Everything you need to know about actor headshots, all in one place.
"Hey Martin! Can you take an actor headshot for me?"
"Sure!" ... said the guy who had ZERO idea what a headshot even was.
That was back in 2009.
By this point, I've personally shot over 7,500 actors, so I decided take the most important things I've learned and put them into an in-depth post.
This is the most comprehensive guide you'll find anywhere about professional actor headshots.
Table of Contents
Click on any section to instantly jump to it:
Why it's good:
Her expression is very natural – there is no tension in her face. This image has NOT been photoshopped and you can see some slight darkness under her eyes, which makes it look real. She looks confident, relaxed and we get a sense that she's an experienced actor. She looks confident in herself, which tells casting directors that she can act.
Why it's not so good:
He looks uncomfortable and has a weird posture – his head is tilted at an odd angle. The background is distracting with the lights on the left side and the harsh lines on the right. Even though it has not been retouched, that's not a problem here – the biggest problem is that his expression makes him look inexperienced and like he isn't a skilled actor
Why it's good:
He looks very natural in the shot. Even though he has a serious expressions there is no tension in his face and he looks like he owns the frame. His hair is cropped off slightly at the top, but that's expected as casting directors know the top of the head is there. The checked shirt could be considered distracting by some, but because it's so dark it doesn't draw the eye, meaning it's fine.
Why it's not so good:
The framing is too far away for the outfit she's wearing (it probably should have been shot as a horizontal from slightly above her chest). Her tattoo is not only distracting, but because her arm is pressed against the side of her body, it looks bigger than it is. The photo is also washed out (the colors don't pop) and her outfit is too revealing for a headshot (you should avoid showing cleavage). Overall this headshot looks very low-budget and her expression looks like she's "trying too hard."
Why it's good:
Her expression is extremely natural, the lighting is very soft, and the background is not distracting. She truly looks confident and relaxed in the photo, as though she's a bright, fun, and friendly actress.
Why it's not so good:
The image is washed out because overall, the colors are too dark. His shirt is dark, the background is dark, and his skin is dark, which makes everything look dull. Ideally, the background or light on his face should have been brighter. He is also too shiny – something that could have been fixed in retouching. Although the expression could be seen as intense, which is what he was going for, it still looks unnatural or like he was "trying too hard" to look intense.
Why it's good:
He looks very relaxed with zero mouth tension. The background could be considered distracting because of the dots, but it does not noticeably draw the eye away from his face. The lighting, clothing, and expression all work together to create a feel or "brand" for the image. What does this image say to you? Asian gangster character? That's what he was going for.
Why it's not so good:
In this photo, the background and lighting are fine. There is a bit of shine on his forehead which could have been retouched or fixed with makeup, but the biggest issue is that he doesn't seem comfortable or relaxed in the shot. His eyes give it away. He looks like he's "trying too hard" but not getting there, which will tell casting directors that he's not a good actor (even if he is!). Can you see it?
Want to learn more about how to get a fantastic headshot? Watch this video:
How a Headshot Session Works
Actor headshots are nothing to be afraid of! Sessions are very simple and straightforward (as long as you pick a good photographer).
Basically what happens is you'll contact some different photographers, find someone who's right for you, and schedule a time for your shoot.
You'll show up at their studio (or predetermined location), and they will guide you through the process.
Where Can I Find a Photographer?
Why? Because if you work with someone who's not engaging or boring, it will be very hard to get good expressions.
You might end up with a professional-looking headshot, but if you look uncomfortable or seem like you're trying too hard, casting directors will assume you can't act.
The result? You'll find yourself rarely getting called in for auditions.
Here's a simple, 4-step process you can use to find the right headshot photographer for you:
- Find at least 10-20 photographers to consider: To find photographers, you can ask anyone you know who already has a headshot or you can search Google and Yelp for "actor headshot photographers."
Narrow those 10-20 photographers down to a few top choices: Once you have your list of photographers, you should narrow them down using the following criteria:
- They should specialize in headshots – if they usually shoot weddings or events, that's not a good sign since headshots are such a specialized branch of photography. With headshots, the need to direct and be highly specific is critical, whereas there's little to no directing of expression involved in most other types of photography.
- Their prices should be clear and straightforward – make sure they don't charge hidden fees (be careful of photographers who charge both a "session fee" and a "per image fee" – it should be just one or the other, not both). Also, sales tax isn't legally required by law for services (unlike for physical goods), so be careful of photographers who charge sales tax – they might be pocketing the extra money.
- The photos in their portfolio should look great – make sure you like what you see and that the images line up with what we outlined previously. You should also look to see if they have any shots of people who look like you in their portfolio.
- Contact your final selections and see how they respond: Email or call them to see how quickly they respond and how accessible they are. Some photographers (especially very expensive ones) will offer a free in-person, phone, or Zoom consultation to explain their process and sell you on working with them. During this consultation, you can ask them questions to get an idea of their personality and see if they seem like someone you'd like to work with.
- Go with your gut and commit: Once you choose a photographer, go all in. Many will charge a booking deposit that's applied to the total fee – don't fear placing this deposit. If you try to avoid putting the deposit down, the photographer might get too busy and could schedule someone else over you.
Here's a much more in depth article on how to pick the right headshot photographer for you.
Can I Take Headshots Myself or Have a Friend Do Them for Free?
Remember, casting directors make all kinds of judgment calls from your headshot alone, and since they look at SO many headshots each day, they can easily tell if yours doesn't look high-end or expensive. A photographer who specializes in professional headshots for actors is the way to go.
Using a headshot that looks low-budget or like it was done by a friend, will make casting directors think you don't take acting seriously and they'll pass you up for someone with a better-quality headshot.
All that being said, if you still want to try taking your own headshot, check out this guide that shows you how to take a professional headshot with a smartphone.
What Do Actor Headshots Cost?
Avoid spending less than $150 to $200 because most photographers that charge cheap rates do so because they don't do great work.
The more expensive the photographer (in general), the better your experience will be and the more usable shots you'll get.
That being said, avoid spending more than $800 because once you get to such levels, you'll find that you're just paying for the photographer's name (some photographers are really great at networking or have just been in the industry for decades).
A good rate to aim for is between $350 and $550 for a two-look actor headshot session (more on "looks" in a moment).
Learn more about headshot cost breakdown here.
What Does a Headshot Session Look Like?
- Pre-Shoot Discussion: When you first arrive at the studio, the photographer will probably ask some questions about your goals and help figure out which outfits you should wear. They'll also explain what will happen during the shoot.
- The Shoot: Usually the shoot lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to a few hours, depending on how many "looks" you're doing (more on "looks" soon). The photographer will tell you where to stand and what to do, and will say certain things to try to get you to give certain expressions. All you need to worry about is doing what the photographer says, and asking questions when you're not sure. They'll usually take a lot of shots quickly (like 5-10 images per burst) so they can capture subtle expression changes on your face. Good photographers are usually willing to show you the pictures throughout the shoot so you get an idea of what they're looking like so you can make changes if you're not liking certain things.
- After the Shoot: Some photographers will sit down with you after the session to look at the photos together, and others will just send the images to you via an online link. They usually delete any unusable shots and do basic color adjustments before sending the shots to you for review. In some cases, you'll get access to the high-quality, full-size images, and in other cases the photographer will only send you small preview files with watermarks on them. Either way, your job at this point is to choose which pictures you like best and let the photographer know.
- Retouching and Printing: Most photographers include retouching in their packages, meaning they'll fix blemishes, whiten teeth, etc. You just need to let them know which shots you want retouched, and then they'll usually email them back when finished so you can get them printed and start using them (more on that soon).
How to Prepare for Your Shoot
- The right mindset: Go in expecting to get a great shot AND have a fun time, and don't be overly obsessed with capturing the PERFECT shot. This means you should have an open mind – be prepared to try different expressions and body positions. If you're obsessed with only capturing one type of shot, it can make it difficult for you to relax enough to get good expressions.
- A great headshot should look like you: Wanting to look thinner or more glamorous in your headshot than you do in real life might sound good on the surface, but it's a mistake. Casting directors hate when you look different in real life than you do in your headshot and they'll almost never book you for the role, even if your audition was perfect. Asking your photographer to use special lighting setups to change how you look will cost you in the long run, so be confident in who you are and what you look like! There is a place for everyone in this industry.
- Bring your clothing and anything needed for the shoot: Headshot photographers almost never carry clothing in their studio, so be sure to plan out what you're going to wear and bring in more than you think you'll need. Also, if you're planning to do different hairstyles or a scruffy and clean-shaven look, don't forget to bring the tools required!
- Plan to arrive early: Arriving late is one of the biggest pet peeves of headshot photographers, and if you're more than a couple minutes late to your shoot, its can eat into your session time. To avoid feeling rushed, be sure to arrive at least 5-10 minutes early (meaning plan ahead for possible traffic delays).
Here's an in-depth article on how to get the most out of your headshot session.
What are "Looks" and How Many Should I Do?
- What are "Looks"? Looks are considered outfits + backdrops. So if you wanted three different "looks," that means you'd be getting three different kinds of shots. One look might be a business professional shot, done outdoors with the street blurred out behind you. Another might be where you look like a gang member, wearing a leather jacket with a dark alleyway blurred out behind you. The final look might be shot on a white backdrop, where you're wearing a dark blue t-shirt, to be used as a "commercial" headshot. For each look, you'll usually do a variety of poses and expressions, so you might walk away with 300 shots altogether – 100 pictures taken for each "look."
- How Long Should My Shoot Be? Depending on the skill level of the photographer, most shoots take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour per look. The most skilled photographers usually need less time, so a 3-Look shoot might only take an hour or so, whereas if you're working with a newer photographer it could take up to three hours to capture good expressions for each "look."
- How Many Shots or "Looks" Do I Need? Most actors should do at least two looks, aiming for one "commercial" and one "legit" shot at minimum. This means one bright, smiley, fun headshot, and one darker, moodier shot. The commercial shot can be used for submitting yourself to perform in commercials and bright, fun scenes, and the darker "legit" shot can be done for more serious roles in dramas, etc. At the end of the day, you should have at least one great headshot to use, but more ideally you'll have at least 2-3 different shots because it's better to submit specific headshots for specific roles (like using a business look if you're submitting for a business executive role). And remember – your photographer might actually shoot 100, 200, or 300 shots, but your goal is only to pick your top few favorites out of the bunch. No one will ever see all the other pictures you did.
What to Wear for Acting Headshots?
If you don't like something but someone tells you to wear it, you won't look confident in your shots and you'll probably feel awkward, so always start by choosing things you LOVE.
Now in general, it's a good idea to wear solid colors because patterns and logos are often distracting. Layers can add more depth, so open jackets are great additions to outfits.
You don't need to worry about your pants or shoes since they won't be in the frame, but for your shirt, subtle textures are OK, but they need to be minimal.
Most colors work fine, but you should stay away from pale colors like white, light gray, light pink, etc., if possible because they can look too bright on camera.
Be sure your clothing aligns with the character and "brand" you're going for (more on "brand" soon). For instance, if you're thinking of doing one business look and one gangster look, bring a professional suit and tie for the business look and a leather jacket and black t-shirt for the gangster look.
For an in-depth, detailed guide on what colors and clothing work best, click here.
What About Hair and Makeup?
Natural makeup is best because casting directors want to know what you look like in real life – when you're overly made-up, they find it hard to imagine what you could look like dressed as the character they're casting for.
A headshot makeup artist typically charges between $100 and $300 and will stay throughout the shoot to ensure your hair is in place, you're not looking shiny, and everything is on-point with your clothes. You can learn about our makeup artists here.
- How to Hire a Makeup Artist: Most headshot photographers already work with someone they recommend. It's best to avoid going to a makeup counter in a store or hiring your own makeup artist because makeup for headshots is significantly different than makeup for real life or for glamour photoshoots.
- You MUST Look Like Yourself: Don't change your hairstyle significantly or do your makeup in a way you can't replicate every time you go to an audition. If you submit a headshot of you looking a certain way, the casting director picks it because they want you to show up looking EXACTLY like that, so if you hire someone to do your hair or makeup in away you won't be able to replicate easily, your headshot won't do you much good.
- Avoid Jewelry & Accessories: Jewelry and accessories like hats, sunglasses, chains, etc., are all considered distracting and should be avoided. The only acceptable jewelry is small stud earrings. Believe it or not, even wearing a simple necklace or chain is a big no-no in actor headshots.
- Glasses: We highly recommend wearing glasses in your headshots if that's how you look day to day. However if you also wear contacts, your should do some shots without your glasses. Remember – if you submit a headshot with glasses on, the casting director will expect you to show up with them on. And if you submit a shot without glasses, you should show up WITHOUT them on.
- Shaving: Same goes with shaving. It can make sense to do some shots shaven and some with scruff, but if it takes you three weeks to grow a beard and you submit a shot with a beard for an audition coming up in 3 days, you better have that beard when you show up or your chance of getting the role drops significantly.
How Can I Get a Good Headshot?
- The Basics: Your photographer should be experienced enough to direct you into positions that look good on camera. In general, for a good body position, you should be standing nice and tall so your shoulders look good, and you should try doing "the turtle," which means pushing your face towards the camera a bit – this strengthens your jawline and can help fix double chins.
How to Look Confident and Capture Specific Expressions: There are two simple tricks you can use to look more confident and capture specific expressions in your headshots:
- Squint your eyes: Doing a very slight squint, almost like you're "curious" or "thinking" about something, can help make your eyes look more confident. Avoid trying to make your eyes look bigger than they are by widening them, or you'll get the classic "deer-in-the-headlights" look! Instead, doing a subtle squint can make you appear more confident and natural on camera.
- Imagine speaking to the camera: To get specific expressions, close your eyes and think of something you'd like your expression to say. For instance, if you want a friendly and warm smile, imagine saying, "Hey, nice to meet you!" Your expression will suddenly look way more friendly. Or for a more serious, sneaky shot, imagine saying, "If only you knew what I'm hiding right now."
- How to Get Real Smiles: The fastest and easiest way to get a real smile is to fake laugh and say "Hey!" while laughing. Literally laugh as you say the word "Hey!" and imagine you're greeting someone. And then you can just hold the smile that comes right after it. If you have a great photographer, they can get you to smile naturally by telling jokes, but if your photographer isn't funny and your smiles are starting to look fake, this is one of the best and easiest tricks you can use.
- How to Find Your Best Side: The fastest way to find your best side is to simply turn your face to each side very slightly and have the photographer take a picture of each. When looking at the two shots, pay special attention to your eyes, nose, and cheeks. If anything with them seems distracting, look at the other side to see which one you feel looks best. Once you find your favorite side, focus on that for most of the shoot so you get tons of shots you'll love!
Here's an excellent article on how to look confident on camera.
How to Capture a "Brand" in My Headshot?
Every actor has a "brand," which is essentially a combination of your "type" (what you look like) and your personality. If you can capture your brand in your shot, it will give casting directors all the information they need to decide whether to bring you in for an audition.
A Branded Headshot
We get a clear sense of the kinds of characters he's right for: intense, darker roles, and confident characters. Everything works together and it's easy for casting directors to figure out what kinds of roles to hire him for.
A Non-Branded Headshot
Although this shot is technically fine (lighting, backdrop, body position, etc.), we have no idea what kinds of characters she'd be right for. She's wearing a shirt that doesn't say anything specific, she's on a white background that doesn't say anything, and her expression is blank. A casting director would have no idea how to place her.
Why a Brand is So Important:
As you begin to submit yourself for productions, you'll find that character descriptions are often somewhat vague. Most casting directors will never tell you what they're specifically looking for.
This is because they don't want actors to "fake it." Instead, they want actors who are "naturally" the character they're looking for.
That's why if you play yourself (your brand) each time you go in for an audition, you'll book more jobs!
How to Find Your Brand:
The quickest way to find your brand is to follow this simple, six-step process:
- Step 1: Who is someone you very much admire in your life, and what are the three personality traits you most admire in them? We'll call these your Pride Words. Example: I admire my grandma, and how supporting, consistent, and hardworking she is.
- Step 2: Who is someone you very much dislike in your life, and what are the three personality traits you most dislike in them? Example: I dislike my old friend Mike because he was dishonest, selfish, and lazy.
- Step 3: What character types could you realistically get booked for? What do you look like? These are your Types. Example: I could realistically play students, older brothers, best friends, and troublemaker kids.
- Step 4: Look at your answer to Step 2. Which word is most representative of you when you're at your worst? This is your Dark Word. Example: I tend to be lazy when I'm at my worst.
- Step 5: Look at the Types you wrote in Step 3. Which one would you most enjoy playing? This is your Type. Example: I would probably most enjoy playing older brothers (because I'm one in real life!)
- Step 6: Combine everything together into the following sentence to find your Brand: "I am the Pride Words Type who can be Dark Word at times." Example: "I am the supporting, consistent, and hardworking older brother who can be lazy at times." And that's your brand!! Of course this can change over time, but this is at least a strong starting point, and you can aim to capture it in your headshots.
How to Capture Your Brand in Your Headshots:
The easiest way to capture your brand in your headshots is by using the Google Image Search Technique:
Using Google Image Search, type in one by one each of the words in your brand. Using the example above, we'd first type "supporting." Images will show up that capture the word "supporting," like someone hugging someone else, someone smiling, etc.
Do this for each of your five words (supporting, consistent, hardworking, older brother, and lazy). Google will give you a visual representation of each of these words, and you can print out your favorites and bring them to the shoot and show the photographer the feelings you'd like to capture in your headshots.
Then during your shoot, you can focus on each of your Pride Words to capture the right expressions. Close your eyes and think of the word "supporting," and then open your eyes. Your expression will capture that word perfectly, and you can repeat this for each of your three words.
Guess what? You've just captured your brand in your headshots.
Dive deeper on branding and learn why it's so important by watching this video called "Why Find a Brand?"
What Happens After Your Shoot?
In this final section, we'll talk about how to pick the best headshot from the shoot, plus how to use your headshot to get auditions and bookings.
How Do I Pick the Best Photo?
Well, the best way to choose your headshot is the same way a casting director looks at actor headshots: Quickly.
Click through your photos very quickly and ONLY download your favorites onto your computer. Leave the rest on the image sharing site your photographer used and don't bother with them anymore.
It's important that you ONLY consider images you like because even if someone tells you a shot is good, if you don't like it, you'll always feel awkward submitting it, and that's NOT a good thing for a successful acting career.
Once you've got only your favorites to look through, you might only be seeing 20-50 shots, which is much easier to narrow down.
At this point, you can do the same thing again – quickly thumb through all those remaining images and ONLY select your favorites. Move the ones you like into a different folder on your computer and you should only be left with 5-10 shots, which will make the final selection process super easy.
Choose your shot based on the one you feel best captures your brand or the feeling you want to convey to casting directors. For instance, if you're going for a friendly smile shot for "commercial" use, then choose a big smile with nice, bright colors! If you want something more serious, look at the more serious expressions you did and figure out which one you think might work best.
And if you're not sure, at this point you can absolutely ask a friend or acting teacher to help you choose.
Just be sure your expressions look natural (don't pick one where it looks like you're trying too hard).
Here's a great article that dives much deeper on choosing the best headshot from your shoot.
How Does Retouching Work?
Retouching should remove anything noticeably distracting from the image, while still making sure you look like yourself.
It can be tempting to make your face slimmer or make your teeth perfectly white and smooth out your skin so there are no wrinkles, but casting directors hate that because you'll show up to the audition room looking different than you do in your headshot.
If you can tell it's been retouched or you look different in real life than you do in your headshot, you've gone too far with retouching.
Learn about our actor headshot retouching work here.
How to Get Headshots Printed?
Your headshot should be printed on semi-gloss paper (not high gloss) and you should ideally get them printed professionally by a company like Actor's Photo Lab or Print Headshots – make sure to use a company that specializes in printing headshots for actors. We used to recommend Color Works NYC and Reproductions, but they have since gone out of business unfortunately.
Bringing your headshots to Kinkos or trying to print them out on your own is a recipe for frustration and re-prints when you realize they don't look like high-end actor headshots. Believe it or not, cheap prints can make a casting director think you don't take your career seriously! So spend the extra $50 to get them printed right so your $400-500 shoot investment was worth it.
When you get them printed, the company will ask you to confirm the layout, and you'll usually want your name printed at the bottom left or right corner. You can choose to have it printed full-bleed or with a 1/2" white border – either is acceptable.
The printing company will walk you through this step by step, and a good company should let you see a hard-copy proof before they run your entire order to make sure you're happy with the overall look.
How Do I Use My Headshots?
Here are a few more ways you can use your headshots:
- Casting Websites: You should create free or paid profiles on websites like Casting Networks, Actor's Access, and Backstage. You can upload your headshots on those sites and then submit to paid and unpaid projects to start building your reel.
- LinkedIn: Believe it or not, casting directors will research you online, especially if you're submitting to a bigger role. They want to get an idea of your reputation and make sure there is no major reason to not bring you into the production. Your LinkedIn page is one of the first social profiles that will show up when people google you, so make sure it's up to date and has your most recent headshot on it.
- Your Website: If you're just starting out, an acting website isn't necessary, but as you begin to build your career you'll absolutely want to have one made, and it's the perfect place to post all your headshots (and other photos of you working on set and with different people in the industry). Here's a great article on how to design your own actor website for free.
- Email Profile Image: A lot of actors forget to update their Gmail or other email profile image when they get new headshots done. Your profile image shows up to EVERYONE you email, so be sure it's up to date with your most recent favorite headshot!
- Social Profiles: Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok should be updated with your favorite headshot as well, and ideally you should use the same image across all of them so you're memorable to casting directors looking you up. If you use a different headshot on each site, people might get confused and think the profiles are all for different actors (who happen to have the same name).
- Business Cards: If you get business cards designed (a simple but important thing to do), you should absolutely put your headshots on them.
Where to Go Next?
What's next? Well, there are plenty of other things you can do to start booking more consistent jobs and work your way up in the industry. Here are the three most important areas to focus on that will give you the biggest bang for your buck:
- Work on Your Training: You need to be a fantastic actor – great at both auditioning AND performing on stage and/or screen if you want to get anywhere. Casting directors will know right away when they see your audition whether they'll ever want to bring you in again. And remember – they keep a list of people who waste their time, so if your acting is problematic, no great headshot can make up for it! Hire an acting coach or join an acting class to begin improving.
- Work on Your Networking: Here's a super simple way to introduce yourself to casting directors (that doesn't feel salesy and awkward). Just because you're a great actor with great headshots doesn't mean you'll consistently get auditions. You need to either have an agent who has great relationships with casting directors... or you need to have great relationships with casting directors yourself. You should occasionally reach out to casting directors to keep in touch with them and build your network so they remember you and bring you in for the jobs you're right for.
- Get Your Other Marketing Materials Together: A great headshot is just one of your three primary marketing materials. The other two are footage of yourself performing (known as a demo reel) and your actor resume. You should get your resume created (you can search google for actor resume templates) and then either hire a reel production company to shoot some scenes for you (www.actorscreenershoot.com) or simply take your smartphone and stand against a flat wall and record yourself performing a monologue or dialogue scene with a reader. Then you can upload the footage onto YouTube and share the links with casting directors when submitting for projects.
If you're wanting to learn more, here are three links I highly recommend checking out:
For guest posts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.