© Peter Dressel Photography

Headshot Photography for Actors

Actor headshot of an actress

Headshot photography for actors can seem easy to a photographer just starting out. The framing is pretty simple and the lighting is pretty straightforward. Headshots look deceptively easy but doing it well is anything but. If you’re just starting out shooting headshot photography for actors here are the most important things to keep in mind.

Understand The Actor’s Needs

The headshot is the single most important thing actors have to promote themselves. Headshots don’t get the actor a role in a TV show or film. A great headshot gets the actor an audition.

Actor headshot of an actor
Headshot photography of an actor

Understanding The Audience

Who decides whether an actor gets an audition? Casting directors. The casting director is the only audience you should care about when shooting headshot photography for actors. The headshot may look good in your portfolio and all the actor’s friends may find it attractive but if it’s not getting the actor auditions it’s not working.

The Camera

In order to become a headshot photographer you’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera. You don’t need the latest camera with a gazillion megapixels. You can buy the original Canon 5D used for $300 or less. It shoots at 12 megapixels which is more than enough to make the standard 8×10 print size for actor headshots.

The Lens


Telephoto lenses are the way to go for headshot photography for actors. Telephoto lens flatten and flatter. Shoot at a minimum of 85mm on a prime or zoom lens. I usually shoot between 85mm and 105mm on a Canon 24-105 lens. A lot of headshot photographers use very long 200mm and 300mm lens if the subject is outside and they want to blur out the background.


The best aperture for actor headshots usually, but not always, depends on what you want the background to look like. If you’re shooting against a studio backdrop or a wall F4 is plenty. When I shoot in the studio with strobes my aperture is usually around F8. If you’re shooting outside and want to knock the background out of focus F2.8 is a good place to start. On kit lenses that aren’t that fast use F4.

If you’re on a budget I recommend buying a used Canon 24-105mm lens. You can get them on-line for around $400.

Here’s the thing about backgrounds though. Casting directors don’t care. It could be a neutral grey or white wall or an out of focus background outside. A casting director doesn’t care that you’re shooting with a 200mm lens and creating all kinds of great boka behind the actor. All they care about is “do I want to bring this actor in for an audition?” The main purpose of the background is to stay out of the way.

Actor headshot of an actress
Headshot photography of an actress

It’s All About the Eyes

Ask any casting director what the most important part of a headshot is most will tell you the eyes. Casting directors want to see a life behind the eyes showing depth and strong inner thoughts. Empty eyes say nothing and if a casting director is looking through piles of headshots, empty eyes won’t even get a second look. The eyes should always be well lit, in perfect focus and looking directly into the camera. I prefer one strong catchlight as it adds lots of life to the eyes.


Standard headshots goes from the middle of the chest to the top of the head. It’s okay to crop a bit on top but not too much. If the casting director is wondering what the rest of the actor looks like you’ve cropped in too far. You can shoot vertical or horizontal. A lot of headshot photographers are shooting horizontal with the actor dead center with plenty of room above the head and on each side. This gives the option of cropping vertical, horizontal or square. Personally I prefer to compose my shots in camera shooting both vertically and horizontally.


The rule of thumb is big, soft even light. The face, and especially the eyes should be evenly and adequately lit.

For lighting in the studio I shoot with a large seven foot umbrella with a diffuser.  It’s big and provides very soft flattering light. For fill I use a white reflector clipped to a light stand. 

If you’re on a budget a big bright window will work every time. For fill light you can buy a piece of cheap matt board from an art supply store and clip it to a light stand. If you don’t have great window light in your space and are working on a budget you can shoot with a cheap hardware store light bounced off a wall or shot through a white bed sheet. Cheap matt board from an art supply store clipped to a light stand will work for fill light here as well.


Keep it simple. The actor in the photograph is all that matters. As stated above, casting directors don’t care about the background, they care about whether the actor in this headshot is the right one to bring in for an audition.


Keep it simple. If the clothes draw too much attention to themselves they’re taking attention away from the actor as by now we know we must never do. Neutral colors always work well. Tops should be free of intricate designs, logos or words. If the actor is auditioning for a specific type of part they should dress like that specific type but again keep it simple. Keep it about the actor.


Hiring a professional makeup artist is never a bad idea. They can do wonders for a headshot. If you’re shooting headshots on a regular basis have some makeup artists ready to go or use an agency and make sure they have experience with photoshoots. The makeup should flatter the actor but look natural so the actor who walks in for the audition looks like the actor in the headshot.

Actor headshot of an actor


Retouching is like makeup. It can do wonders for a headshot but if done wrong can be disastrous. As stated earlier, it’s important that the actor that shows up for the audition looks like the actor in the headshot. Retouching is bad when it’s obviously done poorly or is so over done it doesn’t look like the actor anymore. If you want to be a headshot photographer retouching is a required skill. If you don’t know how to retouch find tutorials on-line.

If you’re interested in working together call me for a free consultation 917-536-7277

© Peter Dressel Photography