You hear the term headshot thrown around a lot, particularly if you have actor or performer friends who are always complaining about needing “updated headshots”. But what does that mean exactly? What is a “headshot” and why is it different than a portrait photograph? And how can it help those of us who are not actors or musicians or performers of some kind? Well look no further than MJ Photographics! For the next few weeks I’ll be posting a blog series all about headshots for both performers and professionals.
When you hear the words headshot and portrait many people picture these:
Awkward dress, weird poses, unnecessary props (and animals, what?) and bizarre editing. Boy the 90s gave us some ‘interesting’ examples of portrait photography. (Google search bad 90s photography for a good hour of fun). But neither headshots or portraits have to be like this anymore. So what is the difference between a headshot and a portrait?
Portrait photos are what you give your mom when you live away from home and she complains that she “never gets to see her baby’s face anymore!” They can be posed; standing/sitting still, looking into the camera. Or candid; lost in thought, engaging with another person or the space around them. Artistic angles and evocative lighting can be used. Portraits can be beautiful images that create an emotional response from the viewer or simple photos that capture a moment in a person’s life and/or their personality. Even a selfie taken on a phone could be considered a type of self-portrait. Though some may disagree, check out this post by Annelisa Stephan for more on that discussion.
That all sounds great, so why can’t you just use a portrait as a headshot? Well to answer that I would first encourage you to think of a headshot not as just a photograph, but as a marketing tool. Does that change things for you? Headshots are a professional’s way of introducing themself to the world. In today’s digital society they are the first impression that almost anyone will have of you in your career. Actor’s headshots are sent along in advance of an audition and are printed in programs that audience reads before a show. Business professional’s headshots are used on LinkedIn, which is often the first stop for employers when sussing out a potential employee or for clients interested in seeing your background. And so headshots should reflect that more professional atmosphere.
The requirements of a headshot are essentially the same regardless of whether the image is used by a performer or a business professional, with maybe a few differences which I’ll address separately below.
Headshots should have good light; no stark shadows, no creative lighting, just clean, even lighting especially on the face. Speaking of which, your face should be fully visible. A slight head turn is okay but no profile shots and you should definitely be looking into the camera. A headshot is all about the eyes, you want to make a connection with the camera via your eyes so that when someone looks at your photo they can feel that connection. You know Tyra Bank’s ridiculous sounding made-up term “Smize”?
That’s a real thing scientists have proven. Smiling with your eyes is the best way to get that connection with the camera and your audience. But don’t fake it, many people can spot a fake smile. I often tell my clients to think of something funny, or I just tell them really bad jokes, to get them laughing. Laughing produces the most genuine smiles.
The camera angle should be fairly straight on, nothing fancy or artistic. No one looks good shot from below, and although angling the camera above you seems to be thought of as universally flattering it does distort your face and can easily be seen in the image.
And finally a headshot should show your personality in a professional setting. That can vary a little more depending on whether that’s a theatre, concert hall or office but the take home here is just to be yourself. You want to look comfortable in your photos, not like you’re trying to be someone you’re not.
All of the above applies to all types of headshots but there are a few rules or guidelines more specific to headshots for various types of jobs. I’ll get into more details further on in the series when we look at other topics such as styles, location, what to wear and more but for now here’s a more general outline of each type of headshot.
An acting headshot is probably the most well known type. This is what gets you in the door of an audition, because, as most people in the entertainment business know, it’s all about your look. That’s why the number one rule of acting headshots is that you MUST look like your headshot. Other types of headshots might be able to get away with a hair change or slight age difference but when an actor walks into an audition room the casting directors want to see exactly the person they saw in your headshot. Have you changed your hair recently? Time for a new headshot. Did you gain or lose some weight? Time for a new headshot. Has it been 2 or more years since you had one taken? Time for a new headshot. I could go on but I think you get the point.
Within the realm of actor headshots there are also different types. Commercial and theatrical have long been the two types all actors should have. Commercial headshots are exactly as they sound, for commercials. When you think about advertising and commercials what descriptors comes to mind? Happy, sweet, enthusiastic, mostly positive things. That’s generally what marketers want people to associate with their products, therefore a headshot designed to attract commercial casting directors should play into those emotions. Keep it light, smiling and friendly. This is where some good “smizing” skills are going to come in handy! Theatrical headshots are in a way the opposite but are also an opportunity to show another side of your personality. Sometimes I like to call this shot your “Hamlet” shot. You can be more serious, tough, innocent, bitchy, mischievous, have more attitude and a myriad of other emotions. But make sure you’re still playing within your own personality and your acting hit (something we’ll talk more about later in this series).
Musician headshots are also usually split into two types, singers and instrumentalists. Singer headshots are very much like acting headshots, as singers, especially classical singers, are very much actors in their own way. Instrumentalists have much less strict guidelines, although I would suggest having fairly updated photos as you likely do want people to be able to recognize you from your headshots. Many instrumentalists will also have two headshots, one with the instrument they play and one without. If you play more than one instrument, you could choose your main one or invest in several shots with all your instruments.
Musician headshots can also differ depending on the style of music you’re involved with. A pop or rock musician isn’t going to have the same style of headshot as a classical musician. Pop and rock style artists are more likely to bend the guidelines of headshot, aiming for a photo that really promotes the persona they use on stage as opposed to their regular personality.
This mainly applies to theatre professionals as often the production crew will have headshots in the program for a show. Here is where you are more likely to see portrait style photos used a headshots and frankly this category of headshots is the place where it is okay to stray from the “rules” more. These jobs don’t rely on how you look to get you to the job or require as much face to face networking where you want to be very recognizable. The only exception here may be directors, who will likely be more in the forefront of the marketing for a show and therefore will need to have a good photo handy for publications. I will stress that having a well shot photo of you, whether it’s portrait or headshot style, is important. And using a professional photographer will help with the technical part of making sure you have appropriate files for both digital and print use. But more on that in a future post.
The key to business headshots is showing off your personality. Who are you at work? What impression do you want to give potential employees or clients? Friendly? Driven? Serious? Communicating your intentions to your photographer is going to be very important to capture the right headshot for you. I’ll elaborate on that a little more in an upcoming post. Business headshots should also be updated fairly regularly, maybe not with the same frequency as actor headshots, but you should still look like your photo. This is especially important in careers that involve a lot of networking. You want people to be able to recognize you from your LinkedIn profile at events or meetings.
And there you have it….. or really there you generally have it. There’s a lot more to know about the world of headshots but for now this is a good primer on the essence of a headshot. Coming up in the series we’ll explore different styles of headshots, how to find a headshot photographer, the cost of a headshot session and more!
Have a burning question about headshots? Post in the comments below and I’ll endeavour to answer a few throughout this series!