One of the key tools for any actor is their headshot. It's your calling card, your primary marketing material along with your resume, and it's your surrogate that you leave behind to represent you to the organization sometimes long into the future. Bottom line, it's extremely important. It doesn't matter if you're going for stage, film, tv, commercial or industrial work, every actor wanting to work in the entertainment industry needs photos, regularly, and they better be good.
Ultimately you should have a variety of high quality current photos ready to go as needed, but let's start with the headshot itself. It's referred to as a "headshot" because for a long long time it was just that... it was a photo of your head, typically with you looking at the camera. Strong eye contact, an idea behind the eyes, a great representation of how you look, and a hint of how dynamic you can be as an actor. For a long time, these were always in black and white.
The headshot has changed though in recent years. It's much more common now to have a color shot instead of black and white. In fact, it's almost expected. It's also ok to have a shot that is 3/4 length instead of only your head. This shows some of your body to give the viewer a better idea of your overall look.
The headshot is the big one, absolutely. But it's also a very good idea to have other shots at the ready in case a casting director might want more, or if you sometimes change your look.
For film and tv work you'll want to get signed with an agent. An agent very likely will ask for a few different shots. A headshot for their primary use, then also 3/4 shot, full body shot, maybe smiling versus serious expression. For women, hair down and full versus hair up. For men beard, no beard, and variations between, since the shoot or project might require you to change your current look. For example, the other day I did a shoot on a new Netflix series that is set in 1996. They considered changing my beard or shaving it off for my role as a teacher, but ultimately decided to keep it as is. So if possible, have a variety of looks in your photo archive that show you in different moods, full body in some, different looks to your hair, etc.
It's gotta look like YOU
Here's a big one.... Your photos MUST be up to date! I can't tell you how many photos of actors I see that are 10+ years old. I've had some with clothing that was so dated it looked like they were in a period film in the shot. As an actor, you will not be taken seriously if you try to use old outdated photos. A casting director I know has a "wall of shame" in her office of the worst of the worst of headshots. They're a great source of amusement for many.
Your photo must look like you! If you change your hair drastically, you need a new shot. If you had facial hair in your headshot then don't now, you need a new shot. If you lose or gain weight, you need a new shot. Let me repeat, your photo must look like you! I've known actors to be thrown out of an audition or even from a shoot when they walked in looking nothing like their photo. The company called in the person in the photo, not the person that walked in. So make sure you update your photos if you significantly change your look, and that means sending out new ones to your agent, casting directors, etc. You will want to try to get old photos out in the wild replaced with your new one. Along with it, send an updated resume on the back.
This is a subtle thing. As an actor on stage or screen you need to draw the viewer in to you, your character, their journey, their emotions. That's your job. The same is true of you in your photos. It's far too easy in a photo to look static, still... frankly, dead. There needs to be a dynamic feel to the photo. You need the viewer to want to lean in to look at more detail, to want to know you, to want to work with you. This involves your eyes, your mouth, your body position... If you work with a good photographer, they'll know to look for this and to try to capture it. In fact when you are shopping for a photographer, you can ask them questions like "What do you do when working with an actor to capture them dynamically?" or "I need to be sure my photos really draw in the viewer and don't come off frozen or dull. What can you do to help me with that?" When I shoot actors I sometimes will prompt them with some instruction such as "There's a door in front of you and when I say go your best friend walks in and you have great secret to share with them... Go!" and I watch for the expression to follow, and try to capture it. Or "When I say go, one of your favorite people you've not seen in ages walks in... go!" These prompts are designed to spark a realistic reaction that plays well in a static image.
Your job in the shoot is to create the expressions, follow the instruction, play the reactions to prompts such as the above, but do it in a way that the photographer can capture. Let it develop over a few seconds. Think of it almost as a bit of slow motion. If you react too fast the photographer can't catch it. In general, you want to move from expression to expression, pose to pose, eye position to eye position like you're moving through water. Make it a bit fluid and slower than normal so the photographer can capture it at the ideal point, and if he sees something between poses he can stop you to say "wait, right there..." snap! Got it.
Don't over style
Go for a neutral appearance in your photos. Your photo is of YOU, not your fancy hair style, your impressive jewelry collection or that trendy outfit you just bought. The casting people are looking at you! Layering on too much style only hides you and can limit how they might see you for roles they are trying to fill. For example, if they are casting a piece set in France in the 1800's, a photo with big hoop earrings and a turned up polo shirt collar might distract them from how you might appear in period costume. What I generally recommend is minimal jewelry if any at all. Natural looking makeup with little color. Fairly neutral clothing, not too bright in color. Hair worn down and natural. Look nice, professional, well put together, but let YOU shine through. Don't let the styling overpower you in the picture.
Don't retouch! This one can be taken a bit loosely, but the bottom line is, you have to look like that picture when you walk in the door. If you retouch and remove all your wrinkles, smooth your skin coloring, whiten your teeth, etc etc, the picture is no longer a representation of you... and think of this. They may have called you in FOR those attributes! They may love the details on your face that show years of life, wisdom, your age and more. The things that make you unique are strengths for an actor... not detriments. Let the real you show through, while still looking like the best possible you, of course.
It's not a bad idea to have some shots in your file of you in character. So if you play an interesting character with a well designed costume, you might want to get a photographer to take some pics of you if you have the opportunity. Capture it for your portfolio. You can consider creating these from scratch as well. If you have a costumer friend with access to wardrobe, see if you could spend a day putting together some different character looks of things you might readily be hired for... Are you a teacher type? More blue collar worker type? Grumpy old man work well for you? Put a look together, do your hair and make up and get some shots. Never a bad idea.
Finding the photographer
As you can see from the above... these shots are super important for any actor. You must take it seriously, and consider it an investment in your career. If you find a good photographer that you work well with, maintain that relationship. If you're seeking out a photographer, talk to actors who's shots you like for a referral, or reach out to an online list or forum of actors in your area to get recommendations. Then check out their work and talk to them. You'll be paying for these shots, so you have the right to interview them carefully. Lastly, don't assume that your buddy who has a cool looking Instagram account has any idea how to shoot actors. Headshots and actor shots like these take a good eye, as well as a keen understanding of lighting and photography. Also, the right equipment makes a huge difference. Treat this process professionally, like the rest of your acting career.
Spike, as his friends call him, has 30 years in the performing arts world as an actor, director, administrator, marketer, fundraiser. He has consulted with numerous theatres and other performing arts organizations and loves to help such groups and individual artists to achieve their success!