Getting Out of Your Head: How to Create the Best Mental Space for Taking Headshots

It’s a new year, a time when we sweep out the old and invite in the new, creating fresh changes for our lives. It’s time for resolutions ranging from dusting off that old gym membership, to signing up for new classes, to simply being more present in ourselves and kinder to others. (And don’t forget self-submitting and giving yourself every opportunity to get cast!)

But one thing we could all probably use is a new set of headshots. Let’s face it: most actors keep using the same old tired headshots for far too long, the result of a deadly combination of inertia and avoiding shelling out the funds necessary for a good headshot photographer.

Of course, we have to remember that headshots are an investment, the exact opposite of lost money; they are the calling card we use in order to get auditions, and therefore book roles and therefore MAKE money! So skimping on headshots is a mistake that can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you have no money to spend on new headshots maybe it’s because you haven’t spent any money on new headshots so you can look your best and book roles–and get paid!

At any rate, if you’re going to make that kind of investment, you want to get the most out of it possible. Do make sure you thoroughly research the photographer you’re thinking about hiring, making sure they are experienced in headshots specifically. But also, here are some tips for how you can help yourself to look your most relaxed and let your genuine self come out in your next headshot session!

1. This Is Only An Exercise

One great approach an acting coach gave me years ago was to treat a headshot session as an acting exercise rather than a photo session. Get out of the mental state of the result being a series of distinct static photos, and think of the afternoon as a period of time in which to stretch your acting wings. This lends it a bit of fluidity, as well as a different kind of energy altogether. Warm up as you would before a class or a show, stretch, do vocal warm-ups–the whole nine yards. If you’re the type of actor who warms up to a playlist, get out your headphones and get your groove on ahead of the shoot. Just as occurs with performing on film or on stage, you WILL warm up; whether you do so before you’re performing or during the actual performance itself is up to you.

2. Objectives

So go into the shoot with some objectives, and perhaps some different basic characters in mind. Treat the camera as another character: do you want to get him or her to back down from a fight? Do you want to seduce him or her? Do you want to convince him or her that you are trustworthy? Any and all of these–and many more–can be useful looks to bring out your best in a headshot. In this sense we bring a genuine acting flow to a headshot session rather than trying on Derek Zoolander’s Blue Steel for a static–and awkward–moment in time.

3. Engage Engines

So if we’re treating this as an acting exercise, it’s important to engage with the camera as though it were a person, right? And what do we do with other people, more than anything else in the world? No, not that. We talk to them! So, as weird as it sounds–and please prepare your photographer for this in advance–you might try engaging with the camera as if it were a person. That is to say, talk a bit every now and then, say something in character that you would want to put across to the other imagined character. “I trust you.” “I want what’s best for you.” “You’re not going to beat me.” Whatever fits the objective you’re currently playing. Putting those thoughts and feeling into words really helps to create a feedback loop between mind and body that will lend an additional layer of truth to your performance. Not only that, also look at the camera the way you look at people. Staring down the barrel of the lens just ends up looking like you’re a creepy stalker, or as if you’re terrified. In a normal conversation, we engage with our eyes and then look away; we smile, we shift our gaze from eye to eye. A huge mistake with headshots is treating the camera like it’s going to cease to function correctly if you ever dare to avert your eyes. So it’s also important that you…

4. Don’t Wait For The Click

Cameras these days and the skilled photographers who operate them can capture micro-moments of infinitesimal time. This isn’t one of those silver-oxide photos from the Old West where people had to sit stock-still for ten minutes in order to capture the image. You can move around, you can shift your weight, you can turn your head, you can smile, or don’t smile–whatever strikes your fancy. In other words, it’s okay to behave like a human. Your photographer will probably give you prompts if he or she sees something that looks like an intriguing path to follow, but for the most part plan on just being you. And so…

5. Please Don’t Hold Your Breath

Of course you’re going to be motionless from time to time, but in so doing don’t make the mistake of holding your breath. It makes you look stiff, terrified and wholly unnatural. Imagine you’re with a friend having a coffee and a conversation; you may sit still for a time, but you’re still relaxed and you’re still going to be breathing–one hopes. Certainly your friend and the barista hope so.

The more you prepare for a session as if you were getting ready for a performance, the more the real you is going to come across. The most important factor in taking genuine, warm, relatable headshots that really capture you’re true self is that you have fun while doing it!

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