Monday, October 7, 2013

10 Tips for a Great Headshot by John Ulman

A great headshot is not just a pretty picture—it communicates a side of who you truly are. It’s an incredibly important marketing tool for any actor. While everyone knows you need a great headshot, not everyone knows how to get one.

As a veteran headshot photographer, here are my top ten tips to get a great shot:

1.  Know When to Update Your Headshots
Most headshots will last you 12-24 months—if it’s been more than 2 years since your last headshot session, it really is time for a new one.

You should also update your headshot any time you lose or gain a fair amount of weight or change your hairstyle or color.  You want to look like your headshot when you walk into the audition.  The best compliment I get relayed back to me from a client is when a casting director tells them “this is a great shot, it looks just like you.”

2. Find the Right Photographer For You
To reveal a genuine side of yourself to the camera, you’ve got to be comfortable with your photographer. When you’re choosing a photographer, don’t just focus on their portfolio—be sure to contact them to get a feel for their vibe and information about their process. This extra step can ensure a good experience and productive session.

3. Set Yourself Up for Success
Give yourself plenty of time to get to the session, have the session, and get to your next appointment. You don’t want to worry about rushing in or out. If your head is full of stressful thoughts, you will get physically tense and the camera will capture all of that. 

In addition to giving yourself plenty of time for the session, get rest the night before, stay hydrated, pack a snack in case your blood sugar dips, bring your favorite music to help set the right mood, and bring whatever wardrobe, makeup, and hair products you need.  It’s just like preparing for a performance—you want to be relaxed, focused, and open, with “energy all the way to the finger tips.”

4. Come In With Ideas for What Shots You Need
I get the most requests for these four looks:

1.            Commercial (bright, casual, smiling, "I can sell toothpaste")
2.            Theatre/Film (slightly dressier, non-smiling "I'm comfortable in my own skin and I'm going to let you look at my face")
3.            Corporate/industrial (business look, dress shirt, jacket, smiling and non-smiling "Hello and welcome to Microsoft")
4.            Character/Type (whatever you tend to or want to get cast as—Soccer Mom, CSI Detective, Friendly Neighbor, etc.)

Before you walk into your session, know how you want to market yourself.  Think about the roles you typically get cast in—talk to your agent, colleagues, directors, and teachers to figure out your Type.

5. Bring the Right Wardrobe
Here are some general guidelines for wardrobe success:

OPTIONS: Bringing bad clothing options is the #1 preparation problem I encounter with clients. If you are going for a corporate look, bring appropriate clothing, like a button-up shirt and blazer. There is no way to capture that corporate feel if you’re wearing a tank top.  If you don’t own the right clothes, buy them or borrow them. It really does make a world of difference. Also, bring a few options for each look you want to capture. Some things look great in-person, but don't photograph well and vice versa.

STYLE: Boat-neck and scoopy collars tend to look weird in headshots. Button-up shirts, v-necks, and tank tops are all good choices. Bottom line: whatever you wear should fit well and not distract from your face. 

COLOR: Solid colors work best. Textures and bright colors are fine, just avoid busy prints, patterns, and logos.  The color should not match your skin tone—otherwise, you and the shirt will blend together in the shot.  Contrast between your clothes and your skin makes your face and eyes pop. 

6. Women: Get Your Hair and Makeup Done Professionally
Professional Makeup Artists have the tools and the skills to apply makeup that reads perfectly on camera.  Hiring a professional MUA will ensure your hair and makeup look good, so you can focus on the shoot.  It’s worth the investment.

However, it’s usually better for men not to wear makeup—you run the risk of looking “too Model-y.” If you have an issue like blotchy skin and would feel more confident with makeup, hire a professional who is good at male natural looks for HD cameras.

7.  Act for the Camera, Don’t Pose for It
The camera basically captures your thoughts. If you’re thinking, “Ugh, I hate this… I’m not a model I’m an actor… I hate the way my nose looks in every photo I’ve ever taken… I don’t know what to do with my hands…” it will read in the shot.  Figure out what kind of shot you’re going for, set up the internal monologue of that “character,” and give it to the camera.  If you’re going for happy commercial shot, think of things that genuinely make you happy so the smile is honest and not just saying “cheese”  for the camera with dead eyes.

8. Show Your Teeth in Commercial Shots
While it’s not necessary for film and theater shots, showing your teeth in a genuine smile is great for commercial headshots. Casting directors will see a friendly person who looks fun to work with and can sell toothpaste. Even if your teeth aren’t perfect or brilliantly white, commercial casting directors will want to see them in the shot. 

For theater and film headshots, it’s still a good idea to cover your bases with both non-smiling and smiling shots. If you only print one, choose the image that represents your personality most accurately. 

9. Know That You Are Enough
In a headshot session, your main job is to show the camera who you are in that exact moment.  You’re not trying to be everything at once or like any other actor or some unrealistic vision of perfection from a magazine ad. Realize that you are enough. Everything you may see in yourself as a “flaw” is actually a unique quality that you have to sell.  Own those “flaws.” Embrace them. Celebrate them. They are what make you YOU and may very well get you a job.

10.  Breathe and Have Fun

There can be a lot of pressure going into a headshot session—“wow, this is a huge investment for a broke actor like me… my last headshot experience was a disaster… how do I show everything I can do in one shot….”—breathe through those pressures. Remember, the headshot session is your time.  You paid for it, so own it.  You’ve done the prep, you’ve set yourself up for success, now is your chance to act for the camera in a role you were literally born to play. Have fun with it. 

John Ulman is a Seattle-based headshot photographer. Contact him at or check out his work at

Wanting to take an Auditioning class?  Freehold is offering several Auditioning classes this quarter.  More information here:


  1. Hi..This is the perfect blog for anyone who wants to know about this topic. You know You definitely put a new spin on a subject thats been written about for years. Great stuff, just great!
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  2. Even if you have a stellar professional profile, your head shot is responsible for making the first impression. A great head shot can entice people to contact and hire you for your services, whereas a bad profile photo is well, bad for business. Head Shot photography

  3. Very nice post you have shared. Thanks for providing great tips for headshot photography.
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  4. Los Angeles, USA based portrait photographer specializing in actor's headshots, corporate headshots, executive business portraits and headshot picture editing online company.