The Difference Between Actor Headshots, Corporate Headshots, and Assistant’s Lonely Mothers

Headshot photography has grown considerably over the past couple decades. This is primarily due to the internet, where everyone now has not just one but several different forms of a presence. Executives realize that they need photos of themselves that represent them as a brand. Executive assistants realize they need photos of themselves because if their boss has something professional looking, they can’t represent him or her on Linkedin with an iphone photo taken of them mid-lung in a game of ultimate frisbee . Their assistants mom realizes she needs a professional headshot because she’s been divorced for several years, is tired of being single, and has finally come to grips with the fact that her match.com profile, which uses her high school yearbook photo from thirty-five years prior and captioned ‘Back before my back hurt all the time LOL’ isn’t really getting her laid (even though, several days after writing this article, a delivery man from Wisconsin came across her profile, exclaimed that he too has a sore back, and subsequently wrote her an email. The email was entitled ‘My back sucks, too.’)

This being said, headshots no longer are strictly relegated to actors and the ever-growing need for them has branched out into executives, lawyers, doctors, and a bunch of other occupations I can’t think of because the paint I drank as a child was not free of lead. For the most part, however, despite carrying the same moniker, headshots for professionals and actors are generally very different, and not treating them as such can introduce a degree of trouble in your life if you’ve been hired to take them.

Headshots for Actors


actor headshot nyc

Actor headshot , circa 2018


Lighting:

Lighting is, outside of composition, the most far and away important and distinctive characteristic of headshot photography. Photographers generally have far more latitude in this area when doing headshots for actors, as the images themselves principally lean towards being inherently more dramatic to begin with. This being said, headshots typically include more shadow for men than they do women. Headshot photographer, Peter Hurley, for instance, has a three point lighting setup (technically four or five, if you count the background lights) that forms a triangle of light in front of his subject; with each side of the triangle represented by a different source of continuous lighting. The triangle of light is equilateral (all three sides are the same length), with the base being positioned below the subject and the two sides forming the central upper point on either side of the woman’s face.

As women’s headshots generally tend to hover more towards the beauty or glamor-lighting end of the spectrum, all three sides of the triangle are consistently lit for women. For men, he turns the right side of the images lighting (camera right) off, to be more in alignment with an aesthetic the industry adopted over the years (an aesthetic that, given his prominence in the industry, he himself helped develop).

Gender differences aside, whether it be a man or a woman, large lighting sources generally are the trend, given the soft nature of their output. 70” parabolic umbrellas make fantastic sources of light and are, as well, super cheap. 4’ stripboxes and 4’ softboxes are popular as well, though more expensive. Lastly, octabanks will forever be a mainstay, though they’re going to be one of the more expensive options of the lot.

If you’re wondering how the above differences listed between the sexes come into play, large light sources will still be used for men; the transition between light/midtown/shadow will just be softer and more graduated. I’d imagine that because I wrote that men’s headshots tend to be more shadowed, you’re probably thinking that using a small lighter light source and thus making the shadow tones more prominent would be a good idea. It really isn’t, and using a smaller light for your male clients is a bad idea, as smaller won’t increase the amount of shadow but just make it harder and more sharply defined.

Once again, however, the Los Angeles market somewhat differs from the New York market in that a large number of headshots for actors are taken outdoors and in natural lighting. Why this is so I’ve no idea, but probably has to do with the fact that people from Los Angeles are constantly exploring a need to show off the fact that they live in a temperate, 70 degree climate that’s more stable than the sound of Morgan Freeman on lithium, narrating a movie.

Composition:

Headshots for actors are unmistakably different from headshots for professionals. For starters, the composition for actors is generally far more aggressively cropped (not always, but the general trend has led towards this). The entire purpose of a headshot is to showcase, well, the head, and for this reason, they’re oftentimes cropped in to the point where the subject’s face itself comprises 80% of the image. If you’re Brad Pitt and one of the most classically handsome men alive, this is fantastic news, and you’re probably all for this make up. If you’re Ron Howard’s brother, who’s not the most handsome man alive (one of his lines in The Waterboy was very literally ‘I am not a handsome man’), this is not fantastic news at all, and the entire process probably feels a bit like someone pointing a flashlight at your foot; which through no fault of your own developed at the age of five into an extremity shaped in the form of a porkchop.

The above image is an example of an actor’s headshot taken in the New York market.

As you can see, the face of the subject comprises 80% of the image. The top of the head and the outer shoulders have all been omitted from the image to make the face and head appear more visually impactful. This, once again, is not a universal tenet of all headshots but far and away an incredibly popular practice exercised here in New York. David Noles (www.davidnoles.com) and Peter Hurley (www.peterhurley.com), both headshot photographers that have gained widespread recognition in the field and are booked up until 2025, are known for their tight compositions.

*** The Los Angeles market ***

While headshots for actors in general tend to follow this pattern of more aggressive cropping here in the New York market, it’s important to note that the Los Angeles one tends to differ somewhat in the composition and framing of it’s headshots. Allowance is for the shot being more expansive and, with many of them taken outdoors, airier on the whole. A top headshot photographer in the LA market, Anthony Mongiello generally tends to agree on this subject, saying that the market in LA does vary greatly in this area.

Corporate Headshots


Kevin Chalker, Founder of Qrypt (<a href="http://www.qrypt.com">www.qrypt.com</a>)

Kevin Chalker, Founder of Qrypt (www.qrypt.com)

If you’ve decided to get into headshot photography, you likely did so because you figured the majority of its market was relegated to actors. You imagined being a top headshot photographer in a thriving metropolis, commanding a rate that allowed you to appear in youtube videos brandishing the unmistakable shape of a medium format camera body and being above the lesser plebs. Given the ultra-competitive and saturated nature of the market, you somewhere along the way stumbled into another lucrative and wholly massive sector of it while attempting to establish a thumbhold – corporate headshots.

The corporate version of a headshot belongs in the headshot family but is generally very different from the type taken for actors and typically resides in a poorly defined grey-area between headshots and portraits. For starters, the composition is typically not quite as aggressive and if you’ve gone into headshot photography exclusively for actors and are making the transition into corporate headshots for the first time, this area can get you in a bit of trouble.

Composition:

The most important thing to think about, in terms of corporate headshot photography, is the use-case that your clients are after. When actors are hiring you, they’re doing so for the principle purpose of an 8” x 10” and their profile on backstage. When an executive (or more likely someone from that executive’s marketing department) hires you, they’re doing so for any one number of a myriad set of purposes; with an 8×10 residing nowhere within their list of use-cases. Typical reasons for corporate headshots (assuming you aren’t being contracted by a publication) are website bios, brochures, marketing materials, and personnel about-me pages.

Corporate clients, however, don’t really know anything about brochures, websites, personnel about-me pages, headshot photography, or the love of ps4 games that will bridge a lack of commonality the two of you’ve built over a lifetime of collective earnestness and act as a common ground you can establish, should anything in your newly burgeoned occupational relationship go awry (‘yeah you fucked up this job completely and made my face look somewhat like a banana, but since you and I both like Demons Souls, I’m willing to overlook it, be friends, and not initiate a chain of uncomfortable calls that will ultimately land in a lawsuit and the ruination of your life’ – some CEO).

San Francisco based photographer, Daniel St Louis, of smile-headshots-inc.com (www.smile-headshots-inc.com) and leading provider of corporate and business headshots for the Bay Area, agrees that use-case is an important part of the process and cites it as residing within the top five most commonly cited issues when working with clients.

“It always needs brought up with clients, whether they know it or not. ” – Daniel St Louis

As an example of this, I was recently hired by a corporate client to take a series of headshots for their about me page. I was there because I’d taken headshots for their founder two years prior, they came out great, and when it came time to take a series of company shots, he had his marketing person give me a shout.

Leading up to the shots, nothing was really specified over the type of images the client wanted/liked/was-going-for. The headshots taken two years prior for the founder were fairly standard out-of-focus-background shots taken with an aggressive crop, and had I not followed up beforehand on the look, I would have just (wrongly) assumed that’s what they wanted.

I shot marketing an email the night before asking about the background and type of shot, and they wrote back that while they hadn’t discussed anything on the matter yet, they needed the shots to be on a white background. They assumed I would have shown up with a white background (and not a grey background, or a blue background, or a houndstooth background), and not done something similar to what was created two years ago. They made this assumption because corporate clients, the vast majority of the time, don’t know anything about headshots, formats, or brand guidelines, and will only mention after the shoot is over that what you’ve done doesn’t work for them.

Say, for instance, that particular group has a website layout that incorporates a trendier, more web 2.0 design for their bio pages. The personnel that populate the bio pages of that site all have a headshot that resides within a neat, circular web graphic that’s become a more frequent mainstay of current design practice and that the company uses them to great effect in exuding to the world that they are, in fact, a young, hip, vibrant group of trademark lawyers. Despite the fact that by 5:45 of a happy hour that began at 5:00 their wives are sending them text messages that say things like ‘where r u, bring mlk’ and ‘your son just broke the lamp. fuck baseball,’ these trademark lawyers are intent on looking progressive, youthful, and spritely.

The reason why approaching these series of shots like you would headshots for an actor are because in a circular graphic, cropping things that would normally otherwise be cut out tends to not translate well; and cutting out shoulders and tops of heads oftentimes makes the image look grossly off-center (not rule-of-thirds off center but poorly measured off center).

Because your client knows nothing about headshots, photography, or otherwise, there’s a likelihood they won’t have discussed any of this with you beforehand as they assume all headshots are the same, a headshot is a headshot, and will only mentioned after the fact that none of the shots you took over the course of the day are going to work.

This being said, try to discuss with the client beforehand what their needs are and how they’re going to use the shots, and assume the person has no idea what they want. As a failsafe, you including more of the person’s upper body than is generally necessary will usually carry you through, should any specifications arise after that weren’t brought up beforehand.


Lighting:


Lighting for corporate headshots tends to be pretty consistent from shot to shot. They’re well lit, rarely dramatic, and use lots of fill. When I first started taking headshots in the corporate realm, I early on evolved into using a lower light for the bottom half of the face. This is, far and away, the easiest approach for ratcheting up your shots and making them look more professional. It’s rooted in glamour-shooting, since beauty lighting mainly revolves around this setup.

The nice thing about shooting within the corporate realm is people within it are rarely accustomed to seeing professionally taken shots of themselves and are far easier to impress than actors and models (who sometimes regularly see professional shots of themselves and harder to wow). This being said, they generally tend to flip out a bit when you show them shots with the second light source arranged this way and, while overdosing on lighting is never recommended for a shoot, a few different small light sources (such as rim, glamour, and kicker) go a very long way in impressing your client.

Large light sources still remain key in taking corporate headshots, though you’ve a little more breathing room than headshots taken for actors. I used medium sized softboxes for a very long time and complemented them with lower-fill and rear rim lights before graduating to a 48” deep octa. With the size of the source so large, a lower fill isn’t really necessary and typically frees up my bag a bit and reduces the number of lights I’ll need.

And, with that said, that for the most part sums up the article. Hopefully with the above-content (which took up way more space than I initially anticipated) you’ll have a better understanding of headshot photography in general, and the principle difference between corporate and actor shots. If you’ve any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out and email me and I’ll do my best to reply within a reasonable timeframe (which in internet terms is sixty four and a half seconds).


+ As an addendum to this article, it’s worth noting that the assistant’s lonely mother mentioned above updated her match.com headshot and is now regularly getting laid. Good for you, Nancy.