Getting Great Headshots: A How-To

Los Angeles Musician Headshot Photography

As I’ve been getting an influx of people emailing me in regards to having their headshots taken, I thought I’d post this as a sort or catch-all to field questions and clear up any ambiguity of what makes for a great headshot, and tips for getting great headshots.

Q: What makes a headshot exactly?

There are all kinds of opinions on what defines a headshot, and indeed there are several different categories of headshots, but it’s important to know that there are industry requirements detailing what comprises an acceptable headshot.

First, a headshot is more than just a head-and-shoulders shot. There are certain characteristics of style that are accepted by the professional community, and you should hire a photographer that knows what that style is, and shoots accordingly. Most importantly, a headshot is in many ways your calling card.  It’s what conveys your first impression.  It needs to accurately portray what you look like, while painting you in your best light — without being overly glamorous or stylized.

An important description for an effective headshot would be “engaging.” Your headshot needs to engage the viewer, and shed light onto your personality and charisma. It needs to say a lot about who you are in addition to what you look like — or at the very least, entice the viewer into learning more about you — because in essence this is the photo with which you are marketing yourself.

Q: What kinds of headshots are there?Getting Great Headshots sample theatrical beauty headshot of Alysha Nett

There are subtle variations of headshots, depending on their intended market. But they all involve similar rules and characteristics.

The two main categories are “commercial” and “theatrical.” Commercial headshots are precisely that: headshots for commercial purposes. These are for people looking to be cast in dish detergent ads, cell phone television spots, and even comedic roles.  Commercial headshots are geared for both print and television. Theatrical shots, on the other hand, are geared more for film and, well, theatrical jobs.  These shots need to look a little more clean, professional, and serious.  These are the shots that land you longer-term jobs, so it’s best to convey the notion that you’re smart, able, and most importantly, reliable!

The main differences between “commercial” and “theatrical” often involve clothing choices (warm, vibrant colors are best for commercial shots), as well as posing and expression.  A commercial shot will be upbeat, and more inviting with smiles, whereas a theatrical shot will show poise, seriousness, and capability.

*Edit* Since writing this post, I’ve gone into a little more detail discussing the differences between commercial vs theatrical headshots here.

There are also various styles of headshots, depending on their intended market:  Actor headshots, mostly to showcase what one might look like for a closeup or intended roles;  model headshots, which can showcase a little more of the body-type;  beauty or glamour headshots, which focus more on hair, makeup, lips and skin;  corporate headshots, which help sell a business or profession; etc etc

Q: Are headshots best done black and white, or color?

Ten years ago and earlier, having headshots printed in color cost several times as much as having them printed in black and white, so naturally b&w headshots were the norm. However, since the advent of digital reproduction, color prints are easy and cost-effective, and therefore have become standard.

Besides, it’s important to showcase how sapphire blue your eyes are or how copper-red your hair is!  That being said, black and white photos can add drama and flair to an otherwise normal scene, which can be useful for theatrical headshot looks.

Theatrical Model Headshot

Q: What should I wear?

Your wardrobe should supplement the feel and nuance of your character, but shouldn’t distract completely.  Patterns and flashy neon colors are often a big no-no, as they can easily draw attention from your face.  Solid jewel colors work best, as long as they complement your eye/hair color, as well as your complexion.  Sometimes layers are a nice way to add dimensionality.  I always suggest my clients bring a small duffel bag of their favorite wears.  If you feel good wearing it, you’ll probably look good wearing it, too.

Q: What about hair/makeup?

Hair and makeup are of course optional, but can potentially make or break a headshot.
As mentioned earlier, you don’t want to over-glamorize yourself, but you definitely want to look like you on a “good hair day.” Finding a stylist who knows how to give you a “clean” look can make you your best, but you’ll still look like you for auditions and meets with clients.  Beauty headshots, naturally, can be the exception to this rule.  But even still, restraint must be practiced.  Not all hair/makeup stylings are the same, so you must accurately showcase what you have to work with as a blank canvas.

For sessions with me, you can feel welcome to book your own stylist, but I have several on retainer that I can book for you, if needed.  As I mentioned, this is completely optional, but a very wise investment for getting great headshots.


Feel free to take a look at my headshot gallery to see the quality and range of headshots I provide!
If you’d like to book me for your headshots, take a moment to Contact Me.

Questions? Comments?? Fire Away!!!

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