Sign In

Login with facebook
Thursday, 28 January 2010 13:12
Let’s start with two observations:

1. Far too many models here have portfolios that leave the viewer wondering, “what does she look like”? It’s not unusual for me to look at an MI model’s portfolio and still not feel I could reliably pick her out in a lineup. That’s not good. If you want photographers to hire you, you need to give them the information to make good decisions. And that means having a good, clear, close, evenly lit picture of your face.

2. Virtually every working mainstream actor and model has good headshots. There is a reason why they are working.

That said, lots of you have now already received everything you need to know about headshots. The remainder of this post is really only for three classes of people:

1. People who aspire to be working actors.
2. People who aspire to be mainstream fashion, commercial or glamour models.
3. Photographers who shoot “portfolio pictures” for any of the above.

Alt models, art models, hobby models, fetish models and people who shoot them really don’t need to read further.

If you are still with us, go put some popcorn in the microwave, open a beer, and settle back for a while. It’s going to be a long, bumpy road ahead.


“Why, that’s easy. It’s a shot of a person’s head and shoulders.” I often see this response, or find people who think it. And it’s very wrong. Let’s ask an analogous question: “what is a car?”. Some may be tempted to answer, “it’s a four wheeled, motorized vehicle”. And that, while containing some truth, is wrong. Tractors meet that simple definition, but are not cars. Yes, if you must you can drive to the store and pick up groceries in your tractor, sort of, but that’s not what a car is, and not what tractors are for.

Similarly, a picture that happens to show the head and shoulders of a person is likely not “a headshot”. The word “headshot” is a term of art. It means something narrow and specific – and you need to know what it means.

A headshot is a picture that is shot in the style(s) used and accepted by the professional* modeling and acting communities for the purpose of marketing the subject.

Please note: nothing in that definition said “head and shoulders”, and in fact quite a few professional headshots show a lot more than just head and shoulders. Character actors and models especially often use ¾ shots as their headshots, and that is perfectly acceptable. But most of them are head and shoulders pictures. The emphasis is on “shot in the style(s) used and accepted by the professional modeling and acting community”[/i]

These days in Los Angeles and New York, and to a large degree in smaller markets, headshots are in color. Exceptions can be made for some theatrical/glamour headshots, but the old Black and White Glossy is pretty much a thing of the past.

When printed, headshots for models are 9x12 inches – no, not 8x12, however much the photographer wants to produce it - and for actors are 8x10 inches, vertical (portrait) format. Yes, I know that lots of photographers like to shoot horizontal (landscape) format headshots, including some pretty well known headshot specialists. The casting directors I have talked to don’t like it, and it makes it hard for the shot to fit on many agency websites. Stop trying to be creative and go with the flow.


Although they may be perfectly wonderful pictures for other uses, pictures from “Glamour Shots”, most portrait studios, school pictures and snapshots of the head are not acceptable as headshots. Wrong style, and will not be accepted by the professional community. Style matters, and wrong style, even an excellent shot in the wrong style, is just like putting up a sign saying, “I don’t understand the norms of this industry”. It doesn’t help you to get hired.

It’s worse. There are different styles of headshot that are each acceptable in their market segment, but are not acceptable in others. That doesn’t make them “not headshots”, but it does make you unlikely to get hired, so you need to know the difference, and use the right kind for the job you are applying for. We will get to that after we go over some basics.


1. It’s not about creativity. It’s about presenting the model* in a way that will cause them to be hired. To the degree that “creativity” distracts from that purpose, it’s a bad headshot, even though it may be a wonderful picture. Keep it simple.
2. It’s not about the background. If the background is sharp and busy, it detracts from the model. It’s a bad headshot. If the tones in the background are similar to the model’s face, hair and/or clothes, it makes it harder to see the model. The model needs to stand out.
3. It’s not about body parts. Unless, of course, it is about body parts: in special cases like hand models or glamour models where “parts” is very much at issue. Except in those cases, keep extraneous things, like hands and hair, out of the shot or away from the face.
4. It’s not about the clothes. Don’t wear something that is distracting – unless the distraction is a body part that the model wants to draw attention to. Bland, simple clothing, neutral colors. The emphasis needs to be on the model, not on what she is wearing.
5. It’s not about the borders. A few years ago some headshot photographer had the bright idea to surround the picture with a complex, funky border. Before long, lots of photographers were doing it. I told my people not to; the border detracted from them, and it was a passing fad that would date the shot. Two years later you never saw those borders on new shots. Just don’t.
6. It’s not about “good pictures”. There are lots of “good pictures”, even excellent pictures, that don’t work as headshots. Rather, it’s about pictures that are useful in getting the model hired, which means giving the client what they want to see, not what you want to produce.
7. It’s not about the photographer’s copyright. Printed headshots or shots used on agency websites should not contain photographer’s copyright notice or visible watermark. If the photographer insists on these, find another photographer who understands that the purpose of the shot is to market the model, not him. He can put his copyright in the exif data on digital pictures if he wishes.
8. It’s not about being “in the face” of a viewer. Casting directors don’t like shots that are cropped too tight. It’s like being at a cocktail party when the guy you are talking to stands a foot too close and invades your personal space. Different cultures define that differently. Since lots of clients and casting directors are from Northern European cultures (and others) that like some distance between them and you, honor that. Give them a little space in the shot. Yes, again I know that some headshot specialists, including very good ones, like to crop tight, and that some agencies use such shots. Resist the urge.
9. It’s about engaging the viewer. The shot needs to create a relationship between you and the viewer. Grab their attention. Face the camera. Look into the camera. Draw the viewer in. Don’t make them wonder what you are looking at off in the distance somewhere, and don’t make them have to mentally reconstruct what the rest of your face looks like.
10. It’s about more than what you look like. The shot needs to say, “I belong. I’m part of the club.” The way you do that is to have shots that are in the expected style for that use. Each professional acting and modeling discipline has its own expectations, and a shot in a style different from what is expected says to the casting director, “I don’t really know what I’m doing”. Learn the industry standards, use them, or be identified as “an outsider”. Outsiders tend not to get hired.
11. On retouching: except for two subtypes (theatrical glamour shots and beauty shots), the model needs to be able to walk through the door looking like the shot. If a casting director asks a model in, and she doesn’t look like her picture, at least she, and maybe her agent, will have problems. Retouching should be kept to a minimum. Transient flaws can be corrected, and makeup can be used (in great moderation) to hide flaws, but anything permanent and obvious needs to be pretty much left alone. On theatrical glamour and beauty shots there is a good deal more latitude.


There are four fundamental types of headshots, and some subsets of those four, each intended for a particular use. Many models and actors will need more than one shot, and will use the appropriate one when approaching agencies or clients, depending on the type of agency or job.

Before shooting (or using) a headshot, you absolutely have to ask yourself, “What is it for?” The wrong type of headshot, even if it is a very good one, will keep someone from getting hired.

Commercial Headshots

This is the type most people will need. Most professional models are commercial; most model agencies do largely commercial work, and most actors apply for commercial work or commercial agencies. Yet it is a type rarely seen in online model and photographer portfolios.

Commercial work is about smiles, and being likeable. The shot needs to show the model as friendly, approachable, smiling –the sort of person you would like to have living next door. Lighting needs to be flat and even, the shot crisp. Makeup needs to be “clean” for women. Men generally do not use makeup except for translucent powder to reduce glare.

(Most good, working, print-qualified makeup artists will understand what is meant by “clean” makeup. It is not the same as “minimal makeup”, although if you’re stuck, you can use “minimal”.)

There are two subsets of commercial headshots. One is commercial glamour. If you want to be the next Bud Girl, an expression more appropriate to those uses is acceptable. For commercial glamour, more glamorous makeup (although not excessive) is also appropriate.

The second subset is “character” actors and models. These are generally “non-standard” types, who play roles other than “leading man/leading lady” types. They need pictures showing them in character, which may involve costumes, props, character makeup and expressions appropriate to the role they are playing.

Theatrical Headshots

Actors applying for theatrical productions or television roles – or “legit” agencies, and models who want to portray themselves as more serious and a bit more dramatic than the typical commercial print model (such as catalog/commercial fashion models and sometimes even editorial fashion models), will need headshots that are more serious in nature. The makeup can be “clean” in most cases, although there are exceptions for some of the subsets. Lighting, while it still needs to portray the face, can be somewhat more dramatic.

A common subset of “theatrical” is “glamour headshots.” These are not the same as commercial glamour. Not even close. There is a range in them that varies from “soap opera” (more of a romantic look than the typical theatrical headshot) all the way to a notch or so from George Hurrell ( ). A good example of a person needing more “Hurrell-like” pictures would be a “vamp” type, or a lounge singer. These more extreme types of shots are not all that common, but there is still a place for them for models and performers who fit that niche.

Glamour theatrical headshots often are not crisp. The use of mild diffusion to add a more romantic quality to the shot has long been accepted. Makeup and lighting on glamour headshots can be considerably more dramatic than would be seen in even the plain vanilla theatrical headshot.

There are also “character” theatrical headshots for performers applying for those roles in theatrical and television productions.

Beauty Shots

Often, for editorial fashion models (and not really much for anyone else) the “beauty shot” is used as the headshot. These are quite a departure from the normal headshot. They are, in effect, a work of art in which the makeup, hair and clothing styles are feature players, and the model is also in the shot. Here the intent is less to show “what the model looks like” than “what the model can be”. Use of an excellent makeup artist and hair stylist is critical to these shots, and the lighting and styling can be quite extreme in some cases. Headshots are the exception also in that the model need not be looking into the camera. The art, not the model, is the thing.

Children’s Headshots

Headshots for children are a special case. Often only one picture is used to market a child; comp cards are, in most markets, unnecessary. Different agencies will have different views, but younger models and actors don’t use the same standards as adults.

Almost always the shots will be “commercial” – flat, even lighting, and a smile – but they may be full length, not “head shots”.

* - Throughout this post the term “professional” is used as a synonym for “mainstream professional commercial and fashion models and actors”. It is perfectly true that there are lots of very professional models in other fields, but this post is already too long to be typing all that stuff every time the concept needs to be used.

This essay applies to both models and actors, but will not always bother to use both terms, again to reduce the already overwhelming amount of complexity and verbiage in the essay.

The author has shot lots of pictures that were used on the front of agency comp cards and by professional actors, but is not a headshot specialist. The information in this post comes from working for years as a mainstream modeling and acting agent, seeing thousands of professional headshots, and talking to numerous casting directors, bookers and clients about what they like and don’t like in the shots they see.

Copyright 2009 The Newmodels Academy, presented by Model Insider with permission.