The Best Headshots You Ever Had

Probably one of the most stress-filled experiences actors have is the torture that is having headshots taken. It’s as if this photo shoot is the culmination of every negative thought you’ve ever had about yourself combined with every hope you’ve ever had about how you may be cast someday with a sprinkle of “OMG, a new zit? Today?!?” anxiety sprinkled on top. Eesh.

It’s uncanny. An actor whose audition confidence is through the roof, an actor whose primary castability is unquestionable, an actor whose booking ratio is enviable will all have something in common with every actor who’s never reached those positions: a case of severe anxiety when the time comes to shoot new headshots. Heck, the number of actors out there REGULARLY shooting new headshots because they’re so sure something’s not working from their last shoot is insane.

The good news is there are several great headshot photographers in major markets who post pre-shoot tips at their websites that are really helpful! Be sure you consume all of those bits of info, no matter which photographer you might choose. Decide with whom you’d like to shoot NOT based on whose galleries are filled with the fanciest samples but instead based on learning this is someone who will work with you ahead of time on your overall goals, whose website has wardrobe and coloring tips, and whose understanding of the importance of your actual castability (not your most inauthentic but flatteringly photographed and airbrushed version) is clear.

Here, let me first tell a story of how I ended up with some of the best headshots I ever had and then share how I’ve helped actors do the same thing.

Now, I first got headshots in the 1970s, so trust me when I say I’ve been at this a while. Even though I retired from acting in 2000, the fact that I’ve been a weekly columnist since 1999 and an author of multiple books published since 2002 means there’s still the need for photos with bylines and on the backs of books and, well, that means I’ve had a LOT of headshots. And a lot of anxiety.

I went through the whole, “Headshots are in two weeks, let me diet like never before, drink all the water so I’m super hydrated, buy all new (not at all on-brand) clothes, and get a makeover at the MAC store” routine. Many times. Anxiety. Disaster. Or ho-hum headshots at best. Every time. It wasn’t until I was shooting author book jacket photos for my most recent three book covers that I clicked in. Oh, and let’s be clear: I did NOT click in until about halfway through the shoot.

My hubs was with me at the shoot and he saw the anxiety I was trying to keep from bubbling up clearly start to register on my face. He could read the tension. He knew we were getting GOOD shots, but not my BEST shots. He asked the photographer if we could have a second. The photographer took a break. Keith came over to me and said, “The only thing running through your mind right now needs to be the words: I’VE GOT THIS.”

Now, here’s the *why* on those words: On the book’s back cover, where my photo lives, there’s this whole blurb about why someone unfamiliar with my life’s work might want to buy the book. At least in the case of one of the three books for which THIS photo was being taken, the dang thing is THICK. Probably not a lot of extensive flip-through will happen before the BUY. So, there’s gotta be some convincing going on in those back cover words and in that photo. Hmm… sort of like how an actor’s headshot has to do the job of getting buyers to understand the brilliance that’s on the resumé or in the reel, even if there’s no time to read or watch either — how ’bout that?

What’s the ONE message I need to convey in the author photo on my books’ back covers? “I’ve got this.” Basically, “You can trust me. I’ve got you covered. I’ve done the work so you can read a much shorter version of the tens of thousands of hours I’ve put into interviewing and working with casting directors, agents, producers, working actors, directors, publicists, managers, writers, showrunners, and other professionals in our glorious entertainment industry and learn about patterns that may help you move forward with your showbiz career in a more efficient and confident way while having more fun every day! I’VE GOT THIS.”

In looking at the few hundred proofs from this shoot, there’s a distinct break between the “trying for the best photos ever” run of shots (where I was totally back in Actor Bon Headshot Mode) and the ones that exude exactly what needs to be seen by MY buyers.

So, here’s how I’ve translated that brilliance my partner brought to me that day to actors I’ve worked with over the years so that they can FINALLY get their best headshots ever: Pick a line. Pick a really simple line. If you always play the bully, it’s, “Gimme your lunch money, kid,” if you always play the nurturer, it’s, “Come here and let me make it better, honey,” and if you always play the vixen, it’s, “You certainly can choose to leave your man alone with me, but I wouldn’t advise it.”

Now, here’s why that ONE line is so dang powerful: Just like when you’re on set, there’s stuff that goes on right behind your eyes with just a simple thought. There’s that gorgeous moment before that READS when you do nothing more than think it. Your every thought shows up on camera (because that’s what’s meant to happen) and you are always caught BEAUTIFULLY in the moment before you even open your mouth to utter your first line.

My question for you glorious actors thinking it can’t possibly be this simple is: Why doubt that something that works EVERY time you’re on-camera for a film, a TV show, a webseries, a commercial, an industrial, or anything else captured in moving footage would work when you’re in a headshot scenario? I mean, it HAS to work… or else you’d never see still photographs from a shoot that make you FEEL. And you know we often do.

As some of your pre-headshot work for your next session, really think about language you’d like to use INSIDE. Run lines (maybe two or three lines, max). Have a line for the angry cop you always play (and don’t worry about how to LOOK or dress like an angry cop), have a line for the stern mom you always play (and don’t worry about how to LOOK or dress like a stern mom), and have a line for the authoritative commercial pitchperson you always play (and don’t worry about how to LOOK or dress like an authoritative commercial pitchperson).

It’s not about being the best-looking you, the youngest-looking you, the best-dressed you, the thinnest-looking you, or anything other than the most CASTABLE you, and that, my friends, should always align with lines those exact characters would utter. It’s as if your headshots are taken as stills from the set of the most on-brand project you’ve ever booked, and you’re caught in a glorious moment in which everyone FEELS what’s going on with your character. Pretty freakin’ simple, huh?

Have you tried it? It works for a headshot, it works for publicity stills, and it works on the step-and-repeat. I’d love to hear about how it’s worked for you!


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 http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/002016.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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