headshots 101
a site for actors

What is a headshot?

headshot example

A headshot is a photograph used by actors and actresses in order to get them work. Headshots are 8 x 10 prints of the performer where the face is clearly shown. This does not mean that the image is just of the head. Trends go in and out on that one. But, the point is to have a clear image of the performer. Also on your headshot will be the name of the performer. This is usually in the bottom right hand corner. Included with your headshot you will staple a resume (facing outward) to the back of the headshot. This resume will include your basic stats. By stats is meant your height, weight, hair color, eye color and the like. As well as your training and experience. You will also include a special skills section listing off various things that you can do that would be helpful for any casting director to know.

Trends go in and out. In most of the 80s headshots were black and white and super tight in, showing only from the shoulders up. In the 90s there was a huge trend in getting three quarter shots. Three quarter shots show the actors from about the knees up. Then when color became inexpensive in the late 90s bright colors became very popular. Also, studio shots with lots of draping fabrics became all of the rage. About five years ago clean crisp greens and blues for the backdrops were huge. Sometimes tangerine orange colors, etc. But those have faded out of vogue.

headshot example

Currently the trend has been horizontal shots of the performer, making the image a little more "film like." The person is usually a bit to the left or the right of the print making them slightly off center. Also, because digital submissions are popular, a great many people are taking character shots. These can be useful digitally, but are not needed to print. But, you do not want to go too far on this. I have seen people do shots of them as homeless, junkies and prostitutes. Going that far on your character shots, especially for print don't really pay off. Even when you are going for those roles, casting directors not as willing to call someone in that looks like a junkie. If you are going to go that route you need to offset it with a normal image of you to communicate that you are not a slob by nature. But again, the payoff is not really worth the time and expense you might put in taking and printing such images.

But what do you do with your headshots?

headshot example

Your headshots go through quite a journey. For people just starting out you will need to get an agent and submit yourself for any open calls you can. An open call is when anyone can submit themselves and they do not need an agent in order to get an audition. Once you have an agent they submit your headshots for anything you fit on under the breakdowns and any other projects they might know of that are in pre-production.

Let's talk about getting your agent and submitting yourself for open calls. For getting an agent you would want to send out your headshot to various agents with a cover letter, resume and contact information. You do this over and over until you have an agent. Some people like to print up postcards in this phase to save a few bucks on the mailing. This is an okay option, but really the 8x10 is the best way to go. You can get a list of agents to mail off to in various books at boutique book shops like Samuel French, a bookstore specializing in the performing arts. When an agent calls you in for an audition then you need to take your 8x 10 headshots with you.

headshot example

You will also want to go ahead and submit yourself for anything you can until such time as you have an agent working for you. There are a few papers like Backstage West, Hollywood Reporter, and even Variety that will give you information on what is called "open call" auditions. This means that you do not need an agent in order to submit yourself for a role. There are also companies that have websites that provide this information to you. An example of this is LA Casting. You can put your profile up on their site for a fee. You can give them as many images as you can afford to post. They will alert you to any open calls that fit your profile and you can submit yourself electronically. However, for the audition you will still need your 8x10 headshot.

When submitting yourself by mail you send an 8x10 headshot, resume and simple short cover letter. Your resume should have your contact info. These headshots for open calls come into casting directors by the hundreds, sometimes even the thousands. Casting directors sort through these and separate them into piles. Casting directors throw out any that don't fit for what they are looking for. (For example, if you are in your 20s and submit yourself for a bubbly teenager that can sing, but you don't look like you could pass for a high schooler at all...your shot will be trashed.) Most casting directors will trash anyone who submits with 4 x 7 prints or Polaroids. Those mark the novice and the unprofessional, which most casting directors don't have the time to consider with the amount of professional looking headshots that are sent in.

headshot example

The casting director will go through these sorted piles and either go through them with the director or start calling people in for auditions. It depends a little on the project at hand. Some directors will have the casting director sort through a few auditions before they sit in. Especially in open call situations with projects that have a budget for a casting director. When auditions take place the piles are sorted through again. They will stack up people who showed potential for that specific role and toss those that didn't. Then they will sort through again for overall quality of talent together. This is usually when a director is called in for reviewing the headshots and asking people for call backs. During call backs they take the best talent and shape others around them that will fit well for the project. For example, if they are casting a family there will need to be some defining line that would have it look believable that these people are related.

Once casting is done the production company will have a board up that shows the principle players and sometimes the day players as well. For a theater company they will ask for a fresh copy of your headshot to put on the playbill and on the marquee in front of the theater.

headshot example

For electronic submittal it is pretty much the same. But the cool thing with electronic submittal you can have many shots in your profile that show your range and you can select the image that you want to send. This is a great tool. You can have all sorts of defining shots of your casting. Like a punker, street kid, cop, lawyer, Mom, etc. This makes it very inexpensive to get your casting nailed down when sending out shots. To print headshots with that much selection in casting is often too expensive. So, electronic submittals offer that for you. But remember little things can communicate character shots. You need not go to extremes.

Now, when you have an agent the only difference is that your agent submits you for all of those casting calls that are not open. Meaning that instead of thousands of headshots being sorted through, there are usually not as many being looked at. Casting Agents will call specific agents sometimes to isolate it down to an even smaller amount of people to sort through. As you move up ladder you are up against fewer and fewer people to a point where people are building scripts around you and all of the other slots are going through the casting ringer. Does this mean an "A lister" doesn't need headshots? Nope. Even Tom Cruise has headshots. But primarily his get signed and sent to fans and posted on the cast board in the production office. He does not have to submit for roles.

So, that is the journey of the headshot. For any beginner you need professional looking shots that stand out. You can get creative with your casting to add defining touches, but don't go over board on it. Simple things will do. Check out the pages on Casting, wardrobe and Commercial vs. Theatrical to get more information to help you shape your goals for your headshot photo shoot.

To book a shoot with Jessica Pettyjohn Call 818.237.3044