Your Headshot “A” Game: Secret Sauce of a Headshot that Works

You spend hard-earned money on new acting headshots, and happy day, everyone loves them! Mom, friends, even your enigmatic new agent is pleased. You get your shots up on the casting sites and online profiles, on your IMDB page, your website, and self-submit like crazy… and then, “cricket, cricket.””

Nada. Zippo. Nothing. Months go by. Your phone rings 5 times a day but the screen usually warns “scam likely.” That’s about right, you think. Scam likely indeed. $600, plus hair and make-up fees, that new outfit, and days of prep, wasted. Maybe you get an audition or two, but they’re not exactly setting your world on fire. The pain is real.

You found your chosen headshot photographer after diligently doing research and comparing different portfolios. The phrase “voted best headshot photographer in Los Angeles” was right at the top of their website, quoted from a reputable professional actors’ publication. You chatted with the photographer on the phone, they seemed great, competent, and personable. Your friend in class said they were the best.

The shoot went well you thought, you reviewed your proofs and felt sure you got the goods, picked your winners and Casting Office doors would surely fly right open. 

headshot photo

So… what the heck happened?

Most of us have been there, some of us, more times than we’d ever admit. Many actors never really get an effective headshot. Some manage to audition and book work anyway, but many rarely, or never do. They just don’t get in the room enough for the odds to even out, and real consistent bookings to occur, momentum to build. They’re lost in the sea of average, on the Casting Director’s big iMac 4K high definition screen, where a hundred actor headshots scroll past with every mouse scroll, the size of postage stamps. 95% of them are never even clicked on. It’s enough to turn your stomach.

Myriad factors can be at play. There are hard questions to ask about your representation of course, their reputation and relationships (or lack thereof) with Casting Directors can stagnate or propel anyone’s career. This issue will be the subject of an upcoming blog, but in short, if the digital submission packet your reps send out in response to casting breakdowns isn’t one of the first ones a Casting Director opens, (out of many) your materials are likely never even considered.

Assuming your photographer’s technical chops were up to par, and the many aesthetic choices you both made were on-brand, on-casting, (big assumptions, and also the topics of future posts) there’s likely one major culprit to consider for your headshots that just don’t work. YOU. 

I’m going to let you in on a hard truth. Many talented actors just aren’t comfortable or skilled working in front of the still camera. “Oh, on set, with a moving camera and dialogue I’m fine, but posing for headshots… it’s just awkward and forced.” It may seem counter-intuitive, but having shot hundreds of people with cameras, both moving and still, I tell you plainly: many of my clients, even experienced people, show up for their pre-shoot consultation absolutely unaware of what their headshot “A” game is.

The good news is, you can take control of this key aspect, and change it.

headshot photo

So, what’s a headshot “A” game, and how do you get one?

There are two main schools of thought about types of headshots, either “role driven," or “personality driven.” The first category is based on directly solving the Casting Director’s challenge, of finding a hirable actor for a specific part. The second is about conveying the individual actor’s core personality and appeal, without leaning towards any specific casting or demographic. In the current, highly competitive Los Angeles marketplace, while I include at least one “look” of the second, the personality driven headshot, I lean strongly towards the former, “role or type driven” headshots, since Casting Directors’s almost universally have a specific mandate and character description to serve when they send out breakdowns and choose who to btring in on a specific part.

Regardless, your essential preparation for a still shoot is THE SAME as preparing for a role on screen or stage. If you treat the still camera differently than the film or video camera, you’ve made a major miscalculation. Those two machines are the same to you, and the results they capture will never lie. If you’re posing or being untruthful, or hoping for a job, or trying to please someone (other than yourself) , you’re done, you’re seen as a fraud, and people can smell falseness. You are either fully present in the moment, connected, and have a thought and a history, a “moment before” and a deeply personal relationship to the camera, or you’re just taking pretty pictures for Mom. 

Actors with a headshot “A” game understand this powerfully, organically, and their results are at once arresting, engaging and connect with the audience, whether they’re viewed on an iPhone, or 100 feet tall on the side of a building. They make the camera their personal scene partner, and relate intimately with “them.” They SHOW UP, in the moment, and the resulting humanity, vulnerability, honest presence, in turn becomes “charisma,” and “star power.” 

Singer-songwriter & actor Piper Madison

Singer-songwriter & actor Piper Madison

These artists topline feature films and television shows, because people empathize, connect and have rapport with them. 

So how, you may ask, do I accomplish all that with some stranger’s camera lens pointed at me when I’m not even moving or talking?

Actor, Producer & Teacher, Benjamin Mathes

Actor, Producer & Teacher, Benjamin Mathes

Imagination work is the answer. The craft of acting is now condensed into a single still frame. Focus on story work, building beliefs, relationships, and a backstory, for each of your “looks.” Take the time to invest in these characters you are creating, before your session: how does this person see and feel about the world or the “person” across from them? Are you a good “procedural series” cop, or a bad cop on the take? If you’re on the take, WHY are you? Because you’re a greed-fueled egomaniac alcoholic burn out, or because your 7-year-old at home has special needs, and you can’t make the bills?

Now, tell the truth, in the moment, with each click of the shutter. The photographer is not some stranger, they’re your lover, the one you wishwas your lover, your best friend, mentor, Dad or Mom. The camera is your imagined child you’re cradling in your arms for the first time. It’s your job, your responsibility, to bring your total actor’s craftwork to the set (yes, I said “set,” not “studio.”) 

Don’t worry about your poses or your head angle, that’s the professional headshot photographer’s job. Choose your photographer well, and you don’t have to worry about any of that. As soon as you get into your head, feel yourself start posing, aiming, pushing, take your eyes off the lens. Find a thought, not an “actor thought,” but one that stems from your heart, and bring your eyes back up. You are in control. 

Do this in-depth work for your headshot session. No one need know what you are doing, but it will show, be felt,be captured in your images, and you will stand apart from the pack as a result. 

By doing this work, you convey how you want Casting Directors to call you in! You now show them how to hire you, because this headshot you spent all this time and money and training and labor to create, is the tip of your artist’s spear. This little frame amongst the hundreds on some stranger’s screen must stand in for your whole talent, until “they” decide you might just be the solution to their casting problem.

You might be THE ONE to make them, the Casting Director, seem god-like and brilliant to the Director and Producers by bringing them the best actor for the job. 

Your headshot “A” game is acting, moment to moment, just like we do on set. “They” will see it, sense it, be curious about you, and then the phone will ring, and doors will open.

Do your prep, just the same as if you booked your dream role, because this technique is the first crucial step towards making your dream a reality.

Geoffrey Donne