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Headshots 101: A Guide for Actors

At Zen Studios LA we want our clients to have the best headshots! We have carefully researched and articulated exactly what it takes to have a winning headshot, so that you can come into your session confident and informed.

First, we want to lay out a few basics. What is in a headshot? Your look, your brand, your type, your age range, your possible occupations, your professionalism, your socioeconomic background, your personality traits, your inner emotional life… Woof! That is a lot to pack into one photo, but it is the face of your business. You will be judged by your headshot before your audition even begins.

Your headshot takes the starring role in the film that is you! But how can one picture possibly capture all that you have to offer? We created this guide to help answer the great challenge of the headshot: capturing the nuances and shades of you as an actor in one – or two – convenient images.

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What do you need a headshot for?

Think about it like this: your face is the logo to your brand, and it should be everywhere!

Your headshot should be present on your website, business cards, resume, casting profiles, etc. Seeing as your face is the cornerstone of your business it should always be your primary source of marketing materials. The best result of a good headshot is recognizability. When you are recognized by a Casting Director from your headshot it means that your brand has left a lasting image on that person and they will remember you when it comes to doling out roles. Your headshot is also what ties all your social media accounts to your brand so that representatives can easily identify you among the thousands of other ‘Sarah Smiths’ of the world. 

When it comes to branding it is vital that you understand who you are as a person and what you want to represent in the world so that you can personify these through your headshot. Your headshot may be the public speaker, but you write the speech through your personality, unique traits, and nuances.

Here at Zen Studios LA we highly recommend both digital and print copies of your headshot because you never know who you are going to run into nowadays! Digital copies are for the obvious casting profiles and online submissions. In theatre auditions, it is standard practice to arrive at your audition with a printed copy of your headshot. It is always a good idea to bring a printed copy of your headshot to every audition in case a casting director wants to hold it for another project, especially if it is your first audition with a specific casting office. Another place you will need a printed copy of your headshot is when you attend agent or Casting Director workshops, in which case you should bring multiple copies. 

Finally, when seeking agent or manager representation a headshot is mandatory for submission and is often what determines whether your packet gets opened or not. Submissions that do not include headshots often immediately get tossed into the trash. We do not say that to disparage anyone from submitting, but to arm you with the best knowledge we can so that you will see the best results. 

What does a casting director want from a headshot?

Rule of thumb: casting directors want to see a headshot that looks like you.

You must realize that casting directors and agents are among the busiest people in the industry and their time is literally money. Your headshot will get looked at by multiple casting offices, but if your headshot does not look like you and they call you in for an audition then you have effectively wasted their time. This is the chief complaint among casting directors, and it is important to remember that if you have been called in for an audition then they believe in what you have to offer. Do not betray their trust with false advertising.

Your headshot is your first impression when it crosses the desks of casting directors and will determine what type of roles you get called in for. During your early career, your headshot is more important than anything else as it will set a path for your career to follow. Casting directors are extremely specific about the roles they must fill for every project they work on, and it is their job to make the best choice for the good of the production. 

Your headshot should show the casting director your inner and outer life as an actor: how you look on camera, your essence, your energy, and personality. Casting directors are looking for who you are and what you bring to the table so that they can decide on whether you are right for an audition or not.


What makes a good headshot?

The best headshot gives a truthful sense of who you are as an actor and the characters you might play.

Your headshot is selling you as one of a kind and it must capture/convey elements of your personality and your brand. It is only natural to want to look great in your headshots, but this is where most headshot mistakes happen. Your headshot is about so much more than your physical appearance. It should tell the story of your emotional inner life so that any agents or casting directors can read your story within a moment and allow that to help them make their decisions.

But what if you aren’t sure which parts of your emotional inner life are best suited to your type? Armando Rodriguez, head photographer at Zen Studios LA, suggests that this is where the prep for your headshot session begins: “One of the most helpful practices my clients have used is when they take the time to make a list of their best qualities, traits that they wish to show on camera and represent their brand”. 

The best headshot represents you on a normal day and should ultimately portray you as you would before every audition. In our work as headshot photographers in Los Angeles, we have seen it all, and we know what works. Save the makeover for your website or modeling portfolio because we want to see you, not your glamour.


What makes a bad headshot?

A bad headshot is one that does not look like you. 

We want to avoid the moment when you walk into an audition room and the casting director is hoodwinked by your actual appearance because your headshot is a false representation of what you look like and the roles you are able to play. The last thing you want to hear in the audition room is “Wow, this looks nothing like you!”. The goal should be to have any casting director look at your picture and be curious about what you are thinking, rather than focusing on any minute details.

At Zen Studios we are always on the lookout for the classic no-nos such as large and distracting jewelry and patterns, as well as distracting backgrounds. We know that statue around the corner is beautiful to look at, but would you rather have a casting director look at that statue in the background or your face? As a studio, we seek to serve the client to the best of our abilities, and we will help guide you away from this faux pas.

How can I find the best headshot photographers? 

Referrals are your friend!

Whether its actor friends or people you admire in your acting class, there is always a place for you to research what headshot looks like you the best. Start by making a list of your favorite headshots and asking for the names and contact information of the winning headshot photographers. By going this route, you can also gain some insight into how those photographers work and their personality.

Headshot photographers are easy to find through a simple google search; however, finding the right headshot photographer is a different story. It is all about finding that perfect match. Remember you are hiring them to do work for you, so it is okay to be picky!

In this technological age, it’s tempting to ask your friend the photographer with the newest iPhone to take your headshot, but we urge you to take the time to research and hire a professional headshot photographer. Taking headshots is about capturing essence and expression rather than just getting a good picture. Your headshot is a direct link to how your professionalism is viewed, so this is not the area in which to cut costs.

Bottom line: do your research and make an informed decision before moving forward with any headshot photographers. Keep in mind that a photographer’s personality has a lot to do with the success of your shoot, so it is important to have a conversation with your photographer prior to making a commitment. Feel free to ask them questions about themselves and what they represent. You should feel comfortable and at ease with your headshot photographer.

At Zen Studios LA, our founder and lead photographer Armando Rodriguez make that commitment to each and every client because he believes it the foundation of a good working relationship, “I always call my clients a few days prior to their shoot to go over their vision, and the ideas that I have which I think may be helpful to them. From there we just talk and get to know one another, so that way when they arrive at their shoot then they are with a friend not a stranger with a camera. I’ll ask you about your background preferences, and what you want to achieve with your photos – even what kind of music you like!”


What should I know before getting my headshots taken?

You need to know what you want to get out of your headshot session.

Here are a few baseline questions to ask yourself before getting your headshots taken:

  • What will you be using your headshots for?
  • Which types of roles do you want to play?
  • What type of projects do you aspire to be a part of?

As an actor, we already know that your headshot is the face of your brand and will be the primary source of your marketing materials. Your headshot is your introduction and byline in one look. That is a pretty tall order! Just remember that your headshot is your introduction to the industry, and it should be everywhere. Eva Holliday is our office assistant at Zen Studios LA who is also an actor, and she always tells herself: “When in doubt, send it out!”

When thinking of roles, you want to play, look at the type of shows you want to be in. For example, if you want to be a high-powered lawyer in Law & Order then you might employ a more business-minded wardrobe for your headshot to help show how serious you can be. The types of roles you want to play will help you find what type of projects you want to be a part of.

What should I wear to my headshot photoshoot?

Simple is always the way to go when it comes to choosing your wardrobe.

As aforementioned it is best to avoid large distracting jewelry and patterns as these can often draw attention away from your face. Busy patterns can also throw off the way the camera picks up the outline of your body against a certain backdrop which can add up when it comes to re-touching, so its best to avoid them entirely. At Zen Studios LA we believe that bright jewel tones in a solid primary color are best i.e. red, blue, green, yellow. You know what looks best on you and what colors compliment your skin tone and eye color the best, so you can never go wrong with those colors. 

The most important thing you must remember when choosing your wardrobe for your headshots is to avoid white and black. White tends to wash you out and bounces the light from the flashback into the camera lens. Black can give the illusion that you are absorbing light from the rest of the photo. If you are more conservative then it’s best to go for a more buttoned-down look, but those who are freer spirited might show more skin – but not too much!

What are some good headshot poses?

Although a headshot is a still photo it should appear as if it is alive. 

You want your eyes to be engaged and tell a story while also capturing your strongest qualities. Think of your headshot as a freeze-frame of you in action. The last thing you want is for your headshot to be boring. There should always be an attention-grabbing quality to your headshots such as a mischievous smile, or a dangerous stare.

When it comes to posing you only need to be aware of your chin. You do not want to tilt your face too far up or down as this can distort your natural bone structure in photos. Remember to keep your posture in check and do not cross your arms. It is important to seem open and have a welcoming stance so that this can come across in your headshots.

You can also rest easy knowing that your headshot photographer has your back. Most headshot photographers will make slight adjustments to your body or poses in relation to the angle in which they are currently shooting. Some of the most classic poses are listed below and employed by all headshot photographers, but do not be afraid to step out of the box and have fun with it!

  • Head-on, facing the camera: they get to see you, and all of you.
  • Slightly angled away: this pose is especially effective for film because generally you never look directly at the audience.
  • Over the shoulder: This one is more mysterious and edgy.

How many different headshots should I have?

You should always get at least two looks out of every headshot session.

It is standard practice to have a theatrical headshot (more serious) and a commercial headshot (smiling with teeth) at any given time because these are the most asked for from agencies and casting offices. If you have a niche skill or look it is a good idea to get a few shots of you in your element. For example, if you are a musician your instrument can play an additional role in your photo.

How much does a headshot session cost?

Depending on your photographer and their portfolio, headshot sessions can range from $400-$1500.

You should not need to break the bank in order to get great headshots, but you also should not cut costs here either. Price may seem daunting, but you must remember that your headshot is a direct reflection of your professionalism and the investment is worth it – and tax-deductible if you are a QPA come tax season!

I am sure you are curious why the cost for a headshot session is so much. Be sure to ask your headshot photographer for a breakdown of costs during your consultation, so the costs become more transparent. Be sure to always ask if the below charges are included in package price or separately. Most headshot photographers will offer product packages at a flat rate for the session itself, but additional charges can accrue for the following:

  • Hair and make-up
  • Retouching – although some photographers do their own
  • Printing
  • Editing
  • Multiple looks – some headshot photographers only include a set number of looks and will charge extra per photo.

Zen Studios LA offers very comprehensive photo packages including multiple looks and edited images. Starting at $175 our packages are formulated to serve the client, and we do our best to handle additional charges on a case by case basis. Our wonderful hair and make-up stylist, Estelle, is available for booking with your session for an additional $150. As a boutique photo studio, we are focused on keeping prices low so that we can build a consistent and reliable customer base. We hope that you enjoy our work and prices so much that you keep coming back time and time again!


What questions should I ask a headshot photographer?

These are the best questions to ask your headshot photographer before committing to a session or making a deposit:

  • Do you have a portfolio of your past work?
  • What are your rates?
  • What is included in your rate?
  • Do you shoot indoor, outdoor, or both?
  • How many looks does your session include?
  • How long is a session?
  • Do you recommend anyone for makeup, hair, retouching?
  • How many of your clients are returning customers?
  • What types of payment to you accept?
  • What is your policy on reshoots?

What can I expect from a headshot photoshoot?

Headshot photoshoots can last 30 minutes to 3 hours – come prepared!

There is no way of knowing exactly how long your session will last. You should always bring all wardrobe changes with extra options and keep makeup and a small mirror handy for touch-ups. If you are shooting outdoors, then you may need to locate public restrooms in which to change in. Wear comfortable shoes regardless of the look you want to achieve – odds are you’ll be standing for a majority of the session or you may need to walk to a different location, but your feet will never be in your headshot. Your photographer may feel the need to take liberties with the angle of the camera or even your body in order to achieve a certain look. Be the best actor you can be – adjust as needed, come prepared, and put your best face forward.

Zen Studios LA will always give you a few minutes at the top of your shoot to get acquainted with the studio space and environment. We want you to be comfortable more than anything else, so we will put on your favorite tunes and dance around with you to get the jitters out. Whatever you need, we will do our best to make it a reality!


How can I relax during my headshot session?


Be yourself and have fun!

It is important to have a playful rapport with your photographer before, during, and after your headshot session. Simply having a conversation with your photographer can move your working relationship forward to friends. You can only relax when you are comfortable, so do your best to shake those nerves off and get silly with your photographer. Allow the characters you want to play to inhabit your body as you go through your session to get in the physical and mental headspace.

We have stressed repeatedly the importance of your headshot, and we might have made you a little nervous – do not be! The best headshot sessions happen when you can allow yourself to relax and be yourself. Every actor has a trick or two to quiet the mind and body before a performance, so use those exercises to help you here too. If your headshot photographer cannot bring you out of your shell then perhaps you need a different headshot photographer that aligns more with your personality and who you are on the inside.


What headshot background is best?

Simple backgrounds with good lighting are always the best for headshots.

Whether you wish for your photos to be taken indoor or outdoor is merely personal preference, but you should always be aware of your headshot photographer has their own studio setup or if they work strictly on location. Natural light gives off a soft quality, while studio lighting can lend a polished quality. Depending upon the types of characters you wish to play one might be better for you than the other, so you must discuss your background ideas with your headshot photographer before your session. This way your headshot photographer can also come as best prepared as possible.

Contrast within backgrounds is always a good idea. For example, if you have green eyes you might use gray background. The point of contrast is to make sure that you pop!


How often should I get new headshots taken?

You need headshots every one to two years.

Any time you change your look, you need new headshots. If you cur your hair more than a few inches or dye it, even losing or gaining a significant amount of weight (more than 10 pounds) means you need new headshots. It is recommended that adults get new headshots every two years while children should be getting new headshots every six months. At least once a year you should re-evaluate how your headshots either benefit or hurt your career. Do you get positive feedback on your headshots? Have you been called in less this year because your headshot is misleading?

You must also keep in mind what is trending at any given time. At one point in time black and white headshots were quite popular, but today a black and white headshot might bring about the assumption that you have not worked since 2005. It is also a good idea to become familiar with the medium in which casting directors see your headshots. Most casting directors sift through thousands of thumbnail images in a day, and they do not have the time to click on each individual headshot. This means that you want your main picture to have a tighter crop on the face so that the eyes can be seen much easier.

How many prints should I have made?

You should have anywhere between 20 to 100 printed headshots at a time.

This number all depends on how many agents and casting directors you are meeting and auditions you are going on. It is unnecessary to order thousands of prints since you will need new headshots within two years but always keeps at least 20 in your headshot bank (you can always print more).

Evaluate what you need printed copies for, and this will help you get a running count of how many you need in your bank. If you are trying to get an agent or manager then your bank should be well-stocked so you can mail prints to those offices or bring them to seminars and workshops. As we mentioned before if you are focused on EPA and theatre auditions then you will need a surplus of printed copies in your bank. However, film, tv, and commercial work do not require a printed copy, but many auditions do require or ask you to bring them, so you should have extra just in case.

Should I get my headshot retouched?

Actors should only have their headshots lightly retouched.

You want the best possible representation of you in your headshots, so that means exceptionally light retouching to eliminate distracting elements of the photo, and to enhance your best features. Retouching that is acceptable for actors involves smoothing a few stray hairs, evening out skin tone, and bringing out the light in your eyes. It is all about balance, so do not go too heavy-handed on the photoshop.

Retouching wrinkles may seem like the way to go to help you look younger in your headshots but beware too much can make your skin appear as if it’s plastic. Most casting directors have seen these headshots enough times to know that the actor behind them is hiding something, and they often will refrain from calling you in for an audition even if you might be perfect in every other aspect. Your age and natural beauty are what make you who you are and its only natural to have wrinkles because the skin has texture. Do not feel ashamed of your age because age is often the most important feature when selecting actors for roles.

We do our own retouching on your selected images at Zen Studio LA, and we will walk through the process with you on each picture so that each image achieves the look you want to portray. We always keep in mind how polished you want your photos to look.


How should I format my headshots?

Actor headshots are standard in the below format:

  • In color
  • Vertical
  • Have your name on it
  • 8 inches by 10 inches
  • Stapled to the back of your resume

Black and white headshots became obsolete in the early 2000s. Zen Studios LA finds that it is best to print in color and vertically because it is slightly easier and more intuitive for a casting director to turn over your headshot to read your resume on the back. However, whether you go landscape or portrait is a matter of personal preference.

Even though your resume will always be attached to your headshot, you should always have your name printed along the border of your headshot. There is no standard font or color for your name, and some actors like to take liberties here with a font that matches their personal style, but above all things, it should be easy to read.

You can have your resume printed on the back of your headshot, but many casting directors discourage this as sometimes they wish to separate your headshot from your resume. This can also be a waste of resources if you need to make any updates to your resume. It is best practice to staple your 8” X 10” headshot to the back of your resume (flat side of staples on the photo side, pinchers on the resume side). Remember that standard printing paper is larger than 8” X 10”, so you will need to format your resume to be cut down around the edges to match your headshot and appear more uniform.

Pro tip: Zen Studios LA recommends that if you are using your theatrical headshot for an audition then you should include your commercial headshot thumbnail image next to your name on the resume you attach. Vice versa if you are using your commercial headshot. You never know when the casting director could use you for a separate project.

How do I pick the right headshot?

To pick the right headshot: ask your family, friends, other actors, and industry professionals for advice.

Typically, your headshot photographer will give you a flash drive, disk, or link to an online gallery of the images from your shoot. Ask those friends and family members to look through the gallery and pick their favorites, then tally the winners. Our studio assistant/resident actor, Eva Holliday, says “I always want to know why they picked the headshots that they did so that I can gain a little perspective into their minds which could very well be like the mind of an agent or casting director. It’s a great actor life hack!” Once you have gained this insight then you can compare it to the list of qualities you made before your headshot session. This is the best market research into what you have to offer as an actor.

We know it may feel a tad narcissistic or even uncomfortable to ask others to look through hundreds of pictures of you, but it’s important to remember that we are not always the best judges of character when it comes to ourselves. Outsider perspective helps us to understand not only how we appear but also what we can sell to the industry.

Never forget the cardinal rules of headshots that we have drilled into you throughout the article: think about how you are going to be using your headshots, and finalize the ones that tailor to the types of projects and roles you want to go for.