It’s ironic, especially with Internet models who tend to get their starts without any input from industry professionals, that when we look through their online portfolios the one thing we don’t seem to be able to learn is the most important piece of information we need: what the model actually looks like. Particularly in the glamour field, it’s not uncommon to be able to see—in graphic detail—everything about the model’s appearance except her face, and that’s really not helpful for your marketing and networking efforts. Unless you’re planning to meet prospective employers in a bikini—or naked—you need to show us something in your portfolio that 1) lets us recognize you when we meet under normal—i.e., clothed—circumstances, and 2) makes us want to meet you in the first place. What you need is a professional headshot, something every working model already has.
By now you’re probably thinking, what’s the big deal? I have that massively retouched senior-portrait photo from back in high school and that cool mermaid shot taken in the river last summer with all the gnarly character make-up, plus all those brilliant selfies I’ve been posting on Instagram… sure, I’ve got the headshot thing covered.
No, you don’t. What you think of as a headshot and what the modeling/photography industry expects are most likely miles apart. A good headshot is absolutely not easy to produce, either for the model or for the photographer. In fact, for something that looks so deceptively simple, it’s one of the hardest shots to do well, even for experienced professionals who might otherwise be excellent portrait photographers.
Okay, so what’s a “professional headshot?”
Pretty simple actually, but it might seem contrary to what you’d expect for the acting and modeling businesses where the ability to project an image that’s different from your natural appearance is sought after and rewarded. Whatever else it might be—and that can vary according to the market you’re applying to—a headshot is a picture of your face that presents you as you really are. It’s clean, unadulterated, and accurate. Technically, it’s well lit and simply posed. After studying it, I should be able to easily recognize you if I were to meet you on the street. As said above, there are some variations in content and presentation, which we’ll discuss below, but one thing every type of headshot has in common is that, first and foremost, it’s a picture that conforms to the expectations of the target industry for the express purpose of marketing the subject.
That last part is important. Your headshot is a marketing tool; it doesn’t exist to demonstrate your ability to look cool in character make-up or play an old woman at age 18 (unless that’s what you’re applying for—see below), and it certainly doesn’t exist to prove how creative your photographer is. In fact, if your photographer insists on cluttering your headshot with his watermark, find another photographer who understands that the sole purpose of the headshot is to find paid work for you, not for him. That all should imply that this discussion is primarily for people who want to work professionally in the commercial-modeling world, either for editorial or advertising clients, or who want to audition for acting roles. If you’re just modeling or acting as a hobby, this discussion probably isn’t for you.
If, however, you are serious about modeling or acting for money, then you (and your photographer) need to know the basic headshot characteristics common to all the markets as well as the specific details that distinguish one market from another.
THE GENERAL STUFF
As mentioned, the headshot is intended to market you “as you are” (accurate as to age, size, and proportions, for example), but in the most positive light possible, emphasizing your best qualities and minimizing the flaws (and yes, we all have flaws). A well-done headshot will provide the viewer with a sense of the subject’s natural personality and character, or suggest potential for a particular role the viewer is looking to fill.
Contrary to what you may hear, even the best headshot won’t guarantee you the assignment, but it’s often the only thing a casting director ever gets to see, so if it doesn’t make a favorable impression immediately, a bad headshot will certainly eliminate you from even being considered. By presenting you at your best, a good headshot gets you in the door if you are indeed the type the client is looking for, and if the shot conforms to industry standards, it will reassure the client that you are likely to be a reliable professional who will help, rather than hinder, the production process. Like other activities we’ve repeatedly mentioned elsewhere in this series, the headshot is a prime opportunity for establishing and promoting your personal brand. Even if you don’t get this job, the headshot puts your name and face out there, earning you advance consideration for the next job.
For another perspective, take a look at this short video from model scout Trudi Tapscott.
Size and Framing
Headshots for models should be printed at 9”x12” and always in the portrait—or vertical—mode. When potential employers are quickly rifling through a large stack of headshots, they don’t want to have to pause to turn yours sideways. Demonstrating that you don’t understand industry conventions is the wrong way to stand out in that stack of modeling hopefuls.
Actors always use an 8”x10” photo, also in portrait mode.
The head shot, by the way, doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted to the head or tightly-cropped head and shoulders. Particularly if you specialize in character roles or modeling assignments, you may decide to opt for a ¾ shot.
Color vs. Black-and-White
Like the comp card, which has largely moved away from the old black-and-white glossy, headshots are almost always done in color these days. They need to be printed as photos, not Xerox copies, and color photos cost the same as B&W now. If you’re a theatre actor or a glamour model there might still be a place for B&W, but if the jobs you’re looking for put you in front of a camera selling some kind of product or service, use color printing.
It’s important to remember that the headshot is neither a formal portrait nor an informal snapshot that just happens to include your head. It’s a carefully styled photo that conforms to the expectations of the market you’re applying to. This is not the place for wild-and-crazy concepts, weird compositions, or funky borders and distracting backgrounds. For the same reason, your clothing should be, well… boring, with casual style and neutral colors. In general, the more creative the photo’s technical aspects are, the less important the subject becomes. Remember: keep it simple, direct, and appropriate for the intended market.
THE SPECIFIC STUFF
There are three basic types of headshots plus a fourth for children, which we won’t go into here. There are also variations within each type that are intended for a specific offshoot of the market which that particular type addresses. If you model or act in different markets, you may very well need a specific headshot for each one. In this business, there’s no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” calling card, and the first question you need to ask before you shoot or hand a prospective client your headshot is “which market is this job in, and what kind of headshot is expected?”
As we indicated in the article on modeling genres, most modeling work is commercial and most agencies represent commercial models, so the commercial headshot is what most models need. Obviously, actors who want to work in the commercial arena also need a commercial headshot.
As we also mentioned in the modeling genres article, commercial work is, by definition, about commerce—selling stuff—so the models and actors who do the work need to be somebody the viewer/buyer will find likable enough to buy from. Your headshot needs to make a connection and show you as friendly and accessible, like someone the viewer wouldn’t hesitate to walk up to and strike up a conversation with. Forget the dramatic lighting with the mysterious shadows and the selective focus. You need to look open and available in the commercial headshot, not mysterious and forbidding, and that requires soft, even lighting with minimal differences in the key:fill ratios.
Makeup for women should be what’s known as “clean,” i.e., close to the subject’s natural skin tones and facial features, but subtly tweaked to create 3-dimensional contouring in the photo’s 2-D plane. Clients want to know what the model looks like naturally, and the make-up should help to emphasize that illusion without being noticeable.
Avoid anything that’s glossy or shiny because it will look wet and oily in a photo, and be sure to blend everything extensively. Focus in the commercial headshot is always extremely sharp across the frame, and any visible edge where the cosmetic stops and starts will stand out in high relief.
For men, the only make-up that might be used is some color-free powder to cut down on glare from bright lights on shiny skin.
Avoid extremely tight cropping. While it might be dramatic, it’s also claustrophobic, and frankly, counter-productive. Why pay someone to produce a headshot for your resumé and then chop off portions of what you paid for? Extreme crops, even all the way into the subject’s face, are a recent, not-so-well-received fad that has many casting agents rolling their eyes and wondering how an applicant could be so oblivious to industry standards. In brief, make sure your headshot actually includes your head, and a comfortable amount of room around it.
In addition to the standard commercial headshot, there are two variations: commercial glamour and “character”.
Commercial glamour is what it sounds like—commercial modeling (or acting) with a glamourous, often sexy, component. Think Swedish Bikini Team girl, not soccer mom or corporate executive. If you’re pursuing this type of modeling, your head shot can suggest dangerous or seductive rather than open and accessible, and your make-up can also be more exaggerated to promote the illusion, although not extreme enough to be considered theatrical.
Actors and models whose appearance and personality put them in supporting roles rather than in the romantic leads, often use headshots that show them in character, including wardrobe, props, and character makeup that suggest the roles they’re likely to be cast for.
Models who are interested in assignments that require dramatic acting and, of course, actors looking for theatrical work, will need headshots that are more intentionally serious looking than the straightforward commercial headshot. The theatrical headshot does more than simply present you as you are; it also suggests the ability to assume a role in the assignment that goes beyond your natural look. Make-up can be more stylized—less “clean”—and lighting can also be more directional, with higher key:fill ratios to create stronger shadows and a greater sense of drama.
One variation of the theatrical headshot is the “glamour headshot,” not to be mistaken for the “commercial glamour” headshot described above. This type of headshot tends to present a look that is even more consciously romanticized than the typical theatrical headshot, and has its roots in the Hollywood Glamour style of portraiture, exemplified by George Hurrell, its best-known practitioner.
Unlike a Commercial or standard Theatrical headshot, this type is often characterized by complexion-smoothing, soft-focus diffusion to enhance the romantic aura of the shot. Other technical elements, like make-up and lighting are also exaggerated for effect.
An even more extreme variation on the standard Theatrical headshot is the Character headshot that makes no pretense of presenting you as you are, but specifically uses make-up, costume, and lighting to depict you in the types of dramatic roles you’re likely to be applying for.
Fashion models whose work is going to appear in an editorial medium, either a magazine or online presentation, often use a “beauty shot” as the headshot. Again, and like the Theatrical Character shot above, beauty shots make no pretense of depicting your natural appearance. The intent of a beauty shot is less to show “what the model actually looks like” than “what the model could look like with full production styling”. This type of headshot simply can’t be done without a first-class makeup artist and hair stylist, and the lighting and styling can be quite extreme in some cases.
Probably because the beauty genre implies a certain, unapproachable distance between the viewer and the beauty fantasy the model is portraying, beauty headshots are the one place where the model doesn’t have to be looking into the camera and making a direct connection with the viewer. It’s all about the fantasy, not the model, which should tell you that if you’re not already modeling fashion products in editorial media, you’re not ready to use a beauty shot for a headshot. Your headshot still needs to be selling you, not some product or lifestyle you might be demonstrating.