Jan 8th 2016 By Madison Davidson

Madison Tests the Field: Headshots

Hello Fellow Actors!

And welcome to case one of Madison Tests the Field where we are tackling the somewhat overwhelming topic of headshots.

What is a good headshot? How do you get one? How do you find a good photographer? How do you avoid breaking the bank completely? How do you get a photo that will help you book jobs without a price tag that will make you homeless?

Excellent questions and conundrums I've been researching myself.

I have been relying on the same headshot to get me in the audition room for about 4 years (a big mistake, don't follow my poor example). It's definitely an overdue investment, especially considering the fact that shortly after getting my last headshots done back in 2012, I began working as a Casting Assistant and my boss flat out told me that I didn't have a great headshot. That should have been my first cue to get my butt in gear. Luckily, you get to learn from my mistakes here.

Here's the headshot in question, and you'll probably recognize it from my info on The Scene Labs:

Now, the natural question would be, "Madison, if you know that this headshot isn't great, why have you used it for so long and why do you have it plastered all over your professional website?" The first charge, I have no excuses for, but I am continuing to use the photo here on the site so that you can see what I start out with and how, by using some of the tips and data I've collected, it improves.

So let's dig into why this photo (and photos like it) aren't preferred by Casting Directors, including my old boss.

Between the color of my skin, the color of my shirt, and the brightly lit background, I look pretty washed out. I should have chosen a shirt color that provided a greater contrast with my skin tone.

Several casting directors have told me that the primary focal point of any headshot should be the eyes. Between the colors, angle and lighting in this photograph, the viewer is not immediately drawn to make an eye connection with my photographic self. In the best case, it's my smile and in the worst case, it's the center of the photograph (my throat and my chest). My eyes become an afterthought. No Bueno.

This photo gives no sense of what I'll be like when I walk in the room. I've been told that this photo looks "nice" and "kinda innocent." The biggest problem with this is that it's vague and doesn't leave a strong impression. This photo can get easily lost among a pile of other headshots that hit those notes in clearer ways.

At this point, it's outdated. I look different and the types of roles that my energy corresponds with have changed.

Now, two things I should make clear are:
1 This photo HAS gotten me some work. It's gotten me into a lot of short films, non-union television and some independent feature films. Not too shabby, but when I felt it was right for me to take the next step to finding great representation and shooting for some network opportunities, investing in a new headshot should have been my first stop.
2 My lackluster headshot is not solely my photographer's fault. To come out of a shoot with a powerhouse headshot is equal parts up to the photographer and the actor.
Selecting the right photographer in your price range is only one third of the battle. After that comes your preparation for and participation during the shoot. Lastly, there's the process of selecting anywhere between 1 and 5 photos out of the hundreds you have taken during the shoot.

Admittedly, I didn't understand this when I had these first headshots taken. I walked into the process the way that I would walk into a salon, thinking "Please, just take my messy, weird self and make it beautiful. GFL."

When it came to selecting the final photographs I would use for my headshot, I got a little insecure and vain. I wasn't focusing on which photos strongly conveyed the essence I bring to the room, but which angles highlighted my best features and hid the things I wasn't too confident about.

So after looking over hundreds of headshots, researching photographers, talking to casting directors and acting biz gurus, here's the process that I have designed to test out:

Finding the Photographer:


Decide on a price range. Before, my price budget was about $600. This time, I've been able to save up so that I can find a photographer I like, take advantage of hair and make-up services that usually come with an added price and pay for retouching at a max budget of $1,200.

No matter how big or small your budget is, focus on finding photographers who show a portfolio of well-lit, clean shots, where the immediate focal point in the photos is the subject's eyes.

Watch out for portfolios showcasing photographs shot with really extreme angles, blown out lighting, or too much hair blocking the actor's face.

Sleuth tip: Go to your imdb pro account and look at the types of projects you are hoping to reach next. For example, say I want to book an under 5 on a network TV show. I would find a show I think I would really be right for and look at all of the actors who booked those roles in the last couple of episodes. I would look for similar qualities in their headshots and even try to find the names of their photographers through Instagram or Facebook if possible, as many actors will credit their photographers when posting their headshots on social media.

When I talk to my potential photographers, I will make sure exactly what's included in the price. I'll also try to arrange some in-person meetings to get a sense of their creative process and make sure our personalities jive in a collaborative way.

Going into the Shoot:


The last time I went into my headshot shoot, I was focused mostly on looking coiffed and smiling in a way that didn't make me look like I had murder eyes. Acting was the farthest thing from my mind. This time, I want to focus on the energy that I bring into the audition room and the roles I see that I know I would rock. I'm going to use the monologue database here on The Scene Labs to find some pieces I can prepare and bring into the shoot. If I can work with the photographer and bring my own acting process into the room and letting he or she photograph that, my theory is that I'll be a lot closer to conveying that energy through the headshot.

I'm going to try some power posing for this shoot. I remember being shaky and nervous during my last shoot and I think that insecurity bled through the process and into the final result. In this go-around I'm experimenting with the theory of power posing to stay present and confident throughout the shoot. If you're unfamiliar with this theory, there's an excellent TED talk by Amy Cuddy on the subject that you can watch here

Using a little more body language theory, I'm going to discuss with my photographer intentionally facing the camera squarely. I think there's a lot of truth in the subconscious messages that are sent when someone stands at an angle to us as opposed to when someone faces us head on. While, it can be tempting to use dramatic vanity angles in attempts to highlight our best features, I find myself continually captivated by headshots where the actor's shoulders and face are facing the camera dead-on. They seem confident, vulnerable and self-possessed, which is exactly the energy I'm shooting for (no pun intended).

I'm discussing clothing options ahead of time, focusing on simple, options that contrast well with my complexion. I'll also take advantage of whatever makeup and hair services I can add on so that I can all of my focus can be on my internal process during the shoot.

Selecting the Photograph


I'm making a pact with myself to not be vain when I go into selecting my new headshots. I will look at all of the photos and focus on the ones that most truly represent what I bring to the audition room. I will ask a small group of trusted family and friends to tell me which ones feel most genuinely like me.

I'll be back in touch in a few weeks with installment 2 to share how the photographer selection process went and how the shoot goes.

I've accumulated some really great photographer's names that are based out of New York that I'm going to look a little more closely at. I'll share some of them here in case you're also NY based and happen to be in the same situation that I am:

David Noles
Ronnie Nelson
Emily Lambert
Taylor Hooper
J. Demetrie Photography
Leslie Hassler
Peter Hurley

Stay tuned for the next phase in the headshot redemption saga and share with me your headshot breakthroughs or melt downs in the comments!

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