Actor Headshot Tips: How Much Retouching Is Too Much?

An actor client and I recently had a great conversation in regards to retouching. The feedback she received from a casting director on her old headshot was that the retouching was way too much. She had done it herself and went a little overboard to say the least. With retouching, there’s a fine line between natural and unrealistic. With all the apps out there for quick image fixes, I’ve noticed more people taking it upon themselves to handle retouching on their images. If you know what you’re doing, then I say go for it. However, if you’re a novice, I advise against it. Don’t ruin your headshot with terrible retouching. Since I’ve been a professional photographer for 12 years, I’m a bit more aware of quality retouching when I see it. But people that aren’t behind the camera or deal with as many images as I do, may not be able to identify good/bad retouching. So hopefully in this post, I’ll help you identify some traits of a quality retouched headshot.

One of the telltale signs of bad retouching is the skin. We all have blemishes and even with makeup, a little Photoshop may be needed here and there to remove some of the troubling spots. But some people will go overboard trying to make sure their skin looks “flawless”. While you want to look “flawless” in your headshot there should be a semblance of realism. The skin shouldn’t be a blurred mess, the eyes shouldn’t be obnoxiously white, and the hair shouldn’t be smooth beyond belief without a single stray hair. With retouching it’s keeping the odd stray hair or wrinkle that makes the image look believable.

Here’s an example of a headshot I recently did, but in this example I’ve blasted it in Photoshop to provide an example of what not to do! Don’t worry, I don’t do my headshot retouching like this. Ever.

Bad Retouching - Unbelievable smooth skin, overly white eyes.

Good Retouching - Skin with detail, natural looking eyes.

If you don't have a trained eye, you may not notice the difference, but if you click on either image above and look at them larger, you'll see why the image on the right is the better of the two. Here's a zoomed in look to help you see the difference.

JW-Headshots-Bad-Retouching-Example.jpg
JW-Headshots-Good-Retouching-Example.jpg

Additionally, when having your headshots printed, you'll be able to see way more fine detail than when viewing on a computer monitor or your phone. Printing reveals flaws in retouching(and photography), so if the retouching's too much it will be very apparent in your print.

Think about it, you don't want to spend all that money on headshots only to retouch them poorly then show up in front of a casting director. They'll think you're an amateur or someone who clearly doesn't know what they're doing. Don't give them any reason to turn you away. Either have your photographer do it or hire a professional. Many printers also provide retouching services. Quality varies, but there are some reputable printers out there who do a phenomenal job in terms of retouching (Colorworks is one in NYC).

Now when it comes to photography, every headshot photographer has their own unique style and this also extends to retouching. Some are very minimal, some are a bit more heavy handed. There's no right or wrong when it comes to this, but the fact remains you should aim for retouching that's realistic and believable. Even if a photographer's work is more stylized that doesn't mean the retouching has to be poor. Also, most photographers with a unique style usually do their own retouching or work with a retoucher who understands their style. This allows them to produce quality retouching while maintaining that unique quality about their work. 

Lastly, your headshot is a headshot. It's not a beauty image. It's not meant for high-fashion or to be on the cover of Vogue magazine. Those type of images fall into a completely different category of photography with their own set of retouching expectations. A headshot serves a simple, straightforward purpose. It is made to show casting directors not just what you look like but also how you fit into the particular role you're auditioning for. It's easy to get caught up in the idea that you really need to blow people away with your headshot and that you must look "perfect". But sometimes a simple, straightforward approach sans the bells and whistles is the best way. You need to look great in your headshot, not "perfect".

So to wrap up, here's my bulleted point advice:

  • Unless you're proficient in Photoshop, don't do the retouching yourself. Let your photographer do it or hire a professional retoucher.
  • Aim for realism. No blurry skin, not crazy filters. Your headshot should look like you.
  • Keeping some blemishes present can be good to make an image a bit more believable (e.g. lines on the neck)
  • If the retouching is bad, the printing will reflect that. Don't waste money twice.

As always, the point of these posts it to help you get the most out of your headshots. Think of the process like the three points of a triangle. You want quality photography + quality retouching + quality printing to help maximize your chances of success with casting directors. Of course, you have to nail the audition, but at least you'll have the headshot part covered!

I hope you enjoyed this post! If so, give it a like or even leave a comment!