SLR Lounge

This blog has been a bit neglected lately.  That’s because I’ve started contributing to a well established photography blog called SLR Lounge.  I’ll be writing all about photography-related news, reviewing gear, and authoring editorial content.  I’ll do my best to add some posts here too, but in the meantime, if you’re interested in delving into my musings on photography, you can see my articles here:

Phoenix-Inspired Underwater Shoot

Although I tend to mainly use my camera for headshots, portraits, and on-set stills, it happens to be quite capable in many other genres of photography.  On occasion, I will adventure into these other avenues of creativity, for no other purpose than to see what kind of imagery I can produce.  With the recent acquisition of an underwater housing, I was met with the opportunity to stretch myself into a photographic discipline I had never before attempted, and I must say, considering that this was my maiden voyage, I am exceedingly pleased with the results.

This shoot began as simply a chance to test my newest piece of gear, in a pool, with a friend.  I approached the lovely and talented actress and fitness model Dre Swain with this very basic idea in mind, and she came up with the inspired idea to involve a phenomenal body painter, the incomparable Julie Hassett.  Initially we intended to draw our inspiration for the shoot from aquatic life, but then decided, rather than pursuing the obvious choice, to juxtapose our underwater setting with an aerial, avian aesthetic.  We settled on the Phoenix, a combination of flame and feathers, established a color theme to contrast the blues and greens of the water, incorporated some flowing fabric into the mix, and got to work.

The body painting took upwards of 7 hours.  We then spent over 3 hours in the pool, holding our breath as we took a handful of shots at a time, under the careful eye of the fabulous Jen Kater, who managed the shoot, and assisted with fabric wrangling.  I am thrilled that I was able to assemble such a phenomenal team to help make this shoot a reality, and am deeply appreciative of their talent and all of their incredibly hard work.  I hope you enjoy the products of our collective labor.

Actors: 7 Steps to Get The Most out of Your Headshot Session

   It’s well established at this point that a great headshot is the single most important piece of marketing material for an actor. Any meeting with a casting director or potential agent or manager begins with your headshot, and if it’s not up to standards, it can become a major obstacle on your career path. A solid online presence is becoming more vital with every passing month, but even then, an engaging photo that shows you off is the first thing people will look for on your website, imdb, or casting profile. The ongoing struggle to get the perfect headshot is familiar to most professional actors, so the question is: what can YOU do to get the best possible headshots to take your career to the next level? The process can vary depending on your needs, but here are a few tips you can use to help ensure that your new shots are the best they can be.

1. Figure out what you actually need.

Depending on your type, your look, your strengths as an actor, and any number of other variables, your needs in a headshot can vary drastically from other actors.  Remember that headshots are a functional piece of marketing material; their chief goal is to get you into audition rooms, and, ultimately, help get you cast. In order for them to achieve that goal, you’ll want your shots to showcase your most marketable attributes. I’m shocked by the number of actors who overlook this step, but in reality, it’s fairly simple, if you’re not a leading man/woman, you don’t need beauty shots that make you look like a supermodel. The key is to look your best, while embracing your type. Of course, as an actor, you probably have a range of characters you feel comfortable playing, and this is why nearly all headshot photographers offer to shoot multiple looks as part of their package. Be sure that you use these various looks wisely, so that each one doesn’t yield merely an attractive picture of you, but a useful one.

If you have representation, then please, by all means, consult them to determine your headshot needs. Their job is to submit and pitch you, so they already have a great understanding of the types of roles and projects you’re likely to go out for, and what kind of shots will be most beneficial. They also have a lot of experience in advising actors on headshots, and, naturally, if your agents like your photos, they’ll be much more likely to submit you more often. If you don’t have representation, it’s up to you to figure this all out. You can consult your acting teachers/coaches, friends, or other actors, but be sure to be pragmatic and realistic about how you can best market yourself.

Also, be sure to get specific with the types of looks you need, without pigeonholing yourself. For example, leading man/woman, ingenue, or character actor are too vague, but wearing a fireman’s helmet is taking it too far. Try to come up with character types that you can find in lots of different movies and TV shows, like the friendly, suburban girl next door, the shifty businessperson, or the street-smart New York socialite.

2. Pick the right photographer for YOU

If you live in Los Angeles or New York, you’ll have no shortage of choices of headshot photographers, and many of them will be good, but the key is to find a photographer that can shoot the headshots that you need.  There are some who are well known and well respected, but who make everyone they shoot look like a leading man or woman.  If this is what you specifically need in order to market yourself, then congratulations, you’ve found your photographer; however, if you need a bit more character in your shots, you should look elsewhere, and find someone with photos in their portfolio that you can see yourself in. It’s not totally necessary that they’ve shot people who “look like you,” but it is essential that their website shows the range of styles and looks that you need.

There are 3 essential qualities to look for in a photographer’s portfolio.  The first, and most basic, is that the photos are all well lit, technically sound, and visually engaging.  While there is a wide variety of lighting styles that work well for editorial portraits or fashion photography, there are some more specific elements to look for in headshots.  While dramatic shadows can be effective, be sure that the subject’s face isn’t too obscured. Also, the subjects should not blend into the background too much. If you can’t determine where the edge of an actor’s hair ends and the background begins, be wary. On a related note, the background should not steal focus from the subject. In outdoor shots, the background should generally be out of focus, to provide contrast with the subject’s face. Finally, the lighting should be soft enough to avoid any hard-edged shadows. This soft lighting will also serve to help smooth skin texture, and provide a warm, inviting mood.

The second thing to look for is an ability to get engaging, connected, and genuine facial expressions.  This could be a blog entry of its own, but actors are (usually) not models, and the main job of a headshot photographer is to make their clients comfortable in front of the camera, and direct them into expressions that authentically convey the desired effect of a given look.  It’s easy to say “smile” and start shooting, but helping an actor to truly relax and connect with a camera takes practice and skill.  If the actors in a photographer’s portfolio look blank, bored or uncomfortable, this is a major red flag. My rule of thumb here is “relaxed, not bored; confident, not cocky.”

The third and final element of a good portfolio is the retouching. Good photographers will have a consistent retouching “look” across their images.  The key here is to strike a balance. Casting professionals have come to expect a certain amount of retouching, including removal of blemishes, some brightening of the teeth and eyes, some wrinkle reduction, and a bit of skin smoothing.  The most common misstep here is that photographers will go too far. Look out for skin with almost zero texture, eyes that look like they’re unnaturally lit from the inside, or anything reminiscent of a glamour shot. Good makeup is one thing, but you can generally tell when a photo crosses the line between looking like a real person on a good day and an over-retouched  makeup ad.

Finally, you nearly always get what you pay for. Perhaps you’ll be able to find the elusive brilliant photographer who’s just starting out and offering an outstanding deal, but you’re much more likely to drop $100 on mediocre pictures that will not adequately serve your career. Again, these headshots will be your primary marketing tool, and are often your first impression with industry professionals. Think of them as an investment in yourself, and put your best foot forward. This is not to say that you necessarily need to shoot with the most expensive photographer in town, but make sure you find someone with experience and who knows the value of great headshots.

3. Pick clothes that you love

Now that you know what you need, and you’ve picked your photographer, it’s time to prepare for the shoot itself. The biggest pre-shoot decisions you’ll need to make are the wardrobe options for each look, so don’t leave it till the last minute! Photographers will usually ask you to bring a range of clothing pieces so that you can choose your looks together when you arrive for the shoot. Plan out each of your looks well in advance, and then put together a few options for each. If you need to go shopping to get a few extra shirts, go for it, you can always return them after the shoot.  My main piece of advice here is to bring clothes that you love. These can be old or new, but if you feel uncomfortable or unsure about something you’re wearing, it will be much more difficult to exude the confidence necessary to look your best, so bring stuff that you’re psyched about.

This is also the stage of the process when the looks you’ve determined for yourself come into play. Think about the personality of each piece of clothing, and whether it matches the characters you’re likely to play. Again, don’t go too far here; you’re looking for clothes that suggest a range of characters, not a costume for the scene you’re working on in acting class. A nice suit and tie is good, a lab coat and stethoscope is not.

Of course, you also want to make sure that these clothes you love photograph well, so avoid shirts with complicated necklines, busy patterns, or anything else that could distract from your lovey face. For dramatic, theatrical or “legit” looks (intended for TV, film, or theatre roles) try to find options with more subdued colors. For commercial looks, go for pieces with bright bold pops of color.  All of this being said, if you don’t bring it to your shoot, then you can’t use it, so if in doubt, bring it, and see what your photographer thinks. A degree of color variety between your looks is a good thing, but it should be prioritized well below making sure that you’re comfortable, and you look good. If you know you look great in a certain color, then it’s totally fine to wear it in multiple looks.

4. Drink water, get sleep

This one is pretty simple. Drinking plenty of water in the days leading up to your shoot, getting enough sleep, and avoiding alcohol can do wonders for your skin. And water is great for you in general, so drink more water when you’re not getting ready for headshots too.

5. Stay relaxed, and communicate

First of all, since you’ve already done the hard work of determining specifically what you need from your various looks, discuss these needs with your photographer before you begin shooting. This serves two very important purposes: 1. it allows the photographer to plan the shoot to accentuate each look, and direct you into appropriate poses and expressions, and 2. it helps you to get more comfortable with the photographer. Once you begin shooting, this increased comfort level will help you stay relaxed.

Ideally, your photographer should help with this, but be sure that you’re as comfortable and relaxed as you can be while you shoot. If you feel tense or stiff, let your photographer know, and take a moment to stretch out your neck and jaw, take a few deep breaths, and recenter yourself. Even if you’re an experienced on-screen actor, and comfortable in front of the camera, it can be a very different experience to stare directly into the lens for extended periods of time.  When I shoot, I often see actors develop tension in their jaws, necks, eyebrows and cheeks, and encourage them to take a break, breathe, and shake it out before we continue. Staying relaxed and comfortable is paramount to connecting with the camera, and getting genuine, engaging expressions. This, ultimately, is the key to getting great headshots.

Photographers will usually have a way to play music during the shoot, and can often plug your phone/iPod into the system. It’s a great idea to put together a playlist of songs that you love, that energize you, that relax you, or that you simply connect with. Don’t rely on the music too much, as you’ll still want to stay open and responsive to the photographer’s direction, but some groovy background tunes are always a great way to set the mood.

6. Take time selecting your picks

After the shoot, you’ll have hundreds of photos of yourself to sort through to find the 3 or 4 final picks. It can be a maddening experience. Hopefully you’ll have too many fantastic shots to narrow it down to just a few, but either way, the most important thing is to take your time. You can only look at photos of yourself for so long before you start to go cross-eyed, so for your initial sweep, break your session into segments, a few dozen shots at a time, and take some time in between these segments to reset yourself. Initially, flag any photo that catches your eye, and put all of these initial selections into a separate folder. Don’t be too picky at this point. After the initial cull, you can get more selective, compare similar shots to one another, and eliminate the weaker ones until you’re left with only the creme of the crop. 

If you have trouble making the final-final decisions, Facebook is a good way to get a quick crowd-sourced opinion, just be sure you’re only posting a few of the very best shots. Of course, if you have representation, get their input.  Some agents like to look at all of the photos from the shoot, but others prefer to just see a selection of top candidates, so ask for their preference before sharing your shots.

While you look through your session, don’t get too hung up on small details, or technical issues. Unless a photo is out of focus, or severely over or underexposed, these things can generally be fixed with retouching and color correction. (If in doubt, ask your photographer.) Focus instead on finding genuine expressions. People respond to photos with a strong connection between subject and camera.

7. Be specific with your retouching requests

Your photographer will most likely include a certain number of retouched images with their headshot package. After looking at their portfolio, you should have a decent idea of their retouching style, so be specific with your retouching requests when you submit your picks. You can ask things like: “please whiten my teeth in #154” or “please leave some of my smile lines.” Remember that you want the photos to look like you. If you walk into an audition room and look 10 years older than your headshot, it’s counter-productive for everyone involved. Your photographer (or his/her retoucher) will then send you the retouched photos. Though they may not say so, think of these as a first draft. If there are aspects of the retouch that you don’t like, write back with the things you’d like to have changed. Retouching is not a small added bonus of the headshot process, it’s an essential step, and one that you paid for, so get your money’s worth.

    Although headshots are essential to your career as an actor, the process of working with a photographer does not need to be stressful. Being prepared and confident, and communicating effectively throughout the process can be enormously empowering, and relieve much of the uncertainty that can lead to a stressful experience. Hopefully, these basic tips can help you get the headshots you need to take your career to the next level.

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