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Michelle Allen

On Headshots

Picture Perfect

I'll be honest: I hate having my picture taken. So I can fully appreciate the difficulty it often poses for performers endeavouring to put together their marketing tools, i.e., photo and resumé. In fact, this problem is so pernicious that my actor workshops are almost always at least temporarily hijacked by this one very important professional and personal dilemma.


Headshots are Personal

Did I say "personal"? Yes. To pretend that having your image captured on film for display in any number of media is not personal is to be in denial. The challenge is to do your best to be realistic and objective about what--or rather, who--your photo is promoting.

When you consider that casting directors receive hundreds of submissions from all across the country in the form of thumbnail pictures with resumés attached, it's easy to understand that both performers and their representatives are highly motivated to set themselves apart from their competitors.

For a casting director, the initial viewing of submissions can be a bit overwhelming: How do I begin to make a comprehensive list of the performers I want to pre-read or audition? How? One submission at a time.

My criteria are actually quite simple: Does the actor look appropriate for the role based on the character description? If "yes", it means that I click on the photo, enlarging it to view closely.

At that point, I'm looking for what I call "kinetic energy, presence, and intention." I try to glean the essence of the performer. This is typically found in the performer's body language and facial expression, but most profoundly in the eyes.

If the photo captivates my attention and meets my criteria, I'm likely to open the resumé. The content of the resumé can further motivate and support the decision to meet a performer based on their photo.

No film and television credits yet? That's okay; everybody has to start somewhere. Just make sure that you're actively pursuing your chosen career by attending classes and workshops that will help build your resumé--and your chops.


Choosing a Headshot Photographer

It often surprises me when actors choose not to share information; I guess it's about maintaining a competitive edge. Anyway, if your colleagues with good headshots aren't forthcoming with information about their photographers, my suggestion is that you take the opportunity to view the portfolios of a variety of potential photographers; you can often do this online. Identify the various creative styles. Look for composition, contrast, and clarity. Look for photos where the soul of the individual appears to be "stepping out" toward you.

Look for a photographer who shows diversity, not only in his subjects, but in his or her portrayal of them. Try to remember that a "glam/model shot" may not necessarily serve you well. Most importantly, can the photographer capture you as you really are? Because that's what I--and my fellow casting directors--want to see. A true representation of the performer we are about to meet.

If you can, meet with at least a couple of different photographers before booking a photo shoot. Do you have a modicum of professional comfort with the person? Do they engage you in conversation, pay attention to your comments and questions, invite your self-expression and personality to take center stage? Be as clear and specific as you can about what your needs and expectations are.

Once you've chosen a photographer and have booked your session, focus on what it is you want to "say" with your photo. Create an intention for yourself. As you approach the shoot, be vision-led rather than problem-driven. It will show in your eyes.


After the Shoot

So now you and your chosen photographer came up with some great shots. Now: Black-and-White or Color?

Avoid getting distracted by this minor detail once and for all by knowing that it really doesn't matter. Although it's true that the human eye is naturally attracted to color, it doesn't mean that a B&W photo will not serve you equally well. I would rather see a professionally-rendered B&W photo where the subject is focused, present, and kinetic than a color photo taken by your friend who is a photographer and makes you look absolutely gorgeous no matter what. Enough said.

Yes, a good headshot is important. It's an opportunity to invite the world to see you in all your individual deliciousness. It's your calling card, literally, for the chance to reveal the snowflake within, meaning: You are the only one in the world capable of your own, unique, artistic self-expression. Appreciate and enjoy yourself--and we will, too!

It's so good to know that the Actor Mind Taffy classics (like being fixated on color vs. black-and-white headshots) are truly "universal" and that the CD-opinion on the topic is consistent in acting markets outside of Los Angeles. Absolutely, the primary focus (pun intended) should be on the eyes and the soul of the actor in the photograph. Remember, this is a marketing tool more than a photo, so it's important that it captures your essence and really shows us who you are (and hints at what you're going to deliver, when you enter the casting session).

Pulled from, original publication date April 15, 2008

Photo credit: Photographic Studio Chiang Mai, Thailand

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