Category Archives: Picturing the Shot

Modeling 101: The Head Shot


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.



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.


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?”

Commercial Headshots

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.

Theatrical Headshots

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.


Marlene Dietrich by George Hurrell

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.

Beauty Shots

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.



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Correct Exposure: There’s an App for That…


If you’ve been to any of our Mastery Series workshops, you know we consider managing light to be the photographer’s first and most important consideration for getting a quality image.  It’s not just a matter of getting a “correct” exposure; it’s also a matter of using the light to direct attention to what’s important in the composition and to help create the impression of depth—that all-important 3rd dimension—in a flat, 2-dimensional medium.

Still, the most skilled composition won’t mean a thing if the image is severely under- or over-exposed, and while the built-in exposure meter in a modern camera is amazingly sophisticated, there are routine, every-day circumstances that simply overwhelm the camera’s metering technology.  In images with an extended dynamic range (think, e.g., a landscape bisected by a horizon with bright blue skies above and a dark forest below), your camera will likely return an unsatisfactory reading and exposure setting.

The reason is that your camera’s meter measures the light that is reflected from your subject.  That won’t tell much about the amount of light falling on your subject, however, since a bright, highly reflective subject will send more light back to the camera than a dark subject will.  If you took one of our workshops, you know that your camera’s meter is programmed to set its exposure for a value that’s known as middle—or 18%—grey, or, in other words, a medium level of brightness.  Unfortunately, when a reflected-light meter encounters something that actually is white, like, say, a bride’s dress, its interpretation is that it’s seeing a grey dress that’s severely over-exposed, so its response is to stomp on the exposure until it’s dark enough to make the white dress look like the camera’s preferred brightness value of middle grey.  Similarly, if it’s looking at the groom’s black tuxedo, instead of recognizing black, the camera’s meter assumes it’s seeing a grey suit that’s severely under-exposed and cranks up the exposure until the black suit washes out to grey.  The camera is now happy; your bride probably won’t be when she sees the photos.

An example of 18% grey exposure calculation

The image on the right is correctly exposed, revealing details in the bride’s white dress. The image on the left is what the camera’s meter prefers, since the brightness level of the dress is now closer to 18% grey.

Sekonic L-358 incident light meter

In contrast, a dedicated light meter is usually programmed to read “incident” light, that is, the amount of light that is falling on the scene, not reflected from it.  Obviously if we’re measuring the source of the light directly rather than its reflected value, our exposure can be set more reliably because it isn’t based on the relative brightness of our subject.  Whether the bride’s dress is white, grey, or black, the amount of light falling on it is constant, and that’s what we want to measure (and set our camera’s exposure to). Good light meters are precise, reliable, and consistent. Unfortunately, they also tend to be expensive. The Sekonic L-358 at left that we’ve used for years is a mid-range unit that currently costs around $400.  Its new, digital replacement, the L-478DR goes for about $420, and you can spend more on other meters with extra features.

Sekonic's L-478DR incident light meterMake no mistake here: these photographic tools are as fundamental to professional photography as a hammer is to a carpenter, and they’re worth every penny if you’re getting paid to take properly exposed photographs.  I’ve been at this for 30 years, and I still wouldn’t take a studio shot without a meter reading.  If I have time outdoors, the meter comes out of the gear bag and goes to work, giving me correctly exposed images on which I can reliably stake my business’s reputation.


While cruising through one of the photography forums I participate in, I recently became aware of something I probably should have known about a long time ago—there’s a smart-phone app for that.  In fact, there are lots of them.  No, they’re not a dedicated, hardware-based light meter, but the best ones are surprisingly functional, and come with extremely useful features enabled by their mini-computer capabilities.  They’re also generally free, or at most, a few dollars, as is the usual case with phone apps.  Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, they’re also all reflected-light meters, not incident meters.

So why would anybody use one of these apps instead of the camera’s meter?  Frankly, you probably wouldn’t.  Up to now their primary use has been as a meter for older film cameras that don’t have built-in meters.  If you’re still shooting film, one of these apps can be very helpful, and you’re probably already carrying its phone host anyway.  And, did I mention, they’re free(ish)? At the very least, if you’re still having problems visualizing the innerworkings of the “Triangle of Exposure” (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO), playing with the “dials” on any of these apps will give you a graphic interactive tutorial. Switch any of the three inputs, and see what the app does automatically with the others.

Full disclosure here: although I use a Mac in the studio, my phone is Android-based, and although I’ve used all of the Android apps mentioned below, my experience with iPhone-based apps is by hearsay only.  If you’re using an iPhone and want to try the two listed below, check back in and let us know how it goes.

Android OS

You have to sympathize with the plight of Android phone app developers.  Unlike the iPhone universe, there are numerous hardware platforms running the Android operating system, so the performance of any particular app can vary considerably depending on which phone it’s operating on.  My current phone is a Samsung Galaxy Blaze, and even within the Samsung Galaxy phone universe, app performance can vary — buyer beware (fortunately, all of these apps are free).  With that caveat in mind, there are three Android apps that I like and can cautiously recommend.


Android BeeCam appThe BeeCam app uses the brightness reading from your phone’s camera sensor to perform like a true incident light meter.  As you can see in the image to the left, you can set ISO, F-stop, or shutter speed (T, for time) by tapping one of the “buttons” and selecting or entering a value. Select two of those “Triangle of Exposure” values, aim the camera at the light source, and the BeeCam will calculate the third.  Simple, straight-forward, and seems to consistently return accurate readings.  Like all of these apps, it won’t help you calibrate flash exposures, but if you’re trying to figure out accurate settings for ambient light, particularly in high-contrast situations that might fool your camera’s reflected-light meter, the BeeCam can be a big help.  Click here for the Android Play Store link.  Note that there is also a paid ($1.50) version without ads, but the free version is so functional and relatively free of advertising clutter that I haven’t felt the need to upgrade.



Android OS SmartLight appThere’s nothing in this app’s description that indicates it might be an incident light meter, and after initially getting wildly inaccurate readings because I’d assumed it was a reflected light device, I finally realized I’d just been aiming it in the wrong direction.  When I pointed it at the light source, it suddenly started working.  So, yes, it is apparently an incident-meter app, and a pretty accurate one at that.  Instead of pushing virtual buttons, you “roll” the ISO, F, and T “wheels” up and down to make a selection.  Set two, and the app calculates the third.  Hey, if nothing else, it’s fun to watch the wheels spin as the app does its business.  Like most, it has both a free and a paid ($1.50) version, which removes ads.  Click here for the Play Store link.




Photo Tools

Android OS Photo Tools appThis one is clearly a reflected-light meter that simply reads data from a picture you’ve already taken and reports the exposure values — not very useful and much less convenient than just using your camera’s built-in meter.  It also has the ugliest and most cluttered interface of any of these apps.  So why recommend it?  Because it also comes bundled with a treasure chest of other helpful tools.

Want to know when the sun will rise or set in Glacier National Park — or anywhere else — on any particular date in the future?  Just select the date, enter the GPS coordinates (or type in an address), and the app will tell you, both actual sunrise and -set, as well as twilight times for those beautiful, red-horizon landscapes.  There’s a moon-phase calendar and an exposure calculator to help you set correct exposures for photographing la lune, and the app will even track down a weather forecast for the location.  There are calculators for finding the minimal hand-held shutter speed for a particular lens for a particular camera and for estimating depth-of-field, hyperfocal distance, and field-of-view for any particular lens at any particular f-stop.  You can calculate flash exposures based on guide number, aperture, and distance; or how much you need to under-expose each snap if you’re making multiple-exposure images.  The app even includes a time-lapse calculator, a timer, and a stopwatch. Frankly, I’ve never seen such an extensive collection of photo tools in one place, and I find myself using this app, especially for exterior locations quite often.  Here’s the link.

iPhone OS

Unfortunately, if you have an iPhone, the choices are less functional, since all of them at the moment appear to be reflected-light meters.  (There is one app called, well… “Incident Light Meter,” which, well… isn’t; when someone develops an app to execute a function he clearly doesn’t understand, I’d have to question the app’s utility.)   There do appear to be two apps that work, more or less, reliably as reflected light meters, and there is a development afoot with some exciting potential for converting any of these iPhone apps into an actual incident-light meter.

Pocket Light Meter

Pocket LightMeter app for iPhone


Here’s its iTunes preview link:

And here’s the developer’s web site:

This is the app I mentioned above that was being used by a member of a professional photographers’ forum, primarily in his landscape work with medium-format film.  It appears to be both well regarded and well supported by its developer.  I’m not aware of any additional features beyond the metering capability, but it does seem to perform that job reliably.




iLightMeter iPhone app


Here’s the developer’s link: .  You can follow his featured link to find the app on the iTunes App Store.   Interestingly, this app also claims to work on the iPod Touch 4G, so if you’re carrying your tunes but not your phone, this might be the one for you.  Again, no additional features, but it’s well-reviewed by users, and appears to be functional and stable.






iPhone Luxi globeHere’s that potential new accessory mentioned above that could turn your iPhone into an actual incident-light meter. It’s a translucent globe, similar to what you see on the dedicated Sekonic light meters shown above.  Although it’s not available at the moment, it has reached its Kickstarter crowd-sourced funding goal and appears to have entered the final manufacturing stage.  Here’s a link to the announcement:, and here’s a link to their Kickstarter investor page: (be sure to watch the video; it’s a good explanation of what an incident light meter does).

Luxi globe With iPhoneThis certainly could be an interesting product to keep an eye on, especially given that its projected price is under $25.  You’ll note in the gizmag link above that its first projected customization will likely be for the Pocket Light Meter app. Alas, since this is a dedicated hardware accessory, there appears to be no projected coordination with Android-based phones, undoubtedly because their numerous physical form factors are too diverse to profitably design for.