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I'm (NOT) Ready for my Close-Up

Bridget Coyne Gabbe discusses what to look for when getting a new actor headshot. logo

Bridget Coyne Gabbe (© Ben Gabbe Photography)

On the long list of things actors stress about, headshots should be a minor one, right? Wrong... at least in my case. I hate having my picture taken, but, alas, headshots are my business card.

So, recently, after six faithful years together, the time came to retire the headshots of my 18-year-old-self and get an update. A photographer friend offered to throw a free session my way. Free? Score! That was until an agent took a look and with a circling motion around my face said, "Um…what's going on with this photo?" (Sorry if you're reading this dude!)

What I hoped would be an easy process became, well, an exercise in self-torment. I asked actor and director friends for recommendations. I googled "best headshots in NYC" about 35 times. I called six different photogs asking about their "overall mission, goal and style?"

Here's what I know: 1.) the cost of headshots has gone up - a lot - since my last foray, and 2) no one agrees on what's a good approach.

The "art" of headshots has evolved enormously in recent years. From the traditional black and white to color, from formal studio to au naturelle, from high-gloss glamour to the raw "Occupy Wall Street" look. It's dizzying to think about what people actually want to see.

The central question I came to wrestle with is, in today's marketplace, what's good and what's not?

I've pondered and deliberated this question from every dimension, drawing out my headshot mission over six months lest I make a fateful error. Here are several observations YOU may want to think about if the headshot schtick is becoming way too much.

Is that you in this photo? This seems obvious, but from my conversations with people in the know, not looking like your photo is mistake numero uno. When casting directors see your headshot and call you in, they want to make sure that it's the same face walking through the door. After having my awesome celebrity photographer bro ( take a few shots of me, I went in for an audition and the CD said: "Nice photo. It's actually you. You'd be surprised at the shots that come in here..." Score points for keeping it all in the family (If you are asking yourself why I didn't just go to him in the first place... so am I)!

Don't show too much skin. When I did an internship a few years back at a theater company, I was shocked by some of the headshots that were being submitted - so was my boss, the associate artistic director. Unless you're going out for a film of a certain genre... keeping it classy is always a good way to go. Keep the "girls" tucked in and the chest hair at bay.

Artificial sweetener? No thank you. Here's a response to one of those aforementioned free headshots: "This picture looks like you're selling an after-school special and I'm pretty sure those aren't very popular anymore." Eeek... but she wasn't wrong. You don't want to come across as saccharin and insincere. Casting directors can tell when you're faking it, and that comes with your picture too. When I attended a recent commercial intensive this point was driven home even more. "You're selling too much," was one of the major notes everyone received.

Originality is essential. During my research, some of the portfolios I came across had photos that looked exactly the same, with the only difference being the face. Swap in-swap out. Notice whether the photographer's portfolio shows creativity, an ability to home in on the individual personality of each subject. If the photos all look the same, stay away. You want a photog who's going to capture that unique sparkle in your eye.

Where is your face? This is a recurring theme when I hear casting directors and agents talk about headshots. Those side angles and other strange, "arty" approaches usually don't get high marks. There are exceptions, of course, I'm often surprised by some of the headshots in Broadway Playbills. A recent one had a man's face completely turned to the side, looking at the camera from over his shoulder. Another wore a skullcap. I guess it worked for them: they've made it to Broadway.

When all is said and done, trust your gut. Select a shot that's the best representation of who you want to project. Be at peace knowing that ten people will see your headshot in ten different ways. What matters is how YOU feel about it. If you're proud and confident - you've got the shot that will likely garner the most attention.

Now, if I could just follow my own advice and settle on that one perfect image of moi.


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