Over the years, I’ve been asked the following questions regarding headshots for actors. While it’s impossible to quote them all, these are the most frequently asked questions.
Q: How does the actor find a competent headshot photographer?
A: Here’s a good place to start: Compile a list of the photographers that you want to see by asking fellow actors, agents, managers, acting coaches, and casting directors. Use a search engine like Google to help narrow down your search. Then, after you make an detailed inventory of all the websites that you like, call the actual photographer personally to discuss in detail what your needs are and to see if you actually want to work with him. If you don’t like his personality or the way he speaks with you over the telephone, I’d pass. It 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 actors represented—all nationalities, ages, sexes, physical types and characters. It’s easy to take decent pictures of perfect models and glamorous stars, but most of us simply don’t look like that! Also make sure you to see lots of different photographic techniques used on each and every actor. ”Cookie cutter” photos may be okay for high school yearbooks or those shopping mall “glamour shots,” but not in the highly competitive field of the performing arts.
There are so many headshot photographers in the business today that finding the best one can often be a confusing and frustrating experience. As a working actor, I know. To address this often confusing dilemma, I have created a simple solution by compiling the largest and most complete collection of professional headshots in the history of the industry. I call them my “Before & After” portfolios—an exclusive, side-by-side comparison of photography representing the top headshot photographers available in the industry today. Online or in our studio, you’ll see the work of literally hundreds of different photographers, all at the same time. Truly, “One stop shopping.” This unique comparison makes your decision easier than ever before.
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 claiming to do good headshots. It is extremely important to know that there are two basic groups of photographers doing the majority of headshots today. There are the Fashion/Print variety who, as the name implies, specialize in shooting models to promote fashion, clothing, and catalog work. Wedding Photographers and Product Photographers also fall into this category. Then there are the Theatrical/Headshot category (my field), who specialize in photography for performing artists. What every actor should realize is, THEY ARE BOTH TOTALLY DIFFERENT IN TECHNIQUE, APPROACH, AND EXPERIENCE. The typical fashion photographer knows absolutely nothing about what is needed to successfully market an actor much less what the acting process involves, and the average headshot photographer is usually ill-equipped to shoot vastly different fashion editorials. So how can you tell if you’re looking at a fashion photographer’s portfolio? Simple. If you see nothing but totally perfect men and gorgeous women staring back at you, you can bet your union card that this photographer is a fashion expert, not a headshot photographer with specific experience in photography for the working actor.
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 typical actor requires (for actual examples of what I mean, see my Character Looks page).
Q: Which is better, Natural Light or Studio Light?
A: In my opinion, 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 CREATING A GREAT PHOTOGRAPH. Whatever else a photographer does right, if the lighting isn’t perfect your photograph 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?” Well, 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 open a window or take you outside to the park and let the sun do all the work for them? I should know — that’s how I started, shooting in my mother’s back yard, a camera in my right hand and a reflector in the other. Not exactly a professional environment to be photographed in, but when you’re just starting out you do what you can. 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 daylight only. Just ask anyone who is sensitive to bright sunlight or someone who has nearly frozen to death on a frigid day or watched their makeup melt on a hot, humid New York summer day. Believe me, it’s no fun. And just try to shoot your next headshot in the dead of night during a snowstorm (which I’ve actually had to do!). Trusting something as expensive and vitally important to your career as your headshot to Mother Nature is a gamble that I DO NOT want 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 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 the number one most commonly asked question 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 all eccentric millionaires, but certainly not the most important. You could always go with the cheapest photographer you could find, but you could also be throwing away an entire acting career — yours.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “You get what you pay for.” Not always. I’ve seen scores of actors spend exorbitant amounts of money on so-called “superstar” photographers only to have their expensive new headshots wind up in a casting director’s trash can. And recently I’ve noticed an even more disturbing trend among some photographers– wild over-pricing. Photographers who used to charge $400-500 per session are jacking up their fees upwards of $1000.- 1,500., all in a desperate effort to create the illusion that they’re somehow better or simply trying to pay their expensive New York rent. They’re ripping you off. Most of the time, what you’ll pay for is a Rolls Royce that looks like a Volkswagen. Don’t believe me? Simply compare the work of these thousand-dollar photographers directly with mine, then you be the judge. But that doesn’t mean going to one of those “bargain basement” photographers is any better! This practice will virtually guarantee you a lifetime of doing extra work and waiting tables. Remember: Your headshot is perhaps the single most important investment in your entire acting career. In the end, price doesn’t really matter…. quality does.
Q: What about guarantees? Do you offer one?
A: On the subject of guarantees, some photographers routinely offer what is called a “free re-shoot guarantee,” which means exactly that — if your session comes out so badly that you can’t even use a single photograph, he’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 character. 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.
There seems to be a never-ending debate on the subject of “Headshots v. 3/4 shots.” Some folks seem to think that one style is better than the other, but I disagree. I believe that both are useful for different applications. That’s why I always shoot several poses at different distances and various cropping styles in all 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 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. Remember: You will never be able use all the shots some photographers shoot in a session, nor would you want to. Once you’ve selected the best ones from your session, that is all you need, the remainder is essentially useless. So choosing to use a photographer solely because he offers to give you all of the digital files is therefore the worst possible basis for choosing any photographer. This is generally referred to as, “Quantity over Quality,” always a poor decision when selecting a top professional.
Q: Okay. I’ve put together a list of the top photographers in town to see. How can I determine who’s best?
A: With all the photographers in the business all claiming to be “The Best,” it can often be a confusing and sometimes frustrating experience. I know. I’ve been an actor in Hollywood for more years than I’d care to count. But with all the choices available today, you can’t possibly see them all. So I offer a unique solution.
Most actors will typically visit two or three photographers before making their final decision. During many years of photographing actors, I’ve compiled the work of over 1,000 of the top headshot photographers in the world, giving you the opportunity to compare my work directly with the best headshot professionals in the industry, all at one time and all under one roof. My goal has always been to eliminate the inevitable confusion that most actors encounter while choosing a competent headshot photographer by utilizing the only tried-and-true method of determining a photographer’s ability — an honest, side-by-side comparison.
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