I’ve been fortunate to make my living as an actor and photographer for the last several years in Chicago and from New York to San Francisco. One thing that bridges both of these passions of mine is THE HEADSHOT. Over the years I’ve been able to photograph so many fascinating faces in our community and every actor has the same desire: a great headshot.
What IS a great headshot?
Subjectivity aside, a great headshot is one where the actor looks like themselves on their best day. Technically, it’s interestingly composed, well lit, and in focus. Artistically, it’s honest, easy, and compelling. It should make the viewer lean in and want to know more. A little mystery, a story behind the eyes and a little twinkle makes for a great headshot and allows for your artistic integrity to come shining through.
In the most effective headshots, the attitude and energy of a photograph is the ingredient that is the most satisfying. When an actor is specific and clear with their intention, the byproduct is an honest and grounded shot. I make it my aim to get that feeling in every shot I take—but ultimately it only takes one….or two to get THE HEADSHOT.
There is no scientific formula for a perfect shot. It is unique and special for each actor. In my shoots, I try to ask the right questions and connect with my clients as a way to have a flowing, natural conversation—all while I snap away on my Nikon. If there are looks your agent wants to achieve we will find our way into those as well.????????
Yes, Brandon. That’s all well and philosophical…
But how does it get me into the room and how does my great headshot actually transfer into the audition? Well if you are in the rooms that you want to be in, you got there because of your talent, your drive and the team of people working with and for you. I often remind clients that, while extremely important in the “foot in the door phase”, a headshot is really only a third of your audition package. Your image, your resume and what you bring that day in the room are what will book the work you want. An actor can’t credit or blame their work ( or lack of ) on any one of those three things. Ultimately your headshot (the clear representation of how your talents will best be featured in the business) is important to introducing and supporting your “brand”. You want your shot to support the types of roles you are auditioning for. The more clarity you can bring to your looks, the more effective your shot will be.
Some actors love getting their picture taken. Some don’t.
I’ve had clients shoot with me every year just to keep an updated look whenever their hairstyle or weight has changed. I’ve also seen the opposite: actors who come to me and it’s been seven years since their last shot. I’d say the sweet spot is in the middle. Our daily lives move so fast and our social media is even faster and more visual – just look at Instagram! Images that pop and catch our attention start conversations and make riding the train a lot more fun. Your headshot can work the same way. If casting directors have seen the same image of you for the last five years, imagine the response an exciting new shot will get. Updating your shots every few years keeps your visual brand fresh as well as showing your drive and commitment to the business of acting. (Also, if you are still using a black and white shot—that trend is not coming back. Give me a call. On my pager. But seriously, call me!)
I’m often asked how many “looks” one needs to achieve during a headshot session.
I feel this depends on how you want to focus your brand. Most actors want to do it all to maximize the casting opportunities. That usually requires two shots: one that can cover the worlds of film, TV and legit theatre and one lighter shot that shows some teeth for on-camera commercial and musical theatre. These are just basic guidelines. Not every commercial has people grinning from ear to ear while drinking orange juice. Some of the funniest commercial spots are deadpanned and dry as hell. This goes the other way as well. Even the most dramatic shows are not bleak all the time; there has to be some lightness, some humor somewhere. Thus, staring daggers and brooding away in your headshot could potentially scare casting folks into the wrong idea about you and your range as an actor.
Commercial headshot trends tend to be bright both in energy and color and they tend to feature your best natural smile. Traditionally, a commercial feel has been a studio lit shot. But now, many are being shot with natural light and even outside in the real world! A longstanding trend for a dramatic headshot has been an urban exterior, naturally lit and very direct. I love this. I also love featuring my clients against neutral backdrops with just a bit of texture as a way to draw the viewer to the most important and interesting part of any headshot—YOUR EYES. Also, I feel that actors can get into trouble when trying to manage their looks. When I’m shooting I encourage my clients to explore all of their sides regardless of the shirt they are wearing. If we get an interesting and fiercely honest dramatic shot while you are wearing your Disney ingénue outfit-no worries, we got an awesome shot!
For me, what it all boils down to is an active, compelling and honest shot that features the uniqueness of you. A session with me should be easy and fun—no stress or work involved. You bring yourself and I will take care of the rest.
Brandon Dahlquist is a Chicago based actor, singer and photographer.