the photographer and his or her style.

It's also helpful to look through magazines that profile actors. The best photographers in the world shoot the actors who appear in high-profile national magazines, and you can learn a lot from them about quality photography.

On the most basic human level, a great headshot makes a connection with the viewer. The actor and the photographer work together to make that happen. You need to look through the lens and see the person behind the camera. Bring it to him. Create an emotion, an intensity, and a statement that's defined in your mind. I encourage my clients to feed me emotions or intentions. Some have an easier time than others. For those who find it difficult, we play games to loosen the flow. I don't commit to shooting until something is happening. I help generate the moments that create a connection and bam—there's a headshot!

The actor is creating the role, and the photographer is directing the action—choosing angles, lighting, and backgrounds that enhance the overall statement. There is powerful magic in a great headshot. It commands attention and makes the viewer want to meet that person. As human beings, we are drawn to truth and beauty, and those elements make an outstanding headshot. A great photographer is excited by the search for those elements in all of his or her clients.

Joe Henson has been photographing performers in New York City for 28 years. His portfolio contains the photographs of more than 14,000 clients, including Annette Bening, Dick Cavett, Doc Severinsen, Tyler Perry, Selma Blair, and Chubby Checker. His commercial work has been exhibited in numerous publications, including Vogue, O: The Oprah Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, Soap Opera Digest, and The New York Times. His work has also been featured on book jackets, in corporate brochures, on DVD covers and billboards, and in feature films.