Actor Headshot Tips: Commercial Vs. Theatrical/Legit Headshots

For both beginning and seasoned actors, a great headshot can make a huge difference in getting a casting director interested in casting you for a role. In my opinion, an actor headshot serves a very simple purpose: It’s a visual tool that helps get you work. It should reflect your personality, how you fit into a role, and, while not as important, show how amazing you look. An acting headshot isn’t meant to be a vanity piece. It needs to do one thing and do it effectively: help get you work.

Now, there are two different types of actor headshots: commercial and theatrical/legit. To help you better understand them and focus your headshot session, I’ve decided to go a bit more in-depth about what they are and the differences between them.

Commercial Headshots

 Commercial Headshot of Actress Katherine - Notice the lighter colored wardrobe. White tops are great for commercial headshots.

Commercial Headshot of Actress Katherine - Notice the lighter colored wardrobe. White tops are great for commercial headshots.

 Commercial Headshot of Actor Max - He's rocking grey here but it works with the young college guy look he's portraying.

Commercial Headshot of Actor Max - He's rocking grey here but it works with the young college guy look he's portraying.

There are a few definitions out there, but the general consensus is that a commercial headshot is one meant to appeal to the advertising industry. Advertisers love warm, friendly, and trustworthy people to help sell their products hence commercial headshots generally being linked to featuring smiles. You normally won’t see actors frowning or looking too serious in a commercial headshot. The typical commercial headshot features a great smile, soft colors, and flattering lighting void of shadows. Think Old Navy commercial. Although you’ll often see other character types in commercials (thugs, femme fatales, shifty criminal types), the image a casting director is looking to see is smiley and bright. That is usually what sells as far as getting commercial work regardless of the character type or concept of the commercial.

In terms of wardrobe, dark colors are often avoided. Blacks and grays don’t work as well for a commercial headshot. White, bold pops of color, and even some simple patterned shirts can work well. In a studio, the backdrop can be any color, but if shooting on location, you’ll want a background that reflects the vibe of the photograph. You typically wouldn’t want a grungy urban background for a smiling, fun commercial headshot. 

Theatrical/Legit Headshots

 Theatrical Headshot of Actor Janina - Melancholic/Tragic Character Type

Theatrical Headshot of Actor Janina - Melancholic/Tragic Character Type

 Theatrical Headshot of Actor Jeffrey - Law Enforcement Character Type

Theatrical Headshot of Actor Jeffrey - Law Enforcement Character Type

A theatrical/legit headshot tends to be the one most actors want if they're looking to perform in film, a television series, or theater production. This type of headshot usually shows off your type (guy next door, businesswoman, doctor, FBI agent, etc.) and aims to show casting directors how you’re the perfect fit for the role. Theatrical/legit headshots tend to be a bit more emotive, going beyond your typical smile as in the commercial headshot. You’ll often see intense, serious looks (action/adventure character types), sad, reflective looks (tragic protagonist, period piece character types), quirky looks (comedic character types) and more.

You'll also notice there’s a bit more leeway in terms of expressions. It doesn't always have to be serious. A smile may be the best fit for the character type you’re trying to portray. For example, a quirky, clumsy young woman in a romantic comedy may come across better with a smile versus a melancholic expression. Wardrobe and styling can also aid in presenting the character type the best way. A vintage top may work well if you’re trying to play an ingénue character in a period piece. You wouldn’t see this type of wardrobe choice for a commercial headshot.

What If I You Don't Know Your Type Yet?
If you’re just starting out and are unsure of your character type, you can feel free to experiment. However there is a third type of headshot that tends to be popular here in New York. I call it the “this is me” headshot. This sort of headshot doesn’t necessarily reflect a character type and is more about you yourself. It’s a good general headshot that works for a variety of applications and is a good start for many actors.

In my professional opinion, I’d still suggest focusing in on something specific. Even if you don’t know your type, think about the type of roles you want to play. Try to portray that in your headshot. At least give casting directors something to go on beyond “this is me”. Just showing who you are may not be enough to create interest for a casting director.

Selecting The Right Headshot Package

 Commercial Headshot of Actor Sofie - Notice the smile and bright lighting.

Commercial Headshot of Actor Sofie - Notice the smile and bright lighting.

 Theatrical/Legit Headshot of Actor Sofie - Notice the intense expression and dramatic lighting.

Theatrical/Legit Headshot of Actor Sofie - Notice the intense expression and dramatic lighting.

For a long time, I’ve done 1-Look headshot packages for those who just wanted one simple look. But I’ve found that this underserves my clients. Most clients, especially actors, need to show a range of looks. I’ve now switched to 2-Looks being the minimum package that I offer. Actors usually want both a commercial and theatrical/legit headshot so this change covers that. For a simple 2-Look Session you'll want The Standard Package. If you need to show even more range or looking to build a comp card, then The Pro Package is right for you.

Whatever package you choose, make sure you consider the different type of headshots and the direction you’re steering your career. It’s generally best to do both and it’s always great to have options for your final headshots.

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