How to Get the Best from Your Actors Headshots
Taking the Stress Out of Headshots
Headshots can be an unusually stressful affair in the acting profession. Like an audition, we often experience them like a make or break moment, and also like an audition, our innate need for validation is often triggered leaving us in a state of ‘eager to please’ the camera.
The camera is a double-edged sword. It will capture anything you put in front of it more or less accurately. On the downside, this means that if you’re trying to cover your insecurity with bravado, it’ll see that too. It won’t see confidence, it’ll see an attempt to mask insecurity with false confidence.
On the upside, when you realise you don’t have to hide whatever you’re feeling but instead allow your vulnerability to shine through, it’ll capture that as well. Those beautiful ineffable human qualities and moments that happen so fast in ordinary life can be captured and retained in a static form, giving agents and casting directors a rare chance to see the most authentic and unique aspects of who you are. Something that would usually take at least an entire conversation to hopefully catch a glimpse of.
That’s what people are looking for when they look at headshots. They might not even know that’s what they are looking for, but it is. They are looking for an innate “you-ness”. Something that cannot be replicated by anyone else. Something genuine that they can relate to and empathise with. This indescribable quality that we all have but that presents completely differently in each individual. It’s both what makes you you and simultaneously one of us. The individual and the universal.
Stop Trying to Be Someone Else
The first thing we need to learn when having our headshots taken is to let go of our social masks. This may sound terrifying and in many ways it is. We’ve spent our entire lives constructing these masks to hide our vulnerability. Many actors still remark that what they love about acting is getting to become other people or hide behind the mask of a character. But unfortunately that kind of acting died out at the beginning of the last century. Acting is not about hiding but revealing and in order to succeed and flourish in your career you have to learn how to reveal your truest self, be it to an audience or camera.
So the first principle is let your true self be seen. Don’t worry about trying to present the version of who you think you are. As the father of modern acting, Stanislavski said, “The person you are is a thousand times more interesting than the best actor you could ever hope to be”. You are beautiful, wonderful and unique. No one else can be you, yet as soon as the camera hits us, we forget this and start trying to become what we think others want us to be. The irony here is that if we were truly succeeding at this task we would in fact be embodying ourselves fully, because THAT’S WHAT CASTING DIRECTORS AND AGENTS WANT TO SEE. You! So how do we do this?
The Art of Letting Go
Letting go is a term we hear quite often but it’s usually misunderstood. Most of the time people think it means to push away or try to get rid of whatever we’re feeling or thinking. But I like to describe letting go in a much more tangible way. Letting go is exactly what it sounds like. Try this if you will. Hold onto a pencil in your hand and squeeze it as hard as you can. Make sure it’s a pencil and not a pen if possible. Really clench that fist as hard as you can for at least 30 seconds. Now while holding your fist with the pencil facing down, let go of whatever tension you’ve been consciously employing to grip the pencil so that it can simply fall on its own.
Done it? Let me guess, one of several things happened:
- You flung your hand open all the way in order to force the pencil free. Which is actually not letting go but in fact employing more tension just in the opposite direction (if you don’t believe me look at the muscles strain in your hand as you do it)
- You released your hand only as much as you needed but the pencil stuck to your palm so you decided to pry your hand open a little further (trying to make it let go)
- You gave it a little shake
- Or you found it difficult to even let go of the initial tension in the first place. Your fist just seemed to continue clenching after having gotten used to the activity before.
It’s not easy to just let go, it turns out. It’s simple but not easy. What we want to be able to do is simply let go of the pencil so that it can fall as it may on its own with no encouragement from us. Like the pencil, our emotions, thoughts, and vulnerability themselves are not meant to be manhandled in such an aggressive manner. In order for us to let ourselves go, it’s a process of allowing. Allowing the hand to release on its own without rushing it. Simply Let Go. Let go of the first tension, don’t add a second one.
Let Your Emotions Flow
Our inner experience is the same you’ll find. Letting go of the inner mental, emotional and corresponding physical tensions is a very similar process. It’s an intuitive one. Difficult to describe but you know it when you do it. Letting your face be soft, your defenses down and the camera in involves this same process of letting go. One could describe it in terms of let it come, let it be, let it go. It’s about allowing our experience to flow. Especially our emotions. It’s said that emotions = energy in motion. They are meant to flow, if we try to contain or manipulate them, they get trapped and the energy starts to build upon itself creating intense inner pressure that requires layers upon layers of tensions just to keep at bay. But if you can simply let them go, let them out, they can begin to find their natural equilibrium.
This approach also works when considering the camera itself. Many times actors try to force themselves into pretending the camera or audience aren’t there when acting so that they don’t end up paralysed by self-consciousness. However, in my view, this is not necessarily a sustainable strategy. It forces you to expend precious energy on attempting to deny something when instead you can simply change your relationship to it. This is especially true when it comes to headshots because you’re not even able to focus your attention on something other than the camera, as you are required to look right down the barrel of the lens. Instead of treating the camera as a problem and trying to force it out of our awareness, we can instead invite it into our experience. Allow it to be here and let go once more of the struggle with its presence. It’s not a problem and it doesn’t need to be fixed.
Paying Attention vs Getting Attention
The final thing I’ll emphasise for the above is that your self-consciousness is directly linked to where and how you place your attention. When we focus our attention on ourselves (where) and treat ourselves as if we are inherently broken and need to be fixed (how), it causes a never-ending cascade of self-consciousness and self-criticism. This is because we have begun the task unconsciously from a perspective of the problem-solving mind. When we are coming from a problem-solving mindset, everything we see or encounter will be perceived as a problem that needs to be fixed. That’s exactly what this part of our mind is for and in certain situations, it’s very useful. This is not one of those situations. In fact, there are very few circumstances within acting where this mindset will be useful. There’s a wonderful TED talk by Hollywood actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt about this very point which I encourage you all to check out. The summary of which is essentially, the more you pay attention to something or someone other than yourself, the greater your focus, ability, and wellbeing become. But the more you turn that metaphorical inner spotlight of attention upon yourself (with a perspective of what you’re doing is good or bad) the more self-conscious, paralysed, and unfulfilled you become.
Do Your Research
There are many more techniques I could go into for how to get the best from your headshots but for now, I suggest you try out the above. Have a practice at home first if you like. Setup a smartphone and video yourself in the process or set your phone camera to take a hundred shots rapidly while testing these out. They obviously won’t be good enough to use for your actual headshots but you’ll see just how simple, effective and easy the process can be and can go to your next headshot session with confidence and vulnerability in spades. The final thing I’ll say is do your research. Make sure the photographer you choose isn’t just good at the technical side but is known for being supportive and nurturing in the actual headshot process. You want someone who’s going to help you be at ease throughout the session while understanding that what you’re doing is inherently revealing and even scary. Remember bravery requires being scared. The soldier that runs into battle without fear isn’t brave, they’re oblivious. The run who’s scared but runs in any way is brave.
Let your acting serve your life, your life serve your acting.