Over the years, I’ve been asked the following questions regarding headshots for actors, or anyone seeking more effective headshots. From LA to Chicago to New York to Atlanta, here are my most frequently asked questions.
Q: How does the actor find a competent headshot photographer?
A: Here’s a good place to start: Actors usually compile a list of the photographers that they want to see by asking fellow actors, agents, managers, acting coaches, and casting directors. But with major search engines like Google, it’s easy to take your time and view all of the top professionals available anywhere you live. After you’ve made a detailed inventory of all the websites that you like, always compare their quality, reputation, and price, then call the actual photographer directly. If you don’t like his personality or if he won’t take the time to personally discuss your needs or questions with you over the phone, I’d look elsewhere. It certainly won’t get any better when you meet him in person.
When you visit photographers’ websites, always be sure to look for a large selection of photographs with a diverse variety of people represented— all ages, nationalities, sexes, physical types, and characters. It’s not that difficult to take decent pictures of perfect looking fashion models, but most of us simply don’t look like that! Also make sure you to see lots of variety in everyone’s headshots. No two people are ever alike, and assembly line headshots that don’t highlight the special qualities of the individual not only miss your uniqueness, but sadly, far too many photographers shoot exactly this way. ”Cookie cutter” headshots that all look exactly alike might be okay for lazy photographers and high school yearbooks, and those cheesy shopping mall “glamour shots” might look good on your bedroom wall, but not in the competitive field of business, social media, and professional acting.
There are so many headshot photographers in the business today claiming to be “The Best,” that finding the right one can often be a confusing and frustrating experience. As a working actor, I know. To address this often bewildering dilemma, I offer a unique solution. It’s called my “Before & After” portfolio. More on that, below.
Q: What about online reviews?
I have noticed a disturbing new trend lately— headshot photographers using questionable reviews to help boost their business. Here’s how it works: A photographer will simply have all of his friends, family members, relatives, dogs, cats, and anyone else they can find to post “Five Star” reviews about their studio on the Internet, then hope that these fantastical comments will improve their “bottom line.” Some photographers simply write and post their OWN reviews, just to create a more positive image for themselves. The problem with these reviews is that they are almost impossible to prove as authentic. Usually these are unknown,unverified names you’ve never even heard of, not the people that everyone instantly recognizes as the top professionals in the business. Questionable reviews that don’t include the reviewers actual last names are the worst offenders of all. Worst still are the photographers who routinely use publications catering to actors like Backstage to create splashy headlines like: “Voted the #1. Headshot Photographer in all of NYC!!!” simply by taking advantage of totally fabricated and utterly bogus advertising promotions like this to gain the respect they never earned through their own ability or actual contributions to the industry. Most of the time these reviews aren’t worth the paper they’re not printed on.
So how do you cut through the deceptive advertising and make a correct, informed decision? Here are my Three Magic Words to always remember: COMPARE, COMPARE, COMPARE!!! Simply narrow down all of the available headshot photographers’ websites online, then compare their work directly, one against the other. Only then can you actually decide who “The Best” photographer is for you.
Q: There are many different kinds of photographers doing headshots for actors. Who should I choose to do my next headshots?
A: There is a dizzying array of photographers in the marketplace all claiming to do good headshots. It is extremely important to know that there are four basic types of photographers doing the majority of headshots today. There are the Fashion Photographers who, as the name implies, specialize in shooting models to promote fashion, clothing, and editorials. Then there are Wedding Photographers who, as the name implies, specialize in shooting weddings. Corporate Photographers only shoot businessmen. Finally, there is the Theatrical Headshot category—my specialty—who concentrate strictly on headshot photography. What every actor should realize is, THEY ARE ALL COMPLETELY DIFFERENT IN TECHNIQUE, APPROACH, AND EXPERIENCE. Creating effective working headshots is far different than photographing the bride catching a bouquet, or a sexy model selling the latest fashion, and using a beauty pageant photographer who uses lots of makeup, hairspray, and jewelry is not an viable or acceptable alternative for someone looking for a career as a performing artist or for general business applications.
There may be exceptions to my rule, but they are few and far between. Would you go to a brain surgeon to have your teeth drilled?? Probably not. Yet I routinely see actors having their headshots done by these other types of photographers who know absolutely nothing about what the working actor requires to market their careers (for actual examples of what I mean, please visit my Creative Characters webpage).
Q: Which is better, Natural Light or Studio Light?
A: The answer to the this question would be the first thing that would determine whether or not I’d select any photographer. Why? BECAUSE LIGHTING IS THE SINGLE, MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENT IN GETTING A GREAT PHOTOGRAPH. Whatever else a photographer does right, if the lighting isn’t perfect, your headshot will suffer.
I believe that studio light has natural sunlight beat by a substantial margin. There’s a huge difference between the two, and when compared with a good studio shot, there is simply no comparison. “So why,” you may ask, “do so many headshot photographers shoot with natural light?” Mainly because they either cannot afford to buy the expensive equipment required to consistently take great photographs or they simply don’t know how to use studio lighting. It takes an enormous amount of time, money and experience to use studio lighting effectively. Why should they have to go through all that effort when they can just take you outside to the roof or out in the street and just let the sun do all the work for them? I should know— that’s exactly how I started, shooting under a tree in my mom’s backyard, a camera in my right hand and a cheap reflector in the other. Not exactly the most professional environment to be photographed in, but when you’re just starting out, you have to make do with what you have.
Just try this simple test: Simply compare a headshot done with natural light right beside one done with studio lighting. The differences are immediate and dramatic. Everything being equal, studio shots are vastly superior to those done with sunlight alone. Just ask anyone who is sensitive to bright sunlight, or someone who has nearly frozen to death on a frigid New York winter day or watched their makeup melt off their face during a hot, humid summer day. Believe me, it’s no fun. And try to shoot your headshot in the dead of night during a snowstorm (which I’ve actually had to do!). Trusting something as expensive and important to your career as your headshots to Mother Nature is a gamble that I DO NOT wish to take, not with your money. The key word here is consistency. I’ve seen far too many photo sessions ruined by bad weather than I’d care to remember. Don’t don’t get me wrong, I enjoy shooting outdoors just for fun, and only when weather permits. But when you’re paying big bucks, it’s raining outside, it’s your only day off, or you have a deadline to meet and absolutely, positively HAVE TO “get the shot,” shooting in a comfortable, fully-equipped studio is the only way to go. That’s why, day in and day out, studio lighting has natural lighting beat, hands down.
Q: What about price?
A: “How much do you charge?” This is one of the most commonly asked questions by actors. But perhaps your first question should be, “How much is your career worth?” Price is an important thing to consider since most aspiring actors aren’t multi-millionaires, but certainly not the most important. You could always take your own “selfie” with your cell phone, but you could also be throwing away an entire acting career— yours.
I believe that most people spend too much for headshots. There are many photographers in New York who want you to believe that paying them your rent will somehow guarantee you success. Big mistake. Because it won’t. But submitting a bad photo of yourself will virtually guarantee that you’ll be doing extra work and waiting tables for the rest of your life.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “You get what you pay for.” Not always. I’ve seen scores of actors spend exorbitant fees on over-hyped photographers, only to have their expensive new headshots wind up in the casting director’s trash. In my professional opinion, they’re simply ripping you off. Most of the time, you will be paying for a Rolls Royce that looks more like a Toyota. Don’t believe me? There are at least a dozen headshots featured on my Before & After webpage that cost these unfortunate individuals $1,000. or more. No headshot is worth this much money… ever. Simply compare the work of these “luxury” photographers directly with mine, then you be the judge. I charged Angelina Jolie and Drew Carey the same price as everyone else. Remember: Your headshot is perhaps the single most important investment of your entire marketing plan. Price doesn’t really matter…. quality does.
Q: Can you talk about guarantees? Do you offer one?
A: On the subject of guarantees, many photographers routinely offer what is called a “free re-shoot guarantee,” which means exactly that— if your session comes out so poorly that you can’t even use a single photograph, they’ll offer to shoot you again at no charge or for a nominal fee. I believe that these kinds of guarantees are TOTALLY USELESS. It is nothing more than a smoke screen designed to make you feel that you have some sort of recourse if things go wrong, when in reality, you really don’t. Let me explain. Suppose you go to someone with expectations of having a great headshot session but in the end your photos come out so poorly that you can’t even use a single one of them. What do you think will happen when you go back for your “free re-shoot”? What will your confidence level be in the same photographer who did such a lousy job shooting you the first time? Probably around ZERO. And worse still, what do you think the photographer’s attitude toward YOU will be when he realizes that he has to shoot you again for free and that in all likelihood you won’t like the second session any more than you did the first one? End result? TWO wasted days out of your life with nothing to show for it. Compare this process with going to a plastic surgeon for a face lift, and he makes you look like a monster the first time around. Would you be comfortable going back to him again? Take my advice: Cut your losses and walk away, endeavoring to make a better choice in photographers the next time. The only thing a photographer can truly guarantee is that he’ll do his absolute best to get it right the first time, every time. This is commonly referred to as, “Reputation.”
Q: How important is wardrobe to the actor and which is better, a headshot or a 3/4 length photograph? What is better, vertical or horizontal (“landscape”) cropping?
A: There’s a saying : “Clothes make the man.” Nowhere is this concept more important than in your headshots. If your photographer doesn’t place enough emphasis on correct wardrobe selection or know enough on the subject and it’s direct relationship in creating a winning headshot. You’d be wise to look for someone who does. Your photographer should help you with every single aspect of your headshot experience, and wardrobe plays an extremely important part of building your image.
There seems to be a never-ending debate on the subject of “Headshots v 3/4 shots,” or “Landscape Cropping v Vertical Cropping.” Some folks seem to think that one style is better than the other, but I disagree. I believe that all are useful for different applications. That’s why I always shoot several poses at different distances and various cropping styles in all of my sessions.
Q: Should the photographer give me all the digital files?
A: If a photographer offers to give you ownership of the all the digital files,he’snot doing you a favor, just the opposite — he’s doing you a huge injustice. Let me explain.
Taking your photograph is just the first step in a multifaceted and often very complicated process. There are many steps involved in making a perfect headshot, all requiring many years of technical experience and training. If your photographer isn’t willing to take the time to help you get a perfect, ready-to-submit headshot as part of the purchase price, he’s not a true professional. He’s someone who desperately wants your money and is willing to do anything to get it, up to and including giving away all of his work. It’s a come on. Unless you’re a Photoshop expert or a retouching artist with years of experience, attempting to extract the maximum potential from your photographer’s work on your own can often be an unmitigated disaster. Even taking your photos to a bad printer can ruin a perfectly good headshot. Remember: You’ll never use all the shots from a session, nor would you want to. Once you’ve selected the best ones, the remainder is essentially useless. So choosing someone just because he offers to give you all of the digital files is without a doubt the WORST possible reason for choosing any photographer. This is practice is generally referred to as, “Quantity over Quality,” always a poor decision when selecting a qualified professional.
Q: Okay. I’ve put together a list of the top photographers in town to see. What’s next?
A: Most actors will typically visit the websites of a half dozen photographers before making their final decision. Over the years, I’ve compiled the work of over 1,000 of the top headshot photographers in the world, allowing you the opportunity to compare my work directly with the best headshot professionals in the industry today, all at one time. I call them my “Before & After” portfolios— an exclusive, side-by-side comparison of headshot photography representing the top photographers available in the business. My goal is to eliminate the inevitable confusion that most people encounter when choosing a competent headshot photographer— by utilizing the only tried-and-true method of determining any photographer’s ability— in an honest, side-by-side comparison.
Viewing our work online, you’ll see the work of literally hundreds of different photographers, the equivalent of visiting 500 websites. This totally unique comparison of headshot photography makes your decision easier than ever before. Getting a great headshot can be as easy as, “Before and After.”
I hope that these guidelines will help you in your search for that perfect headshot.
Best of luck in all your career goals,
Robert Kim, Photographer