Tips for shooting Performing Artist Headshots

divamumdivamum Major grinsRegistered Users Posts: 9,021 Major grins
edited May 29, 2016 in People
I reckoned since I've written this up in threads so many times that I'd clean it up for posterity (and to link to when the subject comes up again!) Hope it helps somebody, somewhere who gets asked to do these! :thumb


PPA Lecture/dem from Atlanta Headshot Photographer Tracy Bosworth Page. A MUST-LISTEN for anybody shooting headshots.
FANTASTIC round-table discussion about headshots from SAG (Screen Actors Guild) - comments from photographers and casting directors. Worth watching. Life Raft: The Heads up on Headshots

Main thing to remember: for actors and musicians a headshot is NOT "just a flattering portrait" (although hopefully it's that, too!) Especially for actors - since so much "first round" typing/casting is done from photographs these days - it is vital that the picture really shows their personality and what they could deliver as a performer. It needs to engage the viewer, portray the type of energy and character the actor could offer in a role, and generally make people think not only "they look like they'd be nice to work with" but "Yup, they'd be perfect for this part!" (whatever that part might be). The important thing is for the shot to GET THE AUDITION - after that, it's up to the performer, but the photo has to represent what they could take into the room with them. That means it has to really look like them - the usual advice is "a headshot should look like you on a fabulous day" rather than be lit/angled/PS'd into something else entirely. This is particularly important for those submitting for film work, where what the headshot shows should be what somebody else's camera will also see.

Here's a pair of articles by a casting director, discussing what she thinks makes a great headshot with a lot of helpful info for actors and photographers alike. This article is a several years old now so some of the actual photographic styles have changed a bit since then (trends move pretty fast), but the principles she lays out are still very valid. One of the best articles on the subject I've come across so far.

Bad Headshots, Good Headshots (link to examples at bottom of column)
Bad Headshots, Good Headshots II (ditto)
Headshots III (slightly more recent)

Another article from Ms Gillespie, with her views on "type" in a picture. The 2007 article is, again, a bit out of date as far as specific photo styles, but the principles remain the same even if trends have changed a little since then. She also wrote an article outlining her personal breakdown of various types, which is extremely useful!!

Examples: Stick in a zipcode and follow the links to their directory of photographers - lots of links to headshot photographers in NY and LA (the two big markets). There are distinct differences in style between the two coasts - this sorta-kinda relates to film vs theatre, but not entirely, so you can't really use that as a rule-of-thumb. Once you start to see what folks are doing, it helps a lot towards understanding what you're trying to achieve.

Styles: Trends change - currently natural light, close-cropped and angled shots are very popular, but that doesn't mean they will be next year. In the US, colour has almost completely taken over from BW, and I've definitely noticed more studio shots starting to creep back into portfolios in the last 14 months (even high key setups which 3 years ago were being poo-poohed as too "2000's" and old-fashioned are making a bit of a comeback), although natural light is still dominant from what I've seen. Both can work. Main thing I consistently notice in really good headshots is that they're DYNAMIC - not stiff "hold still" portraits, but body angles, leaning into camera and, most importantly, a really connected, alive, sparkling, engaging expression in the eyes - real *energy* in the photos. Can be serious or smiling, sultry or soft, but when that energy is there, the shot works.

Excellent blog post by a photographer about the difference between LA and NY styles (which isn't quite as simple as "theater" vs "film", although that is part of the difference. But only part.)

Types: It's important for headshot photographers to be familiar with "types" - girl/boy next door, character, commercial, corporate, leading man/woman etc etc- some of this is to do with styling, but it's also how the photographer directs the subject and guides (and lights) the shoot. Also, anybody shooting headshots needs to understand how roles translate into these "types" (and vice-versa) to help the subject get the best "calling card" images that they can.

Thoughts on how to identify "type" by Carolyne Barry (casting director/director)

MUA/Retouching: A good MUA can go a long way to making a great headshot - and, IMO, some photographer's "styles" are as defined by their MUA as their shooting approach - but it is likely that an image will need some retouching, sometimes quite a lot... although the end result is for it to look extremely natural. It should never look over-retouched (the person who walks into the room at the audition needs to look like the headshot which got the casting folks to INVITE them to the audition), but it should look fabulous which, these days, means at least a hint of "fashion style". Soft-filter lenses and serious blurring are usually no-no's these days (although "special effects" can sometimes be fun for promotional images of the kind which might be used on a website. Those, however, are not typical "headshots").

Proofs: performers want LOTS of shots to choose from, but don't expect the proofs to be retouched (that's saved for the images chosen) - obviously, if one is shooting raw they will have whatever basic processing they might need (eg white balance or contrast), but the "deep editing" (eg skin retouching) comes later. I know that many photographers used to shooting families/weddings etc are horrified at the thought of giving a client 200 images to choose from, but that's not uncommon for an "unlimited time" headshot session.

Cropping/size: 8x10 is still industry standard - digital or print, 8x10. Headshot prints usually have a border, with the subject's name and/or agent's logo at the bottom, but the photographer doesn't necessarily have to provide that (printing houses will do it if necessary).

Pricing structures: Obviously, everybody has their own way of doing it, but in my experience most common is a flat fee for a shoot of specified time, with a specified number of proofs delievered from which a specified number of images are chosen to be edited in more detail as "final images" (some bigger studios subcontract this to retouchers; others do it themselves - ymmv). Some photographers give clients a CD of proofs; some print paper copies at the session; others post them in online galleries. The client needs FULL REPRODUCTION RIGHTS. The photographer often retains copyright, but the subject has unlimited printing and repro rights. Headshots are often mass reproduced for mailings and/or program bulletins/posters etc, and the session fee needs to include those rights. Most headshot photographers deliever digital copies these days (or digital plus a master print for reference) - the client gets mass reproduction done elsewhere if they need it.

Some well-known headshot photographers:
Peter Hurley (quite a few interesting BTS videos as well as an interesting portfolio)
Kevin Major Howard (very well known LA photographer)
Jordan Matter (another big-name headshot photographer)
Brian McConkey(one of my favorite headshot photographers - love the individuality of expression in his shots)
Sean Turi (relative newcomer, but quickly developing a following - like Hurley, a former model/actor turned photographer - a lot of useful info on his site)
Kristin Hoebermann (very identifiable style with her golden backlights - extremely popular among classical singers)
Christian Steiner (iconic - and more traditional style - photographer of classical musicians for 30+ years)

Added link:
Lighting guru David Hobby describes his first experience specifically directing a more emotional kind of shoot for an actor. In particular, read the comments; some very interesting responses.

Added link:
Canadian headshot photographer Kevin Patrick Robbins offers his thoughts on the history of the headshot in recent years (and trends/styles)


  • FoquesFoques He who caN Streamwood, ILRegistered Users Posts: 1,951 Major grins
    edited September 8, 2011
    this should really be stickied.
    Arseny - the too honest guy.
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  • divamumdivamum Major grins Registered Users Posts: 9,021 Major grins
    edited September 27, 2011
    Another excellent article (thanks for sharing, April!)
  • SeniorMattSeniorMatt Big grins LouisianaRegistered Users Posts: 14 Big grins
    edited November 7, 2011
    Im new to Dgrin and photography, but I am an experienced thespian, this is great advice and very true to the amount of head shots Ive done. Thanks for sharing!
  • divamumdivamum Major grins Registered Users Posts: 9,021 Major grins
    edited November 30, 2011
    And another of casting director Bonnie Gillespie's articles on headshots, using real examples that have crossed her desk.
  • HackboneHackbone Always learning MDRegistered Users Posts: 4,027 Major grins
    edited February 19, 2012
    Found this link on headshots and thought some might find it helpful
  • adbsgicomadbsgicom Texas-Sized Grins Greensboro, NCRegistered Users Posts: 3,615 Major grins
    edited February 19, 2012
    Hackbone wrote: »
    Found this link on headshots and thought some might find it helpful

    Very interesting. He also posted one on Vimeo about head positioning:
    - Andrew

    Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.
    My SmugMug Site
  • divamumdivamum Major grins Registered Users Posts: 9,021 Major grins
    edited February 19, 2012
    Great stuff. He's added these since the last time I checked his site, so thanks for the heads up! thumb.gif

    (ETA: and oh, what a showman - definitely a character behind the character as well as in front!)
  • LubinskiLubinski Speedlighter Green Bay, WIRegistered Users Posts: 73 Big grins
    edited May 18, 2012
    I just found Peter Hurley like a few months ago and am devouring videos of him left and right. One thing to take from this guy is confidence and how he commands the shoot, truly inspirational.
  • daniel212daniel212 Big grins Registered Users Posts: 29 Big grins
    edited May 29, 2013
    You did fabulous job. It is very nice Work on shooting Performing Artist Headshots
    It is important that your headshot look exactly like you. If you send a picture to a Casting Director or agent and you get called in, and you don’t look like your headshot, you automatically lose. However if your picture looks exactly like you and they call you in... well, then, YOU are exactly who they are interested in. So, now that you're in the door, all you have to do is 'Knock them down' with your audition
  • axxo1axxo1 Beginner grinner Registered Users Posts: 1 Beginner grinner
    edited August 25, 2013
    headshots are my weak spot, thanks for sharing these articles, some of them are really inspirational
  • kobistarkobistar Major grins IsraelRegistered Users Posts: 109 Major grins
    edited November 6, 2013
    thanks. interesting
  • bsmith77bsmith77 Beginner grinner Registered Users Posts: 3 Beginner grinner
    edited November 16, 2013
    As a dancer, this rings true! They look at our headshot resumes before we even dance, so it's a vital part of landing us a job! That how I got started in photography, fellow dancers needed more professional headshots and not many photogs in our area knew how to do it properly.
  • alaiosalaios Major grins GermanyRegistered Users Posts: 668 Major grins
    edited January 22, 2015
    Hi everyone,
    are there any special rules for clothing too?

  • jwheadshotsjwheadshots Beginner grinner New YorkRegistered Users Posts: 1 Beginner grinner
    edited May 29, 2016
    Excellent blog post. I always like Poyey's advice on taking headshots. I've used some of her techniques and advice in my own work. Great share!
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