What to Wear for Actor Headshots

What to wear for your actor headshots is very literally a question that was likely presented before the first headshot was ever taken. Think about it. One day a man or woman was sitting around, wondering what to wear to the photo session they’d set up for a close-up portrait they’d determined was necessary for some burgeoning use-case that we can safely say was not for an online dating profile. The internet wasn’t yet around, people weren’t yet aware of the horror that is processed foods, and guys still had to go up to girls on the street and be like ‘sup’ to express their romantic interest.

Blogs didn’t yet exist at the time and so women couldn’t in turn vent their frustrations about being constantly approached by men on the street whose expressions of courtship were communicated through use of the word ‘sup.’ It was, subsequently, a time of great frustration for all.

At any rate, circling back to the subject at hand, there was a first ever headshot session and it was preceded by a person opening their closet, looking at the contents inside, and being hopelessly and profoundly overwhelmed by the choices that lay inside.

‘What do I wear?’ is far and away the most common question received prior to my headshot sessions. Not only is it the most common question received, it’s one that I get prior to about eighty percent of the time (meaning I actually get it more often than I do not get it). And so, with this all being said, I’ve decided to go ahead and prepare a guide you can use in preparation for your big day. This way, you can move on to stressing out about more important things (the suspicious circumstances surrounding King Tut’s death, would Justin Bieber’s baby be musical, does this Chinese symbol tattoo I got on spring break actually translate to ‘whimsical goddess of splendor’ despite the guy giving it to me stopping and snickering a lot for no reason, etc).



actor headshot nyc

Actor headshot , circa 2018

Versatility is key in your headshots


The overwhelming majority of actors I photograph in headshots are dressed casually. I should stress that casually doesn’t necessarily mean ripped jeans and a five year old t-shirt with burger grease on it(though I wouldn’t ask you to leave if that was the case), but is more an overall gamut of clothing that applies to things like t-shirts, sweaters, zip-up hoodies, and fitted polos. I realize that casually is a massive grey-area and when pressed not a word I’d be eager to narrow down to too much specificity, but if my back was to the wall I’d say it’d least as more of an upscale sense of casual, in the very least. You aren’t dressing for a club but at the same time aren’t going to your great uncle’s veteran’s hall bar; you’re splitting the difference and dressing for a lounge. Maybe for a first date. Or say you’re on your way to some tech conference with a relaxed atmosphere.

That’s typically the best way I can describe what to wear for your actor headshots. And do you want to know why? Because casual doesn’t commit to any one specific look. People dressed casually fit into every walk of life; whether it be for work, for social activities, or for otherwise. So long as the clothing is clean, ironed, and relatively fresh(ish) looking, you can take casual and go for the most part anywhere.

As an actor, this is helpful because one of your mainstay traits is versatility. The word is very much an it term in the industry and far and away one of an actor’s most popularly cited assets.

“So and so is so versatile. One day she played a rock. The next day she played a coma patient. Granted, both roles involved pretty much just lying there inanimately, but CAN YOU IMAGINE?!’

On any given day, any number of casting directors are going to be looking at your photo for any number of diametrically opposite roles, and for this your best preparation is to look the part of any part and be as chameleonic as possible. Remember when you were a little kid and you played those early childhood brain games? You’d take a triangle and put it in a triangular slot, and you’d take a circle and put it in a circular slot.

Your job is to maintain a shape that as much as possible will fit into both of those slots; and dressing in things like suits, formal wear, dresses, and the like will pigeon-hole you into just one look. Also, it goes without saying, but your pants aren’t really all that important (but please, do wear pants/shorts/a skirt/towel/something).

The most popular tops tend to be:
  • T-shirts
  • Blouses
  • Zip-up hoodies
  • Polo shirts
  • Sweaters


Actor headshot in a tee-shirt. 2020. Joe Jenkins

Actor Headshot in a tee. 2020. Joe Jenkins

Avoid loud colors and patterns


Bold colors, loud tones, and brash patterns should be nowhere within your headshot. Outside of the fact that canary-yellow really has limited use-case to begin with, it’s going to be the first thing a casting director notices when he/she looks at your headshot. Not only will it be the first thing he/she notices, it’ll likely be the only thing that he or she notices.

The clothing you wear should complement your shot but not be the focus of it. If you’re sitting there thinking ‘this is the most fantastic, bedazzling, grandiose outfit I own,’ that’s great, but you likely shouldn’t wear it to your headshot session. You may object to this and remind me that you spent two week’s worth of paychecks on said outfit, and I can empathize, but an outfit that commands ninety percent of the viewers attention shouldn’t be worn.

As well, you can take this sentiment and by extension apply it to jewelry. I’m almost universally opposed to necklaces for actor headshots, but a couple earring studs or stones for owmen can supplement an image quite well. A couple large hoops on the other hand will vie for the viewers attention and command a portion of it larger than you want.

Remember Inglorious Basterds? It had an all star cast replete with Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brun, and many other talented actors. Nevertheless, Christoph Waltz completely, thoroughly, and unapologetically stole the show; with ninety-percent of what people remember of the movie being Hans Lander. And an opera-going Brad Pitt going ‘grazi.’

The moral of that story is: don’t let your outfit do that.

Things to avoid:

Dots
Stripes
Lines
Big Jewelry
Big Ruffles
Large Frills
Cheap Thrills


Be unapologetically yourself



Emilia Clarke, forever enshrined within popular culture as Queen Khalisi, danced the funky chicken at her Game of Thrones audition. Seriously. This 5’2” girl from Oxfordshire came to an audition for an upcoming HBO series that would forever change the landscape of television as we know it, make people lose in the process what can only be appropriately described as ‘their shit,’ and irreversibly change the course of her life, walked into a room of showrunners, casting directors, and decision-makers, and danced. The funky. Chicken.

Would you like to know why she danced the funky chicken? Emilia Clarke danced the funky chicken because Emilia Clarke dances the funky chicken when she’s alone in a room, in the shower getting ready, and in her now much more expensive car on it’s way to the beach (or wherever she goes).

The point I’m trying to make is that Emilia Clarke did that because that represents her core personality and who she is. It was a genuineness and authenticity that invoked that set of expressions; not a projection of a personality she thought producers would want to see.

And thus, carrying my point, is how you should dress and look in your headshots. The person in your headshots should remorselessly be you; not an idea of what you feel would be the most successful. If you’re a guy that’s comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt most of the time, wear jeans and a t-shirt. If you’re feeling fancy that day, maybe a collared polo. If you’re a girl that spends a large amount of her time in blouses, wear a blouse. If your favorite color is blue, bring a selection of shirts that revolve around those tones.

My point is, be yourself and let your outfit convey the personality that is you. If you want to dance the funky chicken, dance the funky chicken. If you want to dance the robot, then dance the robot. If you want to be iced tea, then be iced tea. Nobody gives a shit about people that prefer lemonade, anyway.

Be yourself and look like yourself. People trust authenticity and people work with people they trust.

Avoid loud colors and patterns


This goes back to the above that you don’t want to pick anything too loud. Canary yellow, fire-engine red, and anything neon isn’t the best thing to bring. It detracts from the main subject of the image; which is you.

Neutral colors and tones a the best bet, offering the safest set of selections for your headshots. If you want to layer but are un sure of how to do so, complementary colors work well. If you don’t remember your color theory (who really does), just head on over to wikipedia’s entry on complementary colors and you can get an idea of what works best for you.

If you want something broken down in more objective terms, marketing maven Neil Patel over at crazyegg has written a nice article on the emotional triggers of colors and what marketers use to boost sales. Make no mistake, you’re selling yourself, so this is pertinent:

https://www.crazyegg.com/blog/colors-proven-to-boost-sales/

Also, I’m on the fence when it comes to black. It’s an incredibly powerful color and very much sets a tone. It can either work fantastically well or backfire and completely characterize the image. By no means can you not use it, but you should proceed with caution.

The great thing about expensive clothing is it looks nice and you can return it


Feel free to buy some clothing you intend on returning that you otherwise would never in a million years purchase. Finances really shouldn’t be a reason behind wardrobe limitations for your headshots and you absolutely shouldn’t allow yourself to be economically pigeon-holed into a look based around how much money you make. You still need to look nice and it’s okay if you look somewhat expensive. I’m not saying you need to go out and buy something from Thom Browne, but showing up in a tee made by Champion (sorry, Champion, but you guys have a time and a place and it’s not for actor headshots) is a great way to have someone look at your photo and be entirely unimpressed. Your headshots are one of the most important and valuable assets that you have. They’re the first thing a casting director sees and your sole point of introduction. Dress accordingly.

Conclusion



Wardrobe is a vastly critical part of your headshots, but doesn’t have to be an overwhelmingly intimidating component. With the above guide you can go ahead and demystify the process and hopefully go into your next session with a clearer head and more confidence. Feel free to check out more examples here to get a more expansive overview on wardrobe and a few more real world examples.