Robert Green standing in front of white photo backdrop in CLI studios, two people in foreground

Tips for a Great Headshot

Have you seen the screen tests of an old Hollywood starlet, like Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn before? Picture it now: the grainy film and the iconic actor smiling and interacting with the camera, looking effortlessly charming and photo-ready. These screen tests were the footage casting would take before filming began on set to see how an actor would do on camera. Casting teams still do screen tests, but they now have another important window into seeing how an actor will look on camera: The Headshot.

Since this picture might be the first and last thing the casting team sees when making their decisions, you want to make sure you look professional, you stand out, and that you look like yourself.

So, how can you achieve all of that in your next photo shoot? Let’s find out!

Get Clear About What You Need

What kind of jobs are you looking for? What kind of headshots do you like? Do you have an agent? If so, have you spoken to them about what kind of headshots you need?

In a headshot, a casting agent needs to be able clearly see who you are and what you look like on camera. In a headshot, you look directly at the camera with a smile (or a smirk, or smoulder, or similar expression) and present your energy. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s a simple photo, by any means. 

There are commercial headshots, which are your basic, brightly lit, solid colors and simple hair and makeup type of headshot. It’s also common for dancers going for music video gigs to have an “edgy” shot which shows more personality and may be full body. You can also take full body fitness/dance shots, which are sometimes asked for, and can be helpful if you are applying to actual fitness jobs as well.

Brian Friedman covers half of face with hat. Orange background.

If you have friends in the industry that have had good experiences with their headshots, or have seen pictures you like on someone’s instagram, search around to see who took those photos. If you ask enough dancers in your social circle, chances are you’ll find a few photographers people use and like.

If you have an agent, they can advise you based on what they know about you and the industry as far as wardrobe, photographers, and when you should update your photos. 

Once you have a photographer, it’s up to you to communicate what type of pictures you are looking for. Early communication with your photographer can also help you decide what to bring to the photoshoot and if you should book a hair or makeup stylist for your session.

Bring Many Wardrobe Options!

The rule of headshots, as explained by dance photographer Lee Gumbs in our Tips For a Great Headshot video, is that you can never bring too many outfit options. Truly!  

You’ll want different outfits for different looks. There’s the “Disney” commercial look, which can align pretty easily with your basic headshot, but for women especially, this might also mean less makeup and brighter clothing. For an “edgy” look, you can bring more of your personality and be riskier with your fashion choices. In our Tips for a Great Headshot video, Robert Green chooses a multi-colored large collared jacket with a low-neck black tank top. This outfit matches his personality, his choreographic style, and represents him in the type of role he wants to be booked in.

Teddy Forance sitting on a chair at the beach in wake of waves

Lee also suggests that pastels may not be the best choice, as they can get blown out pretty easily by the strong flash on the cameras. Primary colors are the safest bet. Patterns are ok if they are not crazy bold, as you want the strongest presence in the photo to be your smile!

Hair and Makeup

Like your wardrobe, there are guidelines for what you should do with your hair and makeup, but at the end of the day, it’s a very personal choice on how you want to be represented in your headshot.

A general rule for hair and makeup is that it should be something between stage makeup and a natural makeup look. You want your features to be highlighted on the camera, but you don’t want to be hidden in heavy eyeliner or fake eyelashes. Heavy eyeliner in particular can make you look older on camera, and sparkly bronzers or eyeshadows are often a no-go as well. 

This is where communication with your photographer will come in handy, however, as they will be able to advise you on their shooting style and what does and does not work. Also, photographers often have a list of hair and makeup professionals they work with so that you don’t have to worry about it yourself.

It’s a good idea to vary your hair and makeup with your different looks. For your commercial look, simpler makeup and hair will work, but for an edgy full body look, you can wear a hairstyle that makes you feel confident and cool.

Confidence is Always Key

Marguerite Derricks sitting on a fancy silver chair wearing all black white background

Above everything else, being confident throughout your shoot will have the biggest impact on how your photos turn out. You can have the best outfits, super cool professional hair and makeup, but if you don’t show up confident in who you are and what you have to show (and if you don’t try and fake it either!) you won’t end up with stellar photos.

Lee explains that a headshot session is ultimately a collaboration. If you are giving your all, even if giving your all means doing things wrong, then the photographer can clearly see how he can help you out, and you will most likely end up with awesome photos. If instead, you are timid and worried about how you look, not being your full, amazing self, the photographer can’t read what your personality is, what poses you’ll look best in, and won’t be able to help you.

Trust the Photographer!

Just like you have an eye for dance that your non-dancer friends don’t have, the person taking your photos knows what will work on camera, and what won’t. Both of you want to end up with great looking photos, so trust that when the photographer says “chin down, take your hands out of your pockets, and relax your shoulders” that he or she knows a thing or two about what will make you look best on camera.

Of course, know that you deserve to be heard in a shoot as well, and if there is anything you are uncomfortable doing, or think will not represent you accurately, speak up! Overall though, if your photographer has taken headshots before, it’s a good idea to take their lead in regards to poses, outfits, and hair and makeup suggestions.

JBlaze headshot wearing red hat in front of yellow background smiling holding his sunglasses to his face

Headshots are a big part of getting booked, and as such, there is a range of opinions on what works and what doesn’t. It’s fairly agreed upon that a commercial headshot should face the camera with a smile and a non-distracting outfit and background, and that an edgier shot can involve some more pizazz, but apart from that, it’s up to you, your possible agent, your photographer, and your future self who has already booked the job to figure out how you want to look in your headshots. 

Walking into your headshot session with as much confidence and trust in yourself and the photographer as you can muster will lead to an awesome round of headshots, guaranteed!

You can get more dance industry tips for auditions, agency relationships, headshots, and more with a CLI membership!

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