Technology has changed and shaped the way casting directors find actors and how actors present and promote themselves. In response to the changing demands of casting directors and to adapt to new technologies, the way photographers take and process headshots has evolved quite rapidly over the last decade or so.
When I got my first acting headshots taken (below), it was standard to pay for three rolls of film, 24-36 shots each. Black and white. This is how the idea of "three looks" started. You would shoot a roll of film with one look, get changed, shoot another roll, get change/shave, shoot a third roll of film. That was it. Then you waited a week or two for the film to be developed. After that, you had to either go back to the photographer's studio or to a photo reproduction lab to pick up your contact sheet.
Once you got your contact sheet, you would look at your images closely, usually under a magnifying glass, if you had one — lucky for me I had a loupe — to select however many images you would then want/need to print. At that time, you needed to hand over a printed 8" x 10" headshot every time you went to an audition, no matter how many times you went to the same casting house. Most actors carried copies of their résumé and headshots with them almost everywhere they went, in a manilla envelope, protected by a thin piece of cardboard on each side to prevent the prints from getting damaged, handing them out to every agent, director and casting director they bumped into. Printing new headshots all the time was costly, especially for an actor.
If you needed digital versions for your website, or to email to casting directors in other cities, you either needed to have your own scanner, or pay someone to scan the images, which would often include fees to read the disk, a fee to scan and then another fee to save the digitized image to a CD-ROM.
The images above are from my first headshot session as an adult actor, taken in November 2000, with photographer Helen Tansey. Luckily I was a designer with a high-end image scanner, or those frosted tips would have been lost to time.
The Color Headshots Tipping Point
While colour photography had been around for decades, almost no headshot photographers were shooting colour film. It was cost prohibitive due to lab costs of processing the film and for the lab to make prints. It seemed, however, that as soon as one major photog started shooting in colour, and scooping up all the bookings in the process, the rest followed suit, and within a year colour headshots had become the new norm.
As more photographers started using colour — some shooting with medium format cameras, which provide larger negatives — headshots initially looked like the standard black and white shots but with skin tones and some non-descript backdrop color or painted wall. In some corners of the industry, headshots even started to develop a bit of an environmental, "cinematic look."
Some photographers started charging a little bit more for their session fees and provided you with a handful of small, colour prints (proofs), about 3" x 4", of each image. These printed proofs felt like playing cards and made it easier for you to look through your session options. In Toronto, photographers that did this quickly became the go-to headshot shooters because of this value-added set of printed proofs. Once you decided on which images you wanted to use as your headshots, the process would be the same as I mentioned above to get prints and digital images.
The Digital Movement
As digital photography became more prevalent, more photographers traded in their film cameras for digital ones. Online web galleries became the de facto way of presenting proofs to clients. Clients could now login to a password-protected gallery from anywhere in the world to examine their proofs, share that directory with their agents, and call the photographer or repro lab up on their phone with their selections. No more going back and forth to the photographer or lab to get proofs or contact sheets, place orders, etc.
Casting websites such as Casting Workbook, Actors Access, Casting Networks and others, began popping up, changing the landscape of the casting business — good riddance fax machines, amiright?! — and, as a result, changing the needs of our clients. Actors' began needing a mix of prints to carry around in a manilla envelope AND high-quality digital images for their Casting Workbook accounts.
Nowadays, digital files are of even higher importance to an actor than prints. Non-union actors respond to postings on Mandy.com with their headshot attached, and pros (like my LA-living, Toronto ex-pat friend Monika Smith) who want to go that next step can upload their own headshots to their IMDb profile via IMDbPro, or have their agents do it for them.
When once the price of headshot sessions was determined by the number of rolls of film the photog went through (usually 2 or 3), now that digital had become the norm, the "three rolls" standard started to be replaced with a new standard of "three looks." Obviously, there's a similar feeling to this for both photographer and client that made this transition an easy one.
With digital, photographers now had a lot more leeway to experiment during headshot sessions. Instead of being limited by their own pricing methods — the development cost of rolls of film no longer an issue — photographers were freed by their ability to shoot a lot more in a shorter amount of time. This led to an explosion in the cinematic look in headshots — which include the actor in focus, and an out-of-focus background of some sort. When presented with a selection of images, what actor isn't going to pick a shot that makes them look like they're already the star in their own movie?
I love the look of these cinematic environmental portraits and I think they're brilliant for promotional character galleries. (FYI, if you're looking for a photog to shoot the character gallery or promo for your series or movie, I'm great at shooting character galleries.) However, when it comes to effective actor headshots, the cinematic environmental portrait poses a potentially big problem in the casting world.
Where Are We Now?
The Conundrum of the Cinematic Look
A major benefit of cinematic-looking, colour headshots is that they present an idealized version of the actor. The simulated film-set look suggests "this is what I look like on screen," which is great. This is also its biggest problem. The problem arises when the actor walks into the casting room and there is a noticeable disparity between how they look in their headshot and how they look on your average day after trekking across town, possibly in bad weather, packed onto jammed subways, and sitting in heavy traffic. Their makeup wasn't done professionally (likely) and their hair doesn't have that fresh-from-the-salon look it does in their photos (likely).
So, while it presents a great insight into the actor's on-screen appearance in a simulated way, it also presents a deviation between who the casting director is expecting to walk through the door and what the person who walks through the door actually looks like. (This is a much bigger issue for women than it is for men, but it can still be an issue for men.)
So, what does this have to do with headshots? It all comes down to authenticity.
Cultural Shift and the Demand for Authenticity
Our current cultural climate is pushing harder and harder towards a demand for authenticity in all aspects of life. Anti-Photoshopping movements and articles on popular blogs are shaming people into thinking that any deviation from 100% natural is completely wrong and immoral. And while their heart might be in the right place, their attacks are even offending people that were supporters of their cause.
In the headshot world, noted New York photographer Peter Hurley has been a torchbearer. If you live in LA or New York, this is the guy you want shooting your headshot. It's going to cost you a month's rent (at New York rent prices) but even at NYC rent prices you're going to get the best headshots you've ever had. Peter has started a movement across the world, as photographers start to adopt his approach and utilize his techniques.
Having been a fan of Peter's work for many years, as both an actor and photographer, I was intrigued and curious by why he chose to shoot this way. For him, it came about organically, shooting against a white wall in a small NYC apartment. But for the casting directors that see his headshots, and having spoken to casting directors about their current needs in the selection process of actors, this simple high-key style of headshot is perfect for the needs of the modern casting house. In the hands of a casting director high-key printed headshots look great, but what they currently do for you online is even better.
What a Casting Director Sees Online
Here's how the current casting process typically works. (At least in Toronto. If it's different in your city, let me know in the comments section.) A casting house submits a breakdown for roles they need to fill on a project to the casting website. This could be anything, such as a PSA, commercial, series pilot, movie, web spots, whatever. Subscribers (actors and/or agents) submit for posted roles that fit their description and type (eg. male, slim, 20s, smarmy brogrammer).
When casting projects and bringing people in to see, casting directors look at hundreds of headshots — thousands in some markets — every day. The first thing a casting director sees is a collection of thumbnails of actors fitting their breakdown criteria. In order for an actor to stand out and be remembered, he or she must first stand out from the rest of the fish in the sea. This is what pushes changes in the headshot market and the need for headshot photographers to know how to best present their clients.
Photographers that don't adapt to the changing market often get left behind. You'll hear them say things like: "This is the way I do it," or "This is my style," or "It's just a fad," or "The photos don't look good that way." This is a poor way to think and I bet most actors in major markets, who've been around for 10 years or so, know of at least one or two headshot photographers that are still shooting but that no one ever talks about anymore.
The reality is that acting headshots are a commodity, they are not a photographer's place to express themselves or show off how many backdrops or painted walls they have. Headshots are an actor's calling card, their business card. When a photographer doesn't change to market demands, it's because they no longer understand the needs of their clients and/or are putting their own needs and desires ahead of their clients. For this reason, it is of primary concern for me to help my clients get seen.
As a Toronto headshot photographer, my job isn't simply to take your picture, it's to help you get seen more frequently by casting directors, to get into the casting room more often. I can't speak for the quality of your talent once you get into the room, but my sole intention when we're in a session is to make you come to life — authentically! — in a single moment and for you to stand out amongst your peers, so you get called in to audition more often.
The reality and speed of the casting business is such that a casting director usually spends about one second (or less) looking at a photograph deciding if someone has the right look for the part. The challenge, then, is how do you catch their eye in that (fraction of a) second? If you can provide them with an image that is distraction-free and authentically YOU, then you stand a much better chance of getting a second look and getting called in to audition.
Below, I've attempted to reproduce a few sample galleries to show the progression of digital casting, and that how your headshot reads as a thumbnail is now as important as the quality of the full-sized headshot itself. I've assembled these galleries using shots I've taken, you can see how both technology and the need for actors to stand out amongst their peers has pushed the industry through various headshot trends.
0) Digital Origins: Black and White and Grey All Over
Ahhhh, the dawn of online casting. Since the headshot biz was still firmly rooted in black and white photography, our wonderful 640x480 colour monitors still weren't being used to their full potential in this industry. Digital scans of printed black and white 8x10s slowly began to show up in online casting directories.
You'll also notice that the second headshot above already stands out from the rest because of the plain white background. That'll become relevant in just a moment.
1) Cinematic Colour: Standing Out in a Sea of Grey
Colour photography finally makes its way into the realm of actor headshots. A lot of outdoor photographs in alleys, against "interesting" backgrounds, making you wonder what the out-of-focus blue thing is behind the actor, or what the graffiti says on the garage door. The background is the last thing in a headshot that needs to be interesting.
Right around the time the majority of headshots on online casting directories became colour is the same time most casting houses tossed their fax machines and started using casting-oriented web services almost exclusively.
2) Solid/Vivid Colours: Standing Out in a Cinematic Landscape
If you look at the shots with simple vivid colours for backgrounds, what makes the image pop or stand out from the others is the colour, not the actor. The actors are great and their personalities still shine, and your eye is drawn to those images a bit more, but the initial attraction factor is still the background, not the personality of the actor.
3) Actor-Centricity: Putting the Focus Where it Belongs
Headshots with a plain white background put the focus squarely, and solely, on you. In the two images above with plain white backgrounds ("high-key" in photography terms), the most interesting thing about the photos is the expression of the actors. No distracting blurred-out walls or bright vivid colours stealing focus from the actors themselves. Just the actors and their shining personalities.
But what would happen if all the photos had plain white backgrounds...
4) The Future? Looks Great!
As a collection, you might think this is boring. Who cares? You know what's not there? Distraction. All you are looking at, all there is to look at, is the actors and their expressions. You're immediately drawn to their eyes, even at this small thumbnail size. Their expressions and personalities rule the image and it is the actor alone who leaves an impression on the casting director. Not the photographer. Not the photographer's ability to simulate a production still.
Moving Towards Authenticity and Personality
As a headshot photographer, where I leave my personal stamp when I shoot actor headshots is in my ability to draw out of you, and capture, a compelling and authentic connection with the viewer. Your personality. Laid bare and vulnerable for the casting directors of the world to see. You.
You need to find the right photographer to be able to make you look your best. If you're in Toronto, I'm your guy. I'd love to shoot your actor headshots. I have studios in Toronto and Hamilton. If you're not in Southern Ontario, contact me and we can arrange travel. It will probably less expensive than a month's rent, especially if you get a few people together for a day of shooting.
All the best with your career.