Hello, hope you enjoy! Thanks for visiting!

Friday, August 5, 2011

What Makes a Good Headshot And Why You Need One

Although I’ve directed this article toward my Voice Actor/Voiceover Artist colleagues, this advice applies to most any profession today. Whether you are a freelance professional, staff employee, changing careers or interviewing for a new position, you need a professional headshot.

Ok, the first thing you’re wondering is why is a Voice Actor giving advise
about what a good headshot should look like? What do I know, right? Well, for almost 20 years in Nashville I ran my own commercial photography business. I was simultaneosly working in the Nashville music scene establishing myself as a songwriter/recording artist. But that’s another story.

Now, to stay on point, my photography business involved shooting varous products, food, corporate/industrial location and studio work, architecture, music business (CD covers, PR, etc.) and lifestyle portraiture. I even spent a long year shooting catelog images for Gibson Guitar in my 1500 square foot wharehouse type studio inside a 100+ year old building in downtown Nashville. And Yes, I always did headshots. In an entertainment center like Nashville, headshots were always a staple of my business. I even held a few organized talent agent sanctioned meetings to discuss headshots. I still shoot the occasional one in my small studio in Spring Hill, Tennessee. Although, I’m no longer in the photography business. I closed up shop for reasons I won’t go into here. But doing so freed me up to pursue my voice acting career to a greater degree.

The second thing you may be asking is, “Why do I need a headshot?"
No one sees me... I work behind a mic. Besides, I’d rather not let anyone know that I am really a 55 year old man who does a very convincing character voice of a teenage girl.” And if that’s true then revealing your face makes your work all that more facinating!

The fact is, we voice actors are all (or most all) freelance business professionals. As in just about any other business, people want to see your face. C’mon get with it! We’re in the age of imagery. They want to see that “internet eye contact” being made in a simple clean photo on your website, blog, on line business profiles, etc. Maybe even on your business card. Make no mistake, people make a much more comfortable connection with a REAL person they can see in a photo. Maybe it gives them a peek behind the curtain. You already know that today’s voice acting/voice over work is all about realism. They want to hear your heart beat in your VO work! They want to hear you smile! Why not drive home the point with a photo?  Ah, I know what you’re thinking. “But I’m not photogenic.” But being ugly is no excuse... just kidding! As a photographer I’ve heard that a million times. My response is always, a good photographer will take a great shot of you when you give him the chance. The idea of being a professional photographer is to be skilled at the process of creating a great photograph. It’s not done by chance. It involves an understanding of light. (There would be no photography if there were no light!) Coupled with a great sensitivity for design and composition. In other words...  a good eye!

Preparing for your headshot.
Find a professional photographer! No, that cute little shot you took , arm fully extended with your cell phone in your hand aimed straight up at your face above just won’t cut it. Cute but not for use as a primary shot. And you do need something better than what’s on your drivers license or passport.

When you contact the photographer look at his work. Not his family portraits... not his wedding photography... nor his PR work. Just look at his headshots. Ask yourself, are they three dimensional looking? Or do the people look like cardboard cut outs? Is there life to their expressions? 
Do you see shine on their faces? Do you see sparkle in the eyes? Does the light look harsh or softer? What sort of backgrounds are being used? Are they overly glamorous? Are they shots of models or real people?

When you feel comfortable about the photographer’s work book a session. Choose a time in the morning when you are fresh faced. Faces begin to droop a bit as the day wares on. Get plenty of sleep the night before. If your eyes are a bit puffy the morning of the session then apply some “Preparation H” (yes, you know the stuff) to your lids to reduce swelling. Bring along some translucent powder for shine.

Bring a couple of different choices of shirts or tops. Medium blues or greens with small print or solid colors with simple neck lines and long sleeves often work best. Do not wear white. It reflects too much light. Suits for men or women are over done. Stay casual and simple. Your face is what's important here. It’s not a fashion shoot. It’s a business portrait. 

A bit about make up.
Make up for photography is not (ladies) your everyday type makeup. It is meant to be used under the photo lights... usually electronic flash... to blend the skin tone, eliminate shine and smooth out any specular highlights the lighting may cause. If you have a makeup artist at your session the fee will be more. Usually, $100.00-$150.00 more than the session fee. Today, however, and I know I’ll hear about it when I say this.... you may be able to get around a make up session by using just powder for shine. This is because of the great skin blending software available for use in post production touch up work. And remember not to be so conscious of a blemish or scar on your face during the shoot. It can be “Photoshoped” away easily. By the way, never expect a photogragher to redo your whole face in Photoshop. Headshots should look like you and not some glamed up version of you.

Headshot lighting
Traditionally, there has been an industry standard look for headshots. This was based on 3 main lighting styles developed in the early days of Hollywood moviemaking... Basic, Paramount and Patch lighting.

Basic is when the face is lit evenly on both sides. Usually pretty boring on most faces. A lighting ratio of 2:1, 3:1 or 4:1 is best. This gives roundness and contour to the face. This is used with Paramount lighting... where the main light is placed directly in front of the face above eye level creating a triangular shadow under the nose. Patch or Classic lighting is used with the main light to one side, a fill light on the other creating a triangular “patch” of light on one side of the face within the nose shadow.

These techniques have loosened up a bit over the years. The entire face may not be in sharp focus. This is acceptable provided 3/4 of the face is in sharp focus. Sparkle in the eyes are highlights you should see in the pupils when lights are placed correctly. Adding LIFE to the face. Lighting ratios... light to dark... on the face have become more dramatic. Backgrounds have become less “Sears” painted canvas looking. A dressed down glamour is more popular now. Soft (cloudy-bright or diffused ) outdoor lighting can also work well. The current headshot I am personally using was done in a large open doorway facing the daylight diffused by large translucent scrims. These are all acceptable techniques today if done carefully. 

The look!
For headshots, make eye contact with the camera. And be sure to smile!
Remember this is for business. Guys, we often look mean under our mustaches and beards when we’re not smiling. You don’t have to present a big cheesy grin, just a soft warm smile. Would you want to do business with a guy who looks like he’s ready to kill? Save the off camera -stare, no-smile, cool aloof looks for other photos on your website. There are plenty of occasions to post crazy pics of yourself. All things considered, it’s still best to use a good professional headshot as your main photo on your website, promotional materials and business profiles. You’ll find that your agents will also agree with having a good headshot. You actors know this and may already be using your actor headshots to promote your voice acting careers. If you’ve ever been on a live on camera audition, think of the photoshoot as an audition. Show some personality to that camera! You are unigue in your voice quality... allow that same quality to enhance your photo session.

Final results and costs
Your photographer should provide you with proofs... anywhere from 40 - 100+ digital frames ... that were taken in up to a 2 hour session. You’re looking for one or two main shots from the proofs. Show the proofs to friends and see which ones keep getting the most attention. Let your agent help you choose. Even if they know you are not an actor. They still know you from your voice acting work and are certainly qualified to choose which shots best represent you.

Depending on where you live, professional headshots can cost from as little as $150.00 to $300.00-$500.00 or more. As I said earlier, working with a makeup artist will cost more. Some photographers may not want to work without their makeup artists. But beware of those cheaper headshots! Some photographers, mainly in the larger entertainment cities of Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Nashville, etc. are non professionals trying to make some extra money and may produce inconsistent results.
I’d say an average cost would be in the middle.... $200.00-$300.00 range for a routine headshot session. 8x10 prints may be extra. Make sure your “finals” or heros are sent to you as high resolution (300 dpi) images or high and low resolution images. You’ll need hi res images for any type of traditional printing and lo res images for internet use. Back up your finals onto CD if the photographer didn’t supply you with images on CD.

If you happen to be in my area in Tennesee, I can certainly shoot your headhsot. At a professional discount, of course.

Yes, I know , you’re saying, “Geez, something else to pay for.” This is true, however, you should consider headshots as part of your marketing program. As you already know, marketing in the VO business, besides your VO performances, is the most important thing we do in our efforts to sustain our healthy careers. So go get your shots! After all, it’s not a root canal!


  1. Thanks for the info Rick. Very thorough. I'm sure you made a lot of people look a lot better than they were!! I've posted a link to this article on my Facebook Business page.

  2. Thanks, Derek!

    Yes, now these days I'm trying to do the same for myself!

  3. Nice article Rick. We have fought against head shots for VO actors for years. You laid out the reasons 'for' quite well.

  4. Wow, Rick, Thank you for sharing your expertise!!
    Love how you put the 'To photo or not to photo' topic into perspective for us VOs!
    My photographer gave me a "Personal Copyright Release" so I could make prints, and also agreed to let me use the photographs for published articles.
    Kind regards,
    and keep those blogs coming :)
    Linda Joy

  5. Thanks Joe... Yeah, that's me ... the old rebel rouser!

  6. This is probably the best article on headshots I've ever read, Rick.

    I'm a voice-over actor, but thanks to my headshot, I have landed some short on-camera parts that paid really well.

    One tip: when you audition for an on-camera part, make sure you (still) look like your headshot. That's why you were invited in the first place.

    I've seen too many people that had aged considerably since they last took a headshot and they were sent home immediately. So, keep it current!

  7. Very well written, Rick. I just shared it on Twitter.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Linda!

    I'm glad to see that you respected the photographer's copyright.
    Many places now will not reproduce a photo without written permission from the photog. Lawsuits have created this action.
    Most photogs will have no problem allowing PR use of their copyrighted work ... with no extra fees attached.

  9. Thanks, Paul, for making that point!

    Exactly... Directors get pretty upset meeting an actor who doesn't look like their headshot. Especially with actresses since they change their look more often then actors (men). Headshots should be updated at least every 2 years. Kids especially.

    I'm lining up my own update right now with my favorite Nashville photog.

  10. Hey Scooter... thanks for the tweet!
    Every little tweet helps!

  11. I'm the 55 your old guy you're talking about. I was going to not use a photo. Thanks for pointing me in a different direction!

  12. Ooops! Didn't mean to single you out!
    But I'm glad I've got you thinking!

  13. Really good article, Rick. Thank you for posting.It might be time for a new one for me!

  14. Thanks for your comment, Deborah!

    Just find yourself a good photographer you can work with. One that works with and understands actors. Then you'll be comfortable and the pics will show that.

  15. Thanks Rick! I've been trying to decide if I should grace my webpage with a glowing shot (I'm bald) of my glorious face. Paul from Nethervoice sent me to your blog to read up on mugshots, uh, headshots. I'm curious you mentioned not to wear white and you wore white. Is this a case of "I'm a professional, don't try this at home?"



  16. Hi Carl... thanks for commenting!

    I wondered when someone was going to point this out. Other folks may have had the same question.
    Actually, I'm not wearing pure white... kind of a light tan or ecru which can be just as reflective with no detail as white.

    I'll explain. In the case of my shot, I was staring out into a cloudy bright (diffused sunlight) day with some further diffusion from scrims. The light was fairly flat. Knowing that in this situation, reflectance would be low on my sweater and detail would not be blown out. However, if I were being photographed under electronic strobe, which is typical, my light sweater would have caused a problem for my photographer. He would have had to scrim off light from my sweater and try to balance the main light with having enough on my face to illuminate it properly scriming off enough from my sweater to hold detail. Also, under that lighting pale complected people in light colors become a very uninteresting monotone. So again, to eliminate a potential problem, don't wear white or any very light colors. Mid tone colors are best.

    A suggestion for you with your bald head is this.
    Make sure you look at some kind of test shot during your photo session... the LCD on his camera, a monitor or polaroid proof. Make sure he is not using a top light or hair light as he would normally use for a full head of hair. There should be no hot spots on your head! On balding men, I've usually used Patch lighting(as described in my article) to get a good light ratio with lights on either side of your face placed at about eye level. Scriming any extra light off your head if needed.

    Hope this answers your question, Carl!

  17. It is nice to see an article dedicated to this important topic. Thank you for sharing.

    voice acting

  18. Thanks for reading and for your comment, Laura!
    Hope you've got a good headshot.