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3 Basic Principles

Three Basic Principles or What To Avoid When Looking for a Quality Headshot Photographer

I am writing this for you, the actor --the actor who gets taken advantage of enough as it is. The actor who puts his or her heart and soul into what he or she believes, in the small hope that someone somewhere will give them a chance -- just one shot -- to prove you have what it takes to be a working actor. Pursuing one’s dream should be applauded and encouraged, not to mention helped.

I was an actor for 17 years. I studied with some of the best. I took my craft seriously and wanted to learn from the best. Hence, when I went out in search of a headshot photographer, I treated it the same way. Back then it was a heck of a lot easier than it is today, but there were still some traps to avoid! I have been a photographer for a little more than that now. Mostly headshots. I have photographed celebrities, people just starting out, and everyone in between. I have photographed tens of thousands of actors from every agency in town -- from the small start up agencies to boutique agencies to the powerhouse agencies of CAA, William Morris and Triad. I have photographed everyone from Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, to Jeremy Renner, Dermot Mulroney, Maria Bello and Lauren Conrad. My reputation is impeccable.

I have witnessed trends go from black and white film, to color digital -- from tight close-up shots, to three-quarter shots and back to tight close-ups. I was perhaps the first photographer to start shooting the now famous landscape headshots. You know the ones -- the ones where every one used to say “Casting directors don’t want to have to turn your picture to look at it.” Yes, those -- the ones that directors began pulling from the enormous piles of pictures that they, and the casting directors received! Yes, those. I was also the first to start placing the subject off to the side, and not directly in the middle of the picture. I found that shot drew people’s attention in quicker and easier. I am experienced to say the least.

Recently, and I say recently, but it’s more like the last few years, our industry has been bombarded -- in fact over-saturated is a much better term, with so-called headshot photographers. Digital photography is the reason. I have seen literally hundreds of them come and go. Instead of getting a job waiting tables, they run out and buy a camera and immediately start charging for their ‘services.’ Suddenly everyone is an expert. Suddenly every headshot photographer is rated number one! “I am the number one headshot photographer in town!’ they declare. The problem is that you, the consumer, have absolutely no idea if this is true or not. There are no internet police to say “Hey, wait a sec -- how do you figure? How long have you been shooting? How do you know you’re the best?” In this time of the squeaky wheel gets the oil, the louder you yell and scream, the more attention you receive. It can be frustrating at the very least. Every day I get phone calls from prospective clients telling me it’s insane out there with so many photographers competing for headshot business. How do YOU know who is good and who is not, who is real, and who ran out and bought a camera? Who is telling the truth and who is not? I for one have seen my own pictures being used to promote another photographers work! Crazy, but true!

Here are three excellent strategies to help you find the best headshot photographer FOR YOU.

First and foremost…

MEET AND GREET -- If a photographer does not have the time or the inclination to actually meet sit down and talk with you, run away!! This is NOT a person who cares about you or your career and is more interested in the numbers game of lining his own pockets with as much money as possible. That is, indeed, a fact. No matter what anyone tells you, NO ONE is too busy to sit and talk with a prospective client! How will they know who you are? How will they capture your personality if they have absolutely no idea of who you are? There are thousands of actors here in Los Angeles, and hundreds more arriving every day. What is going to separate you from them? A pretty headshot? I don’t think so. Would a casting director hire someone from his/her picture alone? Then why on earth would YOU!?

Sitting down with the photographer to see if you feel comfortable is not only essential, it’s IMPERATIVE! Do NOT be fooled by those who tell you they know what they are doing -- that there is no need for us to meet ahead of time. Simply put, this is just not true. Getting a sense of each other, asking questions, talking about your specific goals and needs is not only wise, it’s professional. If you don’t like the person who you are contemplating hiring, how on earth is your headshot going to look? Pretty? Probably. Standing out from the rest? No way. I cannot say enough about the process of an initial meeting for both you and your photographer! A side note here-- sitting with the photographer’s assistant does not count. He or she is NOT the one who is going to photograph you.

EXPERIENCE -- This is an extremely difficult subject because there are many, many talented beginners out there, and they charge, or at least SHOULD charge, a lot less than more experienced photographers. But how can you tell if the person whose website you are looking at is truly as experienced as they claim to be, and honestly has been shooting for as long as he or she claims, or if that photographer is indeed the number one headshot photographer he or she claims to be? It’s simple. When you go to meet with them and see their work, ask to see their black and white film prints. You know the ones -- the ones where the client’s name is actually on them -- the ones that the client has used. If they don’t have any, then they have flat out lied about their years of experience.

No one is going to be the number one headshot photographer in town. And certainly not with limited experience! No one. Not even the people who have been doing this for 20 plus years. It is just not a true statement, and it is designed to deceive, trick, and manipulate you. Simply put, it is a lie. In my 17 plus years of shooting actors, never once has anyone ever come to me, or any other photographer that I know who has an incredible reputation, with any official calculation to formulate who is actually the number one photographer here in town. It’s crazy to actually believe this! This is your hard-earned money you are about to hand over to someone! Don’t spend it foolishly.

THE FACTORY-- Headshot photography is a business. And because we are in business, we all want to make a good living doing what we love to do. Herein lies the dichotomy for some. Shooting as many people as one can fit in a day does nobody any good. It may be a financially rewarding day for the photographer and makeup artist, but you are not getting your money’s worth. And after all, isn’t this supposed to be all about YOU? Isn’t a headshot supposed to be a service for YOU? Isn’t a headshot session supposed to be about giving you a great product? Then I ask you -- how on earth can anyone give a top quality product when they have people waiting in the wings, or they are going back and forth from one shoot to another? They can’t. Rushing anyone through a shoot not only lacks professionalism, it lacks common courtesy for you the actor. It’s saying to you “I don’t care about you, I just want to get this over with so I can get on with the next job.” That’s what you are to them – a job. And what’s worse is they don’t seem to care what you think or feel.

This type of behavior shows that your headshot appointment isn’t about YOU, it’s about them. When ego and arrogance and factory photography are at the forefront of a photographer’s mind, the work will suffer, and ultimately YOU will suffer -- both financially and emotionally. If you find yourself in this situation – STOP! Get up and leave! You have every right to do so. Do NOT be intimidated by the bully behind the camera. Shooting with a photographer who lines ‘em up and shoots as many people in a day as possible will give you a generic headshot. And if you look at the person’s work, each photo of each actor will look exactly the same. Herein lies the problem. No two people are exactly the same! Heck, that’s Human Beings 101 isn’t it? You may have blonde hair and blue eyes like many, many people, or brown hair and green eyes, or black hair and brown eyes - but you are definitely NOT like every one else. And you shouldn’t be treated as such. Who you are inside makes you special, and it’s that special-ness that needs to be captured in order for your headshot to stand out! Avoid factory photographers like the plague. They care very little about you, if at all.

In conclusion…

Don’t be fooled by flash and ego and a hard driving soundtrack. There are some really good, creative, thoughtful, CARING, and terrific photographers out there -- photographers who have real experience, whose work stands out, whose work stands head and shoulders above the rest. Take your time. Visit with them. See where they shoot. See how they treat you. See how YOU feel when you are with them. Ask questions! Don’t let inflated egos and pompous behavior cloud your judgment. Just because someone says they are something doesn’t mean they are. Don’t be fooled by ‘the do’s and don’ts of headshots by people who think they know what they are doing. Always, ALWAYS check the source! The work, their WORK will tell the real story. When I was an actor, the worst headshots I ever got was by the self proclaimed “best headshot photographer in town.” It looked generic -- like everyone else’s. It did absolutely nothing for me. I wound up throwing them all away. The very best headshot I ever got was from a man who hardly advertised, a quiet peaceful man who took the time with me to get to know me a little bit, and who took the time to make sure he got what we set out to accomplish. All the rest were a complete waste of money. I wasted thousands of dollars on lousy headshots. My hard-earned money was literally thrown away. Don’t make that mistake. Treat this quest as importantly as your career -- it will pay you back tenfold.