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Headshots 101

Amanda Charney shares advice from former headshot photographer Dan Sanders and director/actor John Rubinstein. logo

A headshot should capture "the actor's best self."

I realized at the beginning of this school year that although I was getting training in acting, dancing, singing, and so much more, there were a lot of things I still don't know about actually getting a job. How does an acting student deal with the more technical elements of getting cast, beyond talent? When the call sheet says, "Please bring a headshot and resume," how should we prepare?

Luckily, I was able to speak with former headshot photographer Dan Sanders and director/actor John Rubinstein, whom I interviewed last semester. They shared with me the ins and outs of headshots, and what an acting student's standard should be.

What makes a great headshot?

John Rubinstein says all that directors are looking for is an accurate representation of the actor's best self. "If it's too old (in other words, if it makes you look significantly younger than you actually look) or too retouched or if your expression is exaggerated in any way, then dump it and get a more current, true-to-you shot taken. As a director scanning photos, I am looking for a face that is real, that looks like there is some spark of energy and intelligence there.

"Also, try to suit the photo to the role as much as possible. It's good to have three or four good headshots that are different. Smiling ones generally work better (it's their first look at you, so why not look pleasant?) unless you know the role you're up for is an axe-murderer. A suit and tie for a man, an elegant dress or suit for a woman, will work better for white-collar roles."

Dan has a similar philosophy: "A good photographer is simply able to capture you at your very best. A bad photographer takes a nice picture that doesn't look like you. The first and only rule of resume pictures is that they absolutely have to look like what you look like when you walk into an audition room. Also, price is not necessarily indicative of quality. There are about a dozen photographers around Los Angeles who have been scamming young actors for decades with what is really little more than good marketing. The last headshots I got - both my agent and I liked them very much - and the shooting fee was $200 for a pleasant and capable woman. So, it is not necessarily a 'get what you pay for' proposition."

How should an acting student go about getting headshots?

Dan counsels that while still in school, "I don't see any real reason to drop more than low-three-figure money on photographs until you're more in the professional world than the academic one. In fact, digital SLR cameras with interchangeable lenses are so good now that anyone should be able to get a serviceable resume picture with one. Get together with a friend or two and shoot in a quiet place about an hour before sundown, when the light is best. Take at least a hundred shots - of those, four or five will probably work."

But what if you don't have a camera of your own or don't trust yourself (or your friends) to take quality pictures?

"Photography students are often capable of excellent results. I might also suggest that actors keep an eye on internet casting service listings, which sometimes include photographers who are seeking actors they can use to build their portfolios in return for free pictures. Results of these, of course, vary widely. Most of the internet casting sites also have a directory of photographers who advertise to be included there."

When you've made your way into the professional world, however, it's time for an investment.

"Once a young actor is out of school, it's time to engage an established professional photographer. Pictures are far more important to a young actor than they are to an older one. They have to use tools like great pictures to set themselves apart from that ocean of other young actors all around them."

John also acknowledges that "It's finally a matter of dollars. If you can afford to pay a good, well-recommended professional photographer, then do so. It's more likely that the photos will be properly lit and look like the real thing; and pros know better, on the whole, how to make you look your best, in every way. Also, it's slightly more focused and grown-up to do these sessions with someone who is a relative stranger (Just make sure not to pay the full amount until the photos are in your hands!)."

Many thanks to Dan Sanders and John Rubinstein for sharing with us their wisdom about headshots - and resumes! Next week, I'll cover the basics of writing your resume and lay out the "rules" about what should go in, stay out, or be in big bold letters right at the top of the page.


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