Spotlight Open House: Headshot Clinic

Last Friday I gave a talk at the Spotlight headquarters about headshots: you know, what you're looking for, what kind of thing to expect before/during/after your shoot, how everything works. You know. Thanks to everyone who came, apologies to everyone who couldn't understand my weird accent, thanks to Lindsay for answering the casting questions I couldn't. Nice to meet y'all.

Anyway, it was on a Friday night and not everybody lives in travelling distance of Leicester Square, so I'm just brain-dumping it all here for posterity. I'm always open for questions, as well. Fire 'em this way if you've got 'em.

I'll also apologise now for what might seem like aggressive self-promotion. I can only really speak to my own processes, because every photographer in any field has their own ways of working, and I've asked around a lot, but in the end it comes down to me and how I work.


What You're Looking For

First off: you're never looking for "just a simple, basic headshot;"  you're looking for shots that show off your personality and range. You'd be surprised how many enquiries I get for these, and also how many emails I send to the tune of "yes but what does that actually mean on a practical level?"

Consider this: what kind of roles are you going for? What are you going to do with them? An acting headshot for your Spotlight CV is different from a comedian's photo that's going on a poster with five others', is different from an author portrait to go in the jacket of their new book. So you want to say something with your photograph. It's a visual marketing tool.

Secondly: that headshot needs to look like you because otherwise what's the point? Actually, more specifically, it needs to look like you right now. Get new ones every few years, or whenever you change up your hair or whatever else happens. Maybe your neck spontaneously got longer overnight and now you're more giraffe than human. I don't know your life.

A question that came up was that of "character" shots, where you literally dress up or bring props, and whether they're a good idea. The short answer is "no" -- it's a casting director's job to place you in roles that fit the actor and the production. It's tempting to show off your special skills, but since that's something these casting directors are going to search for via text, they're best left to your actual CV.

Plus, why would you want to box yourself in to a couple of kinds of roles?

What I mean when I say "range" is that subtle variation in your face. Use your face! You can get a lot of variation in that close-cropped 8x10" range.

Whatever the case, you need to be able to see your face. An actor's headshot needs to be bright and clear at a glance, and close enough to be able to see your features when that photograph is shrunk down onto your CV or sitting amongst a thousand photos on the floor.

Some Examples of Bad Headshots Which I Swear Are Intentional

I roped some of the Spotlight staff into sitting for some headshots of their own, each good or bad in their own way. These are the "intentionally bad" ones. Some of them are distracting, some badly lit, some you can't see their faces, one guy is hung over. Take a look at these photographs. Don't do what these people did.

I'm including myself the photographer in that "people," by the way. We'll get to that.

How To Find a Headshot Photographer You Really, Really, Really, Really, Really, Really Like

There's a few different ways to actually go about finding a photographer to take your new headshots. Off the top of my head:

  • Spotlight have a Contacts handbook which contains, well, contacts, and a bunch of useful information.
  • Ask around! Who do your friends and colleagues consistently recommend? Make sure you ask a few different people; what works for one person isn't necessarily going to work for you.
  • If you're in a creative field then odds are you know at least one guy who bought a camera and is thinking about expanding their portfolio; if you've nothing to lose but a few hours of your time, then why not go for it? In the worst-case scenario, they're not great, but they might be, and you haven't spent any money.
  • Google! Or Bing, I guess? Searching for "headshot photographer [your nearest city]" is usually a good bet.
  • Plus, I mean, you're on the website of a very talented and handsome photographer right now. Just sayin'.

What you're looking for in a photographer's portfolio is variety. It's super easy to take flattering photographs of people; a headshot photographer needs to capture you and your personality, remember? And you want to stand out! Almost everyone has a headshot where they look amazing; that's essentially a baseline. Everyone looks great.

So look through their portfolios before anything else. Make a list. Find someone who does everything in the paragraph above, consistently, and then listen to your gut.


Okay, so you've looked through someone's portfolio and you think you've found your non-gender-specific guy. How much do they cost, you want to know?

The cheapest I've seen professional photographers charge for a headshot session was like £50; the most expensive I've personally seen was about £450 and I've heard tell of up to £600. My advice -- my admittedly biased advice -- is to either convince that friend with a camera to take your photographs or make this thing an investment. You're an actor, or at least in some kind of creative field, so you probably don't want to be doing this more than once every couple of years, right?

In these situations I like to cite Samuel Vimes's "Boots" theory:

...the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

I also like to point out that I get a lot of business re-shooting photographs to fix the work of the previous, cheaper photographer. Professionals charge a solid chunk of money for the work they do, and that's for a reason.

Consider also: what do you get for the money? Some photographers charge a flat fee for everything -- for example, my rates include retouching and high-res files as standard -- and some photographers break it down further. Sometimes they'll have it there on their website, sometimes you'll need to email for a quote. It depends!

How many final photographs do you get? Standard wisdom says you should aim to have just three headshots on file; anything more is just noise. On the photographer's side of things, retouching an image properly takes so long. My own approach is for you to select 4-ish images for retouching. I'm not going to begrudge you a couple of extra, but I might begrudge you like 20.

Don't worry about how many photos get taken. Seriously, don't worry about it. I've been known to take anywhere between 70-500 pictures in a session. They can't all be winners, and trust me when I say you don't want to be the one sifting through them all. It's the most tedious part of the job and hell, someone's getting paid for it. They have the skills and the software to trawl quickly through the rough to find the diamonds.

What to Wear for Headshots

This goes back to the "it needs to look like you" point above, which I can't hammer on enough. Wear the clothes and make-up you might wear on an everyday basis to be comfortable; bring a couple of options of tops and you're sorted. If you're not sure on make-up, come au natural and ask!

That being said: stick to plain clothes; no patterns and no logos. Your face is the star of the show here! If you have a particular hairstyle you wear, don't worry about styling it differently to be fancy. Headshots aren't fancy photoshoots.

Make-up artists and stylists can usually be hired. It's an extra cost, but these people are superhuman. Again, ask about it ahead of time.

How Long Does It Take?

People shoot differently! Some people sit down bursting with energy and take the perfect headshots almost immediately; others take a couple of hours to get used to posing for the camera and "settle into themselves."

(I'm definitely of the second set.)

You might come across photographers who break it down thus: one price for a two-hour session, a little more for a three-hour session. Sometimes that takes wardrobe and hair changes into account, sometimes it doesn't.

I have a standard amount of time for every headshot session: I charge by the "half-day", which roughly means "a few hours." A morning, afternoon, or an evening. This also works as a minimum, because with pre- and post-production, every shoot evens out to a good few hours' worth of work, give or take. So you're here for the whole morning if you need it, but if you're the type to get bored after an hour, you can feel free to enjoy the rest of it! This also means you can go change your hair, outfits, as many times as you feel like you need to.

Plus, coming from a portraiture background, the "getting to know you" phase takes at least half an hour. I sit down with my clients for a coffee, chat about what they need, what they like, and watch for their natural tics and mannerisms. I find it saves time in the long run, and makes it feel less like an alien abduction.

You know, because you're going to have a lot of lights on you. Nobody likes to walk in to that. It's like... you know, when aliens abduct you. NEVER MIND.

If you don't absolutely know which kind of person you are, I'd advise going for the longest time you can afford. Again, this is an investment. Be there until you have the shots you're happy with.

The Photoshoot Itself

Before anything else make sure you get a contract. Read that contract! Make sure it makes sense to you! Ask every question you can think of! The contract protects you and the photographer and sets out your aims and goals in a legal fashion. Most times you won't ever need it, and hopefully you won't, but that one time you need it you want to have it.

Get a contract.

Before the Shoot

Make sure you're comfortable with the photographer. At the Headshot Clinic, someone asked if it was okay to request to meet a photographer for a coffee or something, and it is absolutely okay, but be aware that it's well within their rights to call that a billable hour. So it might need to be paid for.

I also recently had someone ask for photographic evidence that I am who I say I am, so she knew what to expect when she was coming down to London, and this struck me as a pretty good idea. Make sure you're meeting the person you think you're meeting. This is just good advice. Again: you shouldn't need to do this, it's a bad fucking day if you do, but whatever makes you comfortable, be comfortable.

You deserve to be comfortable.

Chances are you'll need to eat before you come, so make that a light one. I know, I'm a hungry man myself, but photoshoots are more draining than a lot of people expect. Bring snacks, as well. Nothing that gets in your teeth, but like, almonds or energy bars or something like that. You don't want to start getting tired right before you take the photo that's going to represent you for the next couple of years.

Also, I'm sure you won't, but don't go out drinking the night before. Dehydration does weird things to the human face, and they're all extremely noticeable. Make-up and Photoshop can only do so much.

During the Shoot

I show my clients the back of my camera as I go, but I've been reprimanded about this by other photographers. I don't quite understand why. It's a good visual aid, it keeps you in the loop, it gives both of us an opportunity to look at what we've got so far and say, nicely, "this isn't working," or "can we do more of this?" or "can we try something different?"

But I'm not representative of every photographer, and because I don't know who you are, dear reader, I don't know how you feel about seeing yourself in unedited photographs while they're being taken. Personally, I hate it. Whenever I end up in front of the camera I don't want to see it. I get too self-conscious to be any good any more. You might be the same!

Communication is key at all times, but especially now. Talk to your photographer. Ask questions. I promise you that you're not the most annoying client they've ever had.

After the Shoot

What's the "after" section of things like? How do your files get delivered? How long can you expect to wait until you have the photographs in your hands, be they virtual or literal?

Me, I'll send a link to a private Google Drive folder within a couple of days with a selection of maybe 20-30 photos. Like I said before, you don't want the images where the flash wasn't working for some reason, or the out-of-focus ones, or the ones where you're in the middle of a giant sneeze. If you'd like to see alternate versions, like "can I see another one like this but where I'm turned a little more to the left?", just ask. Always just ask. These selections are the ones I'm happy to point to and say "I TOOK THIS."


You can and should send that link around to your friends, family, agents, colleagues, whoever. Get a second, third opinion. Narrow your choices down to three or four that you all love, that meet the requirements set out above, and then the fun stuff begins!

By which I mean you can just sit around for a couple of weeks if you want!

Meanwhile, your photographer gets to retouching.

On Retouching

What you're looking for in the editing phase is for your picture to -- yes, again -- look like you. But on a good day! Last week I was told that a client's photo "looked like me after a weekend in a Swiss spa."

I don't know what that means, exactly, but it sounds pretty good, right?

The photos above are actually the same photo with different retouching techniques applied to them. The first is super airbrushed and just kind of left there (this is the kind of thing you might expect from, say, Fiverr); the second was retouched using a whole bunch of different techniques, like local dodging and burning, frequency separation, noise reduction, sharpening via a custom luminosity mask...

Yeah, right? It's pretty in-depth. Boring if you're not me. The point is, Rory looks like Rory. As a portrait photographer (and that includes headshots), your aim is to show the world what was in your head at the moment you released the shutter. So anything that's not always there, generally -- spots, blemishes, weird cuts you got somehow -- is gone, no problems. It's because we don't see that stuff. It's not a thing to worry about.

Other Questions That Came Up

US vs UK style headshots

US style headshots, as a general rule, are a) landscape format and b) much wider than the close-cropped "head and shoulders" UK style, which means anything from hair-to-chest to full-body shots. They're also generally more environmental, so you'll find a good location and use it as part of the shoot as opposed to just a blurred-out backdrop. It's not something to worry about unless you're already getting a lot of work in America, honestly.

Indoor vs outdoor headshots

Indoors, you usually have complete control over the lighting, but you might not like the plain backdrop style, or the photographer just might not be up to it -- that's not a dig; studio lighting is a hard-earned skill.

Outdoors, you can change the scenery by moving a few feet, and natural light is pretty flattering to everyone. On the other hand, you've no control over the weather, so you might need to reschedule if it's raining that day (and perhaps need to pay a cancellation fee), or power through and risk having your hair everywhere. If you're not happy with the results, you might end up paying for a second shoot. There's also the issue of timing: midday sun is harsh and high and not particularly flattering or fun to shoot in for anyone unless they're the late Helmut Newton.

(If you've managed to hire the late Helmut Newton, fair play to you! I would definitely use my powers of necromancy for something more important, personally, but I'm not here to tell you how to use yours.)

In general, I'd recommend avoiding an outdoor shoot between October and February. And personally, I like indoor shots that aren't against a solid backdrop; if you're comfortable with it and the space is large enough for the lights, consider having your headshots taken in your own space! A shallow depth of field blurs everything out, but that little subtle difference can help you stand out, and since it's your own space there's a definite sense of "you" in there.

Remember, though, the setting isn't your selling point; your personality, your face is your selling point! For the purposes of headshots, anyway.

Colour vs Black and White

Sometimes a black and white shot stands out really well! But it is less of a thing now we're looking at images online. It comes down to your personal taste in the end, as well as whatever your friends, family, agent, etc., recommends.

Ask for both! A good black and white conversion doesn't take that long in the grand scheme of things. As always, be prepared to pay a little extra because although it's small against the scope of everything else it's still extra work on the photographer's part.

Special Headshot Offer

I actually have a promotion running until the 1st June; headshots for Spotlight members are £200, which includes like 4-6 retouched images and everything else. All you need to do is contact me using the offer code "hello, I am a Spotlight member and I would like some headshots."

I don't really have an offer code.