Jan 06

Words & Faces: how your brief changes your headshots

Looking at how two very different clients on one morning reveal some headshot insights: exactly how an actor’s brief, needs and ideas mesh with a photographer’s eye and skills to take you both to new places.

Rose Shalloo and Chris Charles; shots taken about 45 minutes apart

Not long before Christmas, I had a pleasure of a morning shooting with two actors, Chris Charles (with Byron’s Management) and Rose Shalloo (with BWH Agency).

Both came in to the studio on ‘The Pro’ shoots, the 1.5 hr headshot sessions I offer that tend to suit actors with some stills experience, and/or a fairly clear sense of what casting ideas they want their headshots to reflect.

Fine Folks, Refined Ideas

Chris and Rose are lovely people, with interesting looks, not to mention doing well as actors, so it made for an absorbing 3 hrs of back-to-back shooting.

But that could describe plenty of mornings; I’m lucky enough to have a lot of nice and very varied clients.

I decided to write about this particular morning because it concretely illustrates some quite refined ideas about how as a photographer I have to be on my toes with my technical skills, and respond to each client as unique, but also how the input & experience of, AND brief from, an actor can just as important for a successful shoot.

The Photographer’s-Eye View

Showing facial structure with added light on a lighter dark skin tone

As a photographer, it was a pretty perfect morning. Part of the pleasure of headshots is meeting someone for the first time and working out how best to shoot them, and these were two especially nice people and two pleasurable technical asks.

I love shooting the many subtle varieties of dark skin. Whether composed of browns verging on black, richer browns or lighter tan shades; you can often hit dark skin with light – almost paint out the structure of the face – in a way that lighter skin tones – be they Caucasian or Asian- can’t always handle.

And like most photographers, I love shooting ginger hair; whether fiery red, coppery, or softer auburn. It’s dramatic, it’s colourful, it carries echoes of Pre-Raphaelite art and it grabs the eye.

Trying to show skintone and auburn hair colour accurately with natural light

So left to my own devices, I would have thought about getting the right degree of warmth in Chris’ skintone, while showing the structure and physical strength of his face (perhaps with hard studio light), giving as much of a sense of his physicality through posture, and composition, as is possible in a head-and-shoulders headshot.

For Rose, I would have focused on a true capture of her auburn hair, that mixes browns and reds, while also capturing an accurate sense of the delicate whites and reds in her skintone, making sure not to blast away her freckles with light. For me, an instant decision would have been to use natural light for that job.

What the client needs

Shooting this way, effectively led by me, is one way to get a range of shots. Ideas of character or casting type tend to emerge as you shoot and review. Sometimes, especially, though not only, at the start of a career that’s the best way to shoot.

But I often find a shoot goes further, faster when I’m squaring my take with what the client needs. It can be tough to articulate who you are, or what you need as an actor, but it’s never wasted effort as far as I’m concerned.  Even just a handful of adjectives can be a useful shared idea: poetic, brave, dark, heavy.

Both these experienced actors had clear ideas:

Chris: had good existing headshots that showed his harder side and was getting a lot of tougher, antagonist roles and auditions, be it high status villainous types or more edgy ‘badlads’. He was keen to keep a sense of physical strength and status, but make these shots warmer and more ‘leading man’, with the aim of seeking a broader span of TV/film work and shooting for the US market

Based on the sorts of casting she was getting, Rose and her agent had decided that they now needed shots to emphasise the younger end of her playing range. She’d been getting a number of castings for Period drama and for roles that were more vulnerable, so we needed to cover that base, but also offer a more modern version of ‘young’. Plus we were under strict instructions to show her freckles off in full.

Making the abstract concrete

It might sound like a lot of ideas to stuff into 1.5 hours apiece, but just having those ideas floating around helped pin down all sorts of practical choices about things like top, hair, background, quality of lighting and pose/posture.
And it also helped hugely with less precisely definable choices like the sorts of thoughts to think while shooting, or the ‘feel‘ I was aiming for as Rose and Chris made subtle acting changes in-shoot.

You can judge for yourself whether we were successful, but I hope unpacking the two shoots next to the end results helps you see how my ideas met their needs and skills as performers.

And more generally: how a photographer’s instincts and ideas can meld with an actor’s objectives and brief to take you both to new places.

MW 06/01/2017


Soft natural light for earnest classic ‘main’ headshot, freckles showing and collarbone prominent; hair on temples makes for very slightly ‘older’ look


Natural/studio mix with warmer background. Hair off ear and lighter thoughts for younger playing range option

Classic/modern fusion: natural light with strong studio mix. Matching top with hair up and off-one-shoulder, and light thought to suggest classic, youthful and contemporary

Pure outdoor natural light with strong contrast, warmer version of Chris ‘hard man’ casting with bold colour choice of top. Lower neckline helps show physicality by adding in collarbone

Pure studio shot using shadow and light to emphasise structure of face shape and create a 3D feel, while fitted green top chimes with eye colour and suggests physicality. Matched with knowing thought to create strong but soft feel.

Natural and studio mix; smart blue shirt matched with backdrop for slightly more professional / middle class feel. Angled address to camera, softens body shape and shows facial structure as defined but with softer shapes

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