A Bit About Headshots ~ An Abbie Cobb Excerpt
This blog entry is an excerpt from Abbie Cobb’s book for actors “Stuck on a Ferris Wheel: An Actor’s Guide to Enjoying the Ride While Keeping Your Feet on the Ground.” You can also order the book on her website Abbiecobb.com where you can also find helpful audition videos for up-and-coming actors.
A bit about Headshots
As an actor, the first thing you need is a great headshot. Headshots are the single most important thing you need in order to land a job. (You can even land a job without knowing how to act. Sad, but true.) So, before you put on your best get-up, get a haircut, and pose like you did on prom night, take a look at some thoughts and advice on what to do and what to avoid when creating your personal headshot.
Know Your Type
Sorry, “talldarkandhandsome” is not the answer here. We’re talking about you: who you truly are and how that can work for you in an audition. No one knows you better than you, so why not help the casting directors out? Sometimes they have a very limited imagination. (The California sun can do that to you.)
If the up-for-grabs role is a rebellious punk, don’t come in dressed for your sweet sixteen party. (That is, unless you were a rebellious punk at sixteen.) If you’re called in for a college frat boy/slacker-dude and you walk in wearing a tuxedo, forget it. If you’re called in for a James Bond type and you’re sporting a worn Green Day t-shirt with holes in your jeans, forget it. You get the idea.
A list of potential types could go on forever, starting with your high school’s cafeteria tables of cliques. Picture the types of characters that you see popping up in all kinds of major TV shows, print ads, commercials, and feature films:
Cute/ innocent teen
Nerd in a locker Funny best friend
Frat boy/sorority gal
Figure out what your type is and bring clothes that support your type! Even if you want to rebel against your type and be a Bond girl for once—and wouldn’t we all?—remember that that might not be you! If you are overweight, embrace it; you will be the next millionaire booking roles as the funny best friend.If you are skinny and pale, embrace it; you’re the next band geek in Glee. If you’re 22 and look 15, embrace it—you’re in a lucrative category called “18 to look younger.”
For reasons involving everything from working laws to maturity levels, Disney loves filling their younger teen roles by casting actors who are not actually minors. Leonardo DiCaprio got started this way, and he turned out to be pretty successful. This happens to be my “type” as well (for now!), and learning to embrace the fact that I still look like a high school sophomore instead of fighting that has been key to landing several roles. Basically, figure out what you are and market yourself towards that type. Once you’re rich and famous, you can play any part you want. For now, try to book a part that is your type. Your best fit is also your best shot.
Choosing a Photographer
How your headshots turn out is completely up to you! If you do the right amount of preparation, it can mean the difference in a failed attempt or complete success in Hollywood. Research photographers. Look at their work. Choose your clothes carefully. Put in time and careful thought about your type and your personality. At the photo shoot, do whatever you can to be yourself and be comfortable. Your face will sell it all. If your eyes are blank, your photo will be blank.
The Anatomy of a Headshot
There are a lot of unspoken rules when it comes to headshots. But they are very, very important unspoken rules. (That doesn’t seem fair, does it?) Here are a few basic guidelines for you and a photographer to put together a strong headshot:
- Focus on your face. It would be a mistake for anything in your picture to pull the viewer’s focus away from your face, your eyes, your smile or lack of one. This is not a senior picture with your arms crossed because you’re too cool for school. This is the real you!
- Your head should be completely in the picture. A lot of photographers try to get artsy and take photos of you diagonally or cut the top part of your hair off. Not cool. Casting directors want to see your head. It’s a headshot—the whole head should be in it. You can always crop the picture smaller when you’re editing at home, but you can’t ever add your hair back in.
- Leave your body out of it. Keep your hands (and torso) out of the picture. A headshot is your complete head, maybe some shoulders, maybe some arm, but not much more. Again, you don’t want to distract the casting director. There are exceptions to every rule, but generally stay away from distant and zoomed-out photos for a headshot session. A more distant shot that includes your legs and torso is called a body-shot, which gives casting an idea of what size you are. This would be for modeling jobs or for a role that may require nudity or bathing suit scenes. A body-shot is not a headshot.
- The background should not be in focus. I’ve seen countless headshots of good-looking guys and girls standing there in beautiful wardrobe with a killer smile and the first thing I say when I see it is, “Wow, where was your photo shoot location? That is a cool background!” The casting director might think the same thing, and you don’t want that slate-gray brick wall behind you to stand out more than your piercing blue eyes. You may find amazing locations, but you don’t want them to outshine you. Your photographer should know this, but good lighting is more important than a cool-looking background. If you get a good shot back but the bricks or pipes or columns behind you are clearly in focus, you can blur them out in Photoshop. Anything to make your face pop out is key.
- The background should not be the same color as your shirt. You want to stand out! Most likely the photographer has control over any backdrop color in their studio and already has any outdoor locations chosen. Make sure you show or tell them your shirt/dress colors before the shoot so you don’t end up looking like a floating head when the pictures come back.
- The photos really need to look like you—your personality, the you your friends see on a midnight run to Taco Bell, the smirk you give your significant other when they sass you, the stark emotion that hits you when the lyrics of a beautiful song hit home for the first time. The photo needs to capture your spirit, not just the contours of your face.
Do’s and Don’ts
The following guidelines are what I have learned in workshops, conversations with professionals, photography classes, and in the smiles or frowns of the casting director in an audition room. Take them with a grain of salt, but I’ve found them to work fairly universally for acting in LA.
- Wear jewel tones. This includes emerald greens, royal blues, deep purples, ruby red, etc. Don’t wear pastels—they make you look weak and drab.
- Wear the colors that complement you most for the shoot, and if you’re not sure, ask your mom what she thinks is the best color on you. Trust me. If she hasn’t told you already, she’s dying to. If your skin is pale, avoid a color like yellow. If you’re African-American and you know you can rock that canary yellow Banana Republic shirt you just bought, go for it. You know yourself. Trust it!
- Complement your eye color. It sounds simple, but there are countless actors who have booked a job based on captivating eyes and their color brought out by a shirt or dress they were wearing. Do your research on what colors will make your eyes pop.
- Make sure your clothes are ready to go. You don’t want to be rushing around 10 minutes before the shoot. Iron them. Make sure they fit! Try them on and make sure they match the “type” you’ve chosen.
- You can always pay someone to edit out the bags under your eyes, but who wants to do that? You must get a good night’s sleep before your shoot. That sort of editing can be as much as $100 or more. You know what’s cheaper? A few extra hours of sleep the night before your headshots. You need to be fresh and ready for the day!
- Wear little to no jewelry. Necklaces are distracting! Only wear chains if they’re part of your “look.” Small earrings might go unnoticed but you may want to leave them behind. If you’re married and under 25 or auditioning for someone young, leave your wedding ring at home; it will only make you seem older, tossing you from any teen or college opportunities. That being said, get your hands out of the shot!
- Admit it: flannel is always distracting. Stripes might look great in a snapshot, but you don’t want anything busy that draws any attention whatsoever to anything but your face. Forget the floral pattern. No writing on t-shirts. You may have a funny slogan or a cute hoodie with a brand name, but you don’t want a casting director staring at your shirt, trying to figure out what that word is. You want him to be enamored with your eyes and on the phone with your agent to call you in for a read!
- This isn’t your wedding day or the prom. If a casting director sees a gorgeous picture of you sporting five pounds of makeup and a salon up-do, he’ll be disappointed when you walk in the room looking like, well, you! Don’t deceive them. The real you—natural and authentic—will get you more jobs than you think. So, what does that mean? Fix your hair like you could if you found out you had to be at an audition in 30 minutes—that means no help! Wear minimal makeup, only the basic coverage you need. Remember: these photos will be blown up into high-definition 8×10’s and you can see makeup. If you’re bald—show it! If you’re overweight, don’t try to hide it! Nothing will upset a casting director more than having you show up looking nothing like the headshot that they saw online.
- Avoid drastic and last-minute haircuts. What if it turns out badly? What if Tony the Barber has a bad day and slips up? (You should have tipped him last time, like Mama taught ya!) Photo shoots are too expensive and take too much planning to mess this up by depending on your stylist the day before. If you must get a cut or color, give yourself at least a week beforehand so that you have time to make any corrections if needed.
What You Can Do Right Now
- Figure out your type.
- Search for headshot photographers.
- Save money for a worthy photographer!
- Get in shape.
- Floss daily and whiten your teeth.
- Take care of acne.
Good luck to you as you pursue your dream of being a performer! Feel free to check out the how-to audition videos on my website Abbiecobb.com if you’d like to know more and continue to grow. Break a leg!
Abbie Cobb landed her first role on Disney’s Starstruck and continued working with Disney Channel on shows like Pair of Kings, Good Luck Charlie: It’s Christmas, Jonas LA, and Imagination Movers. She eventually moved on to guest star on other networks in shows like Bones, NCIS:LA, Grey’s Anatomy, The Mentalist, CSI: Miami, finally landing recurring roles as cousin Emily on CW’s 90210, Kimantha on ABC’s Suburgatory, and Francine on Secret Life of the American Teenager.
Abbie enjoys filling up her weeks with work in TV, film, or theatre, but she also knows how hard it is to break into acting in Los Angeles so she spends her spare time sharing what she has learned from the process. Mentoring and connecting one-on-one with aspiring actors is a big part of her life; it thrills her to help out newcomers and keep them from falling into the typical traps in Hollywood! Abbie is a sought-after keynote speaker at acting conferences and workshops, where she shares her book Stuck on a Ferris Wheel to inform and encourage actors.
This Summer, Abbie is shooting in Birmingham, Alabama working on a film with the people behind Fireproof, Courageous, and October Baby. The comedy, Moms’ Night Out is set to release Mother’s Day weekend of 2014.
If you ever get a chance to hear Abbie speak, GO! She is not only beautiful, talented, and kind, she is SMART and gifted in teaching. We had the privilege of hearing her speak at the AMTC Shine Event this past Summer 2013. She gave an excellent seminar, quite memorable. We would recommend purchasing her book as well.