So, I’m working on the Bad Headshots, Good Headshots III piece (and it is taking forever, thanks to more contributions than I had anticipated) and I’ve realized I have WAY more to say than I’d planned. This is a good thing, but it’s also a time-consuming thing. Therefore, I’m going to continue working on the photo portion of the piece (see Bad Headshots, Good Headshots and Bad Headshots, Good Headshots II for an idea of what’s coming up next week) and — this week — share an exchange I had with headshot photographer Zero Dean on the topic of headshot retouching.

I’ve answered headshot questions asked by actors many times. But to be asked questions of a headshot photographer is new (and totally cool). It’s kind of like when I’m asked questions about the auditioning process of producers rather than of actors. It’s a different perspective, depending on the audience! I hope you’ll enjoy this conversation (Zero’s words are in italics).

I know that it’s important that the person showing up for a casting/audition actually look like their headshot. It makes perfect sense. You want to see all their features and get a good idea of what they look like and if you could see them in a role.

Without question, this is the most important issue. An actor who shows up looking nothing like his or her headshot has wasted everyone’s time. And, worse, that actor may have been perfect for a role we cast the week before, but because he or she submitted a headshot that got that actor called in on a role this week (a role he or she is wrong for, based on the in-the-room look), we never even knew to call that actor in for the perfectly-matched role the week before.

It makes perfect sense that we all want to choose photos that look flattering or that make us feel good about ourselves. But save those photos for your family and MySpace. The headshot that is going to get you work is the one you should use as your calling card. Otherwise, you’re basically giving out a business card with your name spelled wrong and a typo in the phone number. It’s useless to us and it could cost you work.

With that in mind, I’m wondering what you would consider an acceptable amount of retouching in a headshot… or in which areas/cases it is acceptable (or to what degree).

First, I guess, are you totally opposed to retouching?

No, not totally. Sometimes it’s necessary, as there are things that could distract us and make us focus on the “stuff” in an otherwise perfect headshot (flyaway hairs, a glop of mascara, a shadow cast by equipment, etc.). So, certainly, there are times when retouching is appropriate and necessary.

If not, then:

Bad Skin:

Q. If a person has bad skin (acne or blemishes, but no “scar” damage that changes the surface of the skin), but their condition is either temporary or something that could easily be fixed with makeup, is removing or at least lessening the appearance of that condition in a headshot acceptable?

That depends. (Oh, “that depends” will be my answer on all of these questions, I’d bet.) Sometimes people are delusional. They actually believe their acne is temporary, but the truth is they always have blemishes. So, there’s a trap here wherein you (the photographer and/or retoucher) are left having to judge the seriousness of actors’ skin conditions when they say they’re having a flare-up that “never happens” when they may just not notice how their skin looks outside of the day they schedule headshot sessions.

If makeup can cover the blemishes, it’s assumed that makeup in use for the headshot session will do just that! This is why a professional makeup artist (who is familiar with the photographer’s needs, lighting techniques, and how their artistry will “read” in the finished product as created by that photographer) is so essential. If, after being made-up for camera, the acne is still reading through, I’d assume that means the acne would read through on a gig as well!

Perhaps you want to offer the actor the option of having the acne retouched, but with the caveat that if the actor shows up for the follow-up session with you and has the same acne situation as during the shoot, you gently suggest that a “real” headshot is going to serve them better.

Q: What about skin discolorations, moles, or spots?

I wouldn’t retouch a mole, freckle, or anything else that the actor isn’t already camouflaging with makeup. I have freckles and I have a mole on the side of my nose. I once had a photographer present me with retouched headshots (he had removed my freckles and the mole, figuring that’s what I would want), and I was baffled. I said, “Thanks for going to the effort, but my freckles show up everywhere that my face does! I need the original version of this print.” So, if it’s something that makeup can cover (and the actor is also showing up to all auditions made-up to the same extent), that’s one thing. Retouching those ever-present characteristics is not something I would advise.

Models can count on a career of being retouched before their photos ever see the light of day. Actors are human — flaws and all — and that means their individuality actually helps get them cast. The majority of actors who work every day are very normal-looking people with imperfections everywhere. Headshots should reflect that truth.


Q: Is removing minor scars acceptable?

I could see this being appropriate only if the scars are new and the actor will be using the headshots when the scars are no longer new. I have an actor friend who has a pretty deep scar on her cheek. She showed me her new headshots and there was no scar! I asked why she’d had it retouched out and her reply was, “It’s ugly.” My response was, “So, what do you do with it when you show up for auditions?”

See, no one who sees her for an audition (based on getting an appointment off that retouched headshot) is going to think she’s somehow gotten that scar between the day of her headshot session and the day of her audition. And if that scar is something that would keep her from getting cast, then the fact that it was removed from her headshot is something that will serve to piss off the casting director who wasted a slot on an actor who had no shot at getting cast in this role. Worse, perhaps there was a role for which her scar would’ve been “that thing” that helped her book it — but she wasn’t considered for it because she looked perfect in her headshot.

I cannot stress strongly enough the fact that headshots are more like business cards than photographs, in terms of their purpose.

If you misrepresent yourself, you’re going to cost yourself work. Not every time… but often enough. And in an industry where every actor complains that they’re not working enough, why would you want to be the one who creates an obstacle to your getting cast?


Q: Since wrinkles actually affect the surface of the skin, is lessening wrinkles acceptable or would you rather they be “full on” in a headshot?

Never, never, never remove wrinkles. (Hey, that’s not even close to an “it depends” answer, is it?) We have plenty of 20 year olds from which to choose. Embrace your age range. Truth is, many people are more castable the older they get. Smoothing out those wrinkles could cause us to categorize you incorrectly (and again, get pissed when you walk into the room older than your headshot indicates you should be). One of my least favorite things to write on the back of an actor’s headshot, during an audition, is: “She’s ten years older than this.” But I write it all the time. Sorting through headshots on the film I’m currently casting, my most common cry was, “Actors have no idea how old they are!”

See, now that I’ve met many, many, many of the 8000+ actors who submitted for this project, I know what they look like in person, so their headshot becomes more of a placeholder for the in-person knowledge I have (rather than the only measure of “age, type, look” I have for the actor). And many actors submitted for roles a decade or more outside of their age range. I’m not talking about actual age. (I don’t give a poop about actual age. It’s as irrelevant as anything else, in casting. You don’t play 20 or Japanese or dumb blonde because you are 20 or Japanese or dumb blonde. You play 20 or Japanese or dumb blonde because you play 20 or Japanese or dumb blonde. It’s called acting. All of it.) Anyway, a lot of actors suffer from thinking they’re younger than they really could play. Their headshots shouldn’t support that personal delusion (since that’s all it is).

[eyes] Looking away from camera acceptable?

Q: As long as you can see the eyes, does it matter to you if a person is looking (with their eyes) directly at the camera?

It’s fine with me for actors to be looking away! But remember, I don’t cast commercials (and I think it may be an issue for commercial CDs who want that full-on smile and smiling eyes). As long as I get a sense of an actor’s look, type, age, and vibe, it’s fine with me that the headshot be a bit more stylized… just not too much so. Headshots are about the actor’s brand, not the photographer’s brand.

[face] Looking away from camera acceptable?

Q: Do you prefer a face to be generally “squared off” (not necessarily perfectly, but close) to the camera, or is headshot with a face at an angle (more cheek facing the camera) acceptable?

Totally fine with me! Again, commercial CDs may disagree. I think I can handle the more stylized photos once I know an actor’s work (again, the headshot becomes more of placeholder than the one and only reference point that I have for an actor’s look, type, age, etc.). But an askance look doesn’t cause me to eliminate an actor’s headshot (irrespective of whether I know his or her work). Fine with me.

On one hand, I know my clients want to look good and I’m essentially here to serve them by not only shooting them, but by also making the changes they request. But on the other hand, I’ve sometimes (many times?) felt it was counter-productive to fulfill certain requests because I knew it went against the idea of a headshot being a totally genuine representation of a person.

So it’s a battle of “do I do them a disservice by making the changes they request” or “do I do them a disservice by not making the changes they request”.

That’s not that unlike casting, if you think about it. I have to ask myself, “Am I serving the producer or am I serving the actor?” And really what I’m serving is the project. And if we want to see the best possible project, the answer is easy: We won’t push for the actor we really-really-really-really-really want because perhaps this isn’t the best role. Also, we won’t stay married to a breakdown that’s based in a need to make money (by the producer) if we know there’s an actor who is of another type who just must be seen.

So, it’s a balancing act, but in the end, you’ll be a better service provider if the service you provide is headshots that get actors called in correctly and, hopefully, therefore more-likely booked since CDs will know your shots tend to be accurate representations of the actors in them.

Off the top of my head, I can think of one really popular LA-based headshot photographer whose shots are basically useless to me. They do very little to inform me of what an actor actually looks like (and they’re insanely expensive too, which I — as a former actor — resent) and I can spot ’em at a hundred yards. (And that’s not a good thing, despite what the photographer will tell potential clients about the benefits to standing out.)

Anyway, by advising actors well, you’ll be known as a straight-shooter. You can cite comments by CDs like me (and solicit comments from agents and managers too on this topic) to back you up when actors really, really, really want to be airbrushed like a Playboy Playmate in their “everyman” headshots.

I wouldn’t demand clients do it your way (because in the end, they are paying you — just like the producers are paying me), but you could start off with the suggestion so at least they know what the pros would prefer. (Still, you’ll never be able to save everyone from himself.)

Good photos

Q: Last question… and this one is just a curiosity of mine. (And likely, even if you were to answer “yes” to this, I’m not sure you’d want to admit it, right?) From an artistic standpoint, does it really matter at all how “good” a photo looks or how it might stand up as a “portrait” as long as it accurately reflects what the person looks like? I mean, you’re not really grading the photographers, are you? I guess what I’m asking is, can a bad photo still make a good headshot?

The answer is definitely yes. A bad photo can still be a good headshot (good headshot = representative of the actor’s look, type, age, vibe). That said, anything that distracts us from the fact that it’s a good headshot (such as the fact that the actor’s forehead is totally cropped out, an actor’s bare feet being the focal point of the photo, poor quality of the photo itself, bizarre lighting, use of props, “campy” photo staging that every actor who shoots with that same photographer ends up with) could be a reason we choose to eliminate the actor from the “good list.”

Remember, we’re looking for ways to cut down the numbers from the very beginning. We have thousands of actors from whom to choose and anything that can help us eliminate an actor, we’ll use it (no matter how arbitrary). It can be the fact that the actor is repped by an agent we don’t like working with, where the actor lives, how much the actor looks like our ex, or… yeah… poor photography! We may decide that means the actor doesn’t take enough pride in his or her career to shell out more than $50 for headshots. Right or wrong, it may be used as a reason to cut the actor from the mix.

And an actor’s goal, at this point, is to stay in that mix long enough to get the appointment, and then kick so much ass at that audition to book the role.

Wanna be sure your tools *and* your mindset are in peak form? Let us get you in gear with some FREE training right now!

Woo HOO!

Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!

Originally published by Actors Access at Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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