How to Get the Proper Actor Headshot

By: Steve McChesney

The Photographer's Job

Photographers think that it is their job to make an actor look as young and as pretty/handsome as possible.

This is precisely the segment of the market where there are the fewest roles, and overwhelmingly, the most competition.

Who is in Control of the Photo Shoot?

YOU need to be in control of your photo shoot. Let the photographer know what YOU want, not what he/she wants.

As for cost, shop around. Ask what it will cost you for 72 shots (two rolls of film), a contact sheet, and two 8x10 pictures. Ask if you get to keep the negatives or not (probably not). Photographers like to keep the negatives to keep you coming back to purchase more pictures.

Your 8x10 Headshot is your calling card. It should be a good representation of what you look like right now. It is best to get a new one done at least once a year.

Let your shirt collar represent your 'type'.

For example, a construction worker would wear a tee shirt, a business man a suit jacket, a teacher would wear a button down shirt, a housewife a dress, etc.

Get several opinions on your shirt before you shoot the pictures.

Your eyes should show your personality. A little mischief in your eyes show that you are fun to work with. Practice in front of the mirror.


Contrary to popular belief, DO NOT hire a make-up artist for your photo shoot. Your photographer may recommend that you use their person (costs extra) however, I repeat, you are in charge of your photo shoot. You do not want a make-up artist.

I take that back, go ahead and hire one as long as you plan to rehire them before every audition. Common sense tells you that you want your head shot to look like you, the real you. If you have wrinkles, let them show.

Women do your own make-up as you do on a daily basis.

Men, unless you wear make-up daily, don't use any for your photos.

You want to look like your photo when you walk into the casting director's office.

When you receive your contact sheet, use a 'loop' to view the pictures as they will appear at the right size (8 x 10).

Pick out two that YOU think best represent the look you are going for and write down your choices in a private place.

Have five other people (who you trust) pick out two each that they feel best represent you. DO NOT influence them by telling them which two you chose. Have them also record their choices privately.

Once this is done, compare the choices of your five friends with the ones you chose. Do they agree with you? Did they pick ones that you didn't? Which picture(s) received the most votes? That's the one you want!

Keep in mind that you want the shots that best sell your type, not the ones that make you the sexiest.

Tell your photographer the two headshots you want. He/she may offer to reproduce them for you in quantity. Compare prices before you agree. Most photo labs can do this for you at reasonable fees. You don't need the photographer to be the middle man and receive a markup on what you can easily do yourself.

Keep in mind the photographer and actor have two different self interests.

Photographers will offer to sell you a variety of products including 3 x 5's, comp cards, commercial composites, etc... Some of those items you will need later, right now concentrate on your headshot.

The 8 x 10 reproductions should include your name and Union affiliations printed on the front. If you have an agent, include them as contact information on the front, if not, include a phone number where you can be reached on the BACK of the picture (also on your resume).

Until you have a headshot, you will be considered an amateur. One of the tricks to getting work in television and film is to look, act, walk, and talk like a professional.

Also, you want your pictures in black and white, not color.

Color can be distracting. Keep it plain; keep it simple and you will get the audition.

Color can be good for comp cards, commercial composites, and modeling portfolios, but not for headshots.

Headshots That Work

The criteria of gender, age, ethnic origin, and occupation are primary in determining type.

These are the four things that affect the way the world treats a person. Your headshot should show these four things about you.

Think about it; the car dealer will treat you differently if you are a male looking to buy a sports car vs. a female buying the sports car. You are asked for identification when trying to buy alcohol if you don't look the proper age. When you first meet someone, one of the first questions asked is, "What do you do for a living?" How many times have we heard about prejudice when it comes to race?

Again, we are looking to accomplish landing the acting job. These four elements WILL determine who gets the role.

Characters in movies almost always have an occupation, be it a cab driver, a cop, a teacher, a doctor, etc.

Being a male or female, black, white or Indian is not as important as whether or not you look like you fit in the occupation of the role you are trying to get.

Most casting breakdowns will include the race, gender, and age requirements; however, these can easily be changed in most cases if the producer likes you for the occupation being cast.

Determining Your Type

You've heard the term "Type casting." It is usually used in a negative connotation, however it is exactly the way casting is done.

When you are a star, you can be cast outside your 'type' because the powers that be know you, and you have box office draw. Until then you will be cast by type. Like anything else, you must crawl before you walk, and walk before you run.

Just like any other business, you need to do a market survey. Chrysler spends their advertising dollar for their station wagons and SUVs on married men with families because that is more likely to have a return on their investment then if they aimed at the single young man.

Do not ask other actors what type they think you are. They are not the end users. You need to ask John Q. Public.

This is vitally important when it comes to getting the job.

Please follow the advice in this lesson to a 'T' and you will see great results.

How to do it.

Buy a pack of 100 3x5 index cards.

Approximately 50% of the movie going public is between the ages of 16 and 24.

On half of your index cards write 16-24 in the upper left corner.

On 25 of those write 'Male' and on the other 25 write 'Female'.

Divide the rest of the index cards into five equal stacks of 10 each.

Label them 'Under 16', 'Late 20's', '30's', '40's', and '50 & up'.

Divide these into 'Male' and 'Female'.

Now you are ready to take your survey.

The best place to get your market survey completed for the 16 to 24 crowd is at a college campus.

A mall or grocery store is a great place to get the rest of the cards filled out.

Let the strangers know that you are doing a brief survey and politely ask them for their help. Let them know you only want to ask them three questions. If they say no, thank them and move on to the next person.

Wear neutral clothing so that your dress doesn't influence their decisions on what your position is in life.

When you approach a person, do your best to guess his/her age (don't ask them). Take the appropriate card from your stack.

Here is the list of questions you are to ask:

Question 1: How old do you think I am? Your first impression, whatever it is, please.

Question 2: Just looking at my face, what do you think I do for a living? (If they answer that you look like a college student, ask them what they think your major is).

Question 3: What ethnic origin do you think I am? (Even if you are obviously Black, White or Hispanic, ask anyway because they might say Jamaican, Scottish, or Puerto Rican).

You will find that most people will give you friendly answers. Some will brush you off. Just smile and move on to the next person.

Once you've filled out all of your cards, it's time to compile the results.

Now that you have all of your index cards filled out, you are ready to see what the public percieves you as.

Knowing this is the biggest secret in getting work in the entertainment industry.

Once You've Got the Results

First, gather all 100 index cards into one pile. Average all of the ages that people guessed and come up with a median age (the middle of your average). This is how old you look to the public in general.

Understand that this is an exercise and market survey. Your real age has no bearing here. It is all about how old you LOOK.

Now, divide the cards into two stacks. One stack is for people who guessed your age below the median and the other for people who guessed higher. If you have cards where people guessed exactly, put those aside.

Average the low stack, come up with a median. Now average the high stack and come up with a median. This will determine your 'Age Range'.


Your starting median age was 25 years old.

Your low stack was between 19 and 24 years old. The median would be 21.

Your high stack was between 26 and 30 years old. The median would be 28.

Your age range would be 21 to 28 years old.

The median of your age range would be 25 (the same as your beginning median age). This is the age you should look in your headshot.

When a casting director gets an audition for someone between 21 and 28, chances are you will get called in (as long as you fit the other criteria).

Now that you know your age range, gather all of the cards together and divide them into two piles. These piles will be job categories. One stack for jobs that require a college education and one for jobs that do not.

At this point, you will notice that one pile is larger than the other.

Disregard the smaller stack.

From the larger stack, list the amount of times a particular job is mentioned. You will notice that one job is mentioned more than any other.

This is the primary occupation look.

There will probably be other occupations that are guessed the same and these will serve as your 'range of characters'.

EXAMPLE: Your large stack has 68 cards, of those:

Doctor is mentioned 37 times

Police Officer is mentioned 12 times

Teacher is mentioned 10 times

Salesman is mentioned 9 times

For your headshot, go with the occupation look that got the most votes. This will be the easiest way to break into the business and get the job.

Dress for your photo shoot the same way you would dress if you were applying for a position in that occupation.

Imagine if a casting director got a breakdown for a taxi driver and you looked like a doctor. Don't you think that it would be a waste of time to go to that audition? Don't you think that the casting director would think it a waste of time to audition you?

Sure, you could "play" a taxi driver, but in this business 'type casting' is the norm and producers will not hire a doctor to play a taxi driver.

Casting directors will appreciate your professionalism and the fact that you aren't wasting their time or your own. Go for the roles that you 'fit'.

If after this exercise, you are disappointed in how the world perceives you, welcome to reality. It is better to go with the public (i.e. movie going audience) than to always fail to get the job because you are trying to be something that you are not (or at least you don't LOOK like it).

Types of Headshots

In general, a headshot is just that, a picture of your head and face.

They are 8 x 10 and in black and white.

It is okay to include your shoulders in the shot and/or from the waist up; however, try and keep the focus on the face.

Your portfolio can have full body shots as well as ? shots (knees up).

Parent's Guide for Young Kids

When it comes to babies and children under 5 years old, do not invest money in headshots. There are two reasons for this.

1)Children's appearances change rapidly. Once you have gone through the process of getting a headshot and reproductions, the child already looks different than the picture. We all know about those growth spurts. Unless you are wealthy and don't mind spending the incredible amount of money it will take to keep those pictures up to date, simply use snap shots. Yes that's right, plain old snap shot pictures that you take with your own camera.

In today's technology and digital world, it's easy to replace outdated pictures with the touch of a button.

2)Casting directors look at headshots of babies and small children as unprofessional. They expect you to know that they want up to the minute pictures of what your children look like now. They are casting 'now' and want today's look. If you (or your agent) send them a snap shot with the date it was taken, you will get a better response from them.

Important information to include is child's name, birth date, social security number (tells them that your child can work, however this is tricky in today's day and age of identity theift. You might just list: SS# available upon contract), mom and dad's name and phone number, and (very important) date photo(s) were taken.

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