5 Tips for Theatrical Headshots

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What is a theatrical headshot? There are always exceptions to the rule in this business—but for the purposes of this article, I consider a theatrical headshot a photograph of an actor that is geared toward dramatic theater, television, and film casting. Here are some things I feel should be considered when taking effective theatrical headshots.

1. Be honest with yourself about the types of roles your performance and physical traits lend themselves to.
As an actor, you want to have a clear definition of what you’re offering potential clients who are seeking your services. Is your essence the trustworthy romantic interest or do you come across as more of an evil villain? I’m not saying one actor can’t play both, but don’t try to collapse everything into a single headshot. On a typical audition, a casting director can get hundreds (if not thousands) of submissions. A casting director’s job is to deliver to producers and directors the types of characters they asked for. For example, if a villain is being cast, but the essence of your headshot says vulnerable romantic type, why would a casting director call you in, rather than the hundreds of other people that actually feel like villains? In this case, if you feel you can play the villain, then you need a theatrical headshot that suggests that villainous range of your performance. 

2. Think about the emotional depth of your headshot.
There are a million pretty people in the acting industry. I see so many pretty headshots that were shot using nice lighting and a great lens, but I feel no connection to the person in the photograph. It looks like the person is staring at an X on a wall versus engaging with a human being. Your headshot should reflect your personality. Even a still stoic shot can (and should) have emotional depth. What is it that you want your theatrical headshot to say? What do you want the person looking at the shot to feel? Treat a headshot session like an acting exercise, and think of the camera as your scene partner. Do you want to charm them? Intimidate them? Make them understand you? Trying out a few objectives will not only give your headshots more depth, but you’ll have more options to choose from when you’re submitting to auditions. 

3. Choose your wardrobe wisely.
First, I always suggest consulting with your representatives, if possible, when choosing a wardrobe. I know different agents and managers have different ideas, and you want to make sure you’re on the same page. I tend to suggest earth or muted tones for theatrical headshots. I’m not a fan of costumes in shots, as I feel getting too specific with wardrobe can be limiting. For instance, you can imply a doctor without wearing a white coat and a stethoscope in your headshot. Some sort of a sports jacket and a nice shirt without a tie, for example, could be just as convincing and now, you can also use that headshot for lawyer, detective, business owner, etc. There are exceptions, like if you have a specific skill that you’re marketing and need to showcase it. Even then, I would suggest making the shot less specific and working with your photographer to show what you’re trying to show implicitly. 

4. Smile or no smile.
I consider big energetic toothy smiles better for commercial, sitcom, or comedic character roles. Dramatic theatrical shots tend to lean toward a more serious expression, but you also want to consider the character and mood you’re trying to portray. When trying to depict a friendlier, more approachable theatrical character, I like seeing warm engaging eye contact with a subtle closed mouth smile. That being said, I don’t like posing or preconceived expressions in headshots, so when you’re working on the emotional value of a theatrical image, go where your emotions take you and select the shots that have a more grounded feel. Think of objects, moments, and people you are proud of or explore a happy secret that says, “I know something you don’t know.”

5. Backgrounds and lighting. 
If you’re choosing moody, dramatic lighting, or wardrobe color options, be sure your hair and clothing are not disappearing into a dark background. You don’t want your headshot to look like a floating head. Most headshots are first seen in a gallery of small thumbnails and you want yours to pop out from the others. I don’t mind darker backgrounds when appropriate, but separation from the subject is key. Squint at your headshot thumbnail. If the hair disappears, the background is too dark.

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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.

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Marc Cartwright
Marc Cartwright is an L.A.–based photographer who has lent his experience and expertise to various aspects of the entertainment industry for over 25 years.
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