The UK Actor’s Headshots Guide

The UK Actor’s Headshots Guide

Photo Source: Cred: Chanté Timothy

UK actors looking to learn everything from what constitutes a good headshot, how to find a headshot photographer, how much headshots cost, what poses you need, the best headshot backgrounds will find all of that—and much more—right here. 

What does it take to be a successful actor? Well, talent certainly helps – but we all know plenty of talented actors who don’t work, so what else do you need? One thing that is definitely handy is the ability to market yourself, to see yourself as a brand. Your headshot is a crucial part of building brand “You”. Get a good one and you’ll soon be your agent’s favourite client; get a bad one and a career selling the Evening Standard beckons…  

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What is an acting headshot?

An acting headshot is a photo of you to send out to agents and prospective employers.

In most cases it’s an 8″x10″ photo of an actor’s head and shoulders, focusing mainly on the subject’s face.

Why do I need a headshot?

Actors need headshots to get cast. Every actor needs a headshot for:

  • Their website and social media presence
  • Their marketing materials, such as business cards and postcards
  • Their profiles on online casting sites (such as Backstage!)
  • Their submissions to potential talent agents and managers

If your eyes are the window to the soul, your headshot is definitely the key, entrance hall and front door to your brand as an actor. It’s how you present yourself to the industry and you’ll need it for almost everything to do with your acting career: your website, your Backstage profile, auditions and workshops. You’ll be giving it to contacts, potential agents – and your mum. You’ll need digital and hard copies. Without it, you’ll find life as an actor tough-going.

In fact, the easier question is: what don’t you need your headshot for? If you’re an actor, the answer is almost nothing! You should have it with you at all times, just in case. Your headshot is how you present yourself to the world. It’s your calling card – so get out there and start calling! 

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What does a casting director look for in a headshot?

Casting directors want headshots that actually look like the actors, first and foremost. 

Like many people in our industry, casting directors are busy people. When they’re casting they’ve got a very specific problem and it’s your aim to be the answer to that problem. They don’t have the time to slowly peruse casting websites – they need to take a quick look at a thumbnail of a good headshot and know you are the answer to all their prayers. Why not make their lives easy with a clear, representative headshot? Problem solved.

It might seem obvious but a good headshot needs to look like you. Casting directors want to know what they’re getting. If your headshot was done twenty years ago and before the surgery, that isn’t solving their casting problem, it’s creating one. You need them on your side – so let your headshot work with you, not against you.

To get cast in a role, talent matters – but so do looks. Sometimes, a casting director is looking for a ginger-haired woman with British teeth and the air of Princess Diana – and no matter how much you try, that’s just not you. By looking at your headshot they need to quickly see your type – male/female, hot/not, old/young, could be cast as an axe murderer/more likely to be the boy next door. Your headshot should do some of that casting work for them. 

It also needs to be memorable, but for the right reasons. You want the CD’s attention to be grabbed by your piercing baby blues, not your embarrassingly cheesy pose. First impressions matter – if your headshot says: “out-of-work knitwear model fallen on hard times” then those are the roles you’ll get called for. Don’t be too generic but also try and see yourself with fresh eyes – sometimes it can help to get someone close to you to take a look. If you have an agent they’ll be good at telling you the kind of home truths your doting mum may not – so take advantage. After all, you’re paying them!

How do I take a good headshot?

A good headshot is as representative of you and your acting type as possible. 

In the modern world of personal branding and constant selfies, most of us now know how to make ourselves look as good as possible in a picture. Chin up, soft lighting and a seductive pout, right? Wrong! When it comes to a good, useable headshot, it’s not all about looking good – it’s also about looking versatile and – crucially – castable. You want to show casting directors what you can play by subtly showing different aspects of your personality. If they’re after axe murderers, a perfect pout in ambient lighting ain’t going to cut it!  

Think of the kind of roles you want to get cast as. Who are you as an actor? Now look at your headshot – is it helping or hindering? Does it visually communicate to potential employers the roles you want or is it just a picture of you looking attractive? Be honest with yourself. You may look great but you’re trying to get hired, not get a date. 

A good headshot should help reveal you as an actor – your range, your personality, and yes – sometimes even that slight double chin. Try and think like a casting director: beautifully coiffed, hot people in heavy makeup are not suitable for many roles. Think natural: you are unique, and you need to show that in an unfiltered way. Again, remember you are the solution to their casting problem – help them solve it!  

Also, remember your eyes are your most important feature when it comes to headshots. If your pictures don’t grab a casting director saying “Cast me, Cast me, Cast me!” then reshoot.

On her blog, UK headshot photographer Claire Newman Williams says the “magic” element in a successful headshot is confidence. She puts it like this: “If you want a good headshot we need to see you, but if you want a great headshot we need to see into you.” She argues that a good photographer gives you the confidence and direction to make that happen. 

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What makes a bad headshot?

A bad headshot doesn't look like you and/or looks unprofessional. 

Where to start? Out of focus, your face is hidden, huge earrings, bad lighting – and it looks nothing like you! Perhaps the background drowns you out, there are props galore or the photographer has gone too arty? Getting a good headshot is an art, getting a bad headshot is easy. No pressure, eh!

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How do I find a headshot photographer?

Backstage has done the hard work for you! Read our guide to the best headshot photographers in London.

You can also ask friends in the industry, ask your agent and take a look at other people’s headshots. Get recommendations, do some research and look at a photographer’s past work. Examine their portfolio: it’s a big decision – you need someone in touch with the modern market who can help you sell yourself to industry figures today, not twenty years ago!

Once you’ve settled on a few candidates, chat with them and see if you’re compatible. Tell them what you want, what jobs you want to go for and let them help you make it happen. They have to be able to get the best out of you and that won’t work if you’re uncomfortable with the photographer. 

Nick James, one of London’s leading headshot specialists who used to be an actor himself, suggests asking your photographer a few crucial questions. Firstly, how long will you get with them? He says going for a longer session is often a good idea as it allows time for several different looks, and it lets you relax into the session. He also says it’s important to check any retouching deal: air-brushing can make your headshot stand out, but takes time and – inevitably – money, so find out exactly what you’re paying for.

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How do I prepare for a headshot shoot?

  • Know what you want to portray and the kind of roles you’re working towards
  • Get your hair and makeup done and dress for the role
  • Talk to your photographer about lighting and shot style. If you see yourself as a serious dramatic actor you might want to stay away from bright, light-drenched shots.

Your headshot is there to visually communicate your essence as an actor and it’s worth putting some thought into how to do that before you enter the studio.

Vincenzo, a leading UK headshot photographer, says it’s important to think about your wardrobe BEFORE you arrive for the shoot. Many photographers will specify how many changes are included in the session, but remember – time changing is time away from the camera, so don’t go Pretty Woman montage-crazy! He also urges actors to think seriously about their brand and NEVER get a haircut on the day of your photographic session. His other top tip: don’t be late!

Crucially, it’s really important to check the details of your shoot with the photographer. You need to know how many photos he or she will be supplying and get some kind of contract signed. If you’ve been giving your all for four hours only to get four shots at the end of it, you may be disappointed. 

Remember also that you live in Britain! So, if your photographer is keen on doing your shoot outside then remember you’ll be at the mercy of the elements. Too sunny and you may look squinty; too blowy and there’s your expensive hair-do down the drain. Also, you may have to reschedule the shoot if it starts pissing it down – and that’ll be expensive, especially if you’ve made a special journey.

Noted UK headshot photographer Fatimah Namdar says she has a “strong preference” for daylight, choosing to take her actors out and about to London locations in a bid to find a “less formal” environment. So, we’re not saying don’t do it outside – we’re just saying remember to consider the British weather! 

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How do I make my headshots better?

Retouching is an important part of the photographer’s arsenal and when it’s done well it can really make your portrait pop – but you don’t want to retouch your personality out of the photo. You never know what a casting director is looking for – it might be that the cute little mole on your chin you’ve always hated is just what they’ve been searching for!

Again, we come back to what a headshot should communicate: the real you – or rather, your brand as an actor. Authenticity is important: your headshot needs to look like you, so even though it’s tempting to retouch your wrinkles out of existence, don’t do it!

Then there’s the tricky issue of colour versus black and white, and how close to crop? The traditional British style of headshot used to favour B&W and a close crop on the face, while in the US it was definitely colour and a looser-cropped frame. 

But times have changed, and now colour wins on both sides of the pond. However, in the era of needing a clear, attractive web thumbnail, the close-up crop is starting to win fans on both sides of the Atlantic. So, it seems like the US and the UK have learnt from each other, but if you’re planning to send your headshot to the US it may be worth asking your photographer for a looser crop so you have the option.   

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How much do headshots cost?

A headshot photo session can range from £150 to around the £400 mark. 

Mentally preparing for your headshot costs nothing but there is no denying that you are going to have to shell out – and as your mum probably told you once when you weren’t listening, you often get what you pay for. 

You need to know how long the session will last, how many shots you’ll get in the end, how much retouching is included and how everything will be delivered – and get it all in writing. Some photographers can also arrange hair and makeup, so that’s another added cost to bear in mind. You should think of a good headshot as an investment in your career – it might not be cheap but hopefully it’ll be worth it.

Check out Backstage’s UK audition listings!

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