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The Green Room: What makes a good headshot?

Photos: Shutterstock

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​


Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

John Pepper is 31 and for the past 10 years has worked as an actor in regional theatres, the National and in radio, television and film

Adam Lovett, 45, has appeared in Oscar-winning films, on TV and in theatre at the RSC, National Theatre, and the West End

Rosemary Crackers is 50 and has worked extensively in TV, film and theatre for nearly 30 years

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances

Peter Quince, 72, works in theatre and television

Jenny Talbot is 39 and has 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with occasional forays into TV, film and plays


Adam It must look like you. I mean, that’s all of it, isn’t it? Not a flattering pic, or you at your best. The most accurate representation of you. Closest to what you’ll look like when you walk through the door.

Rosemary Someone else’s face. And eyes. Good eyes.

John It must be relatively neutral but engaging.

Albert Too many young actors want headshots that make them look like actors, rather than a picture that says hello. It’s your intro to someone to get you in the room.

Adam It should capture something of who you are. Some of the more famous photographers create this sort of bland, washed-out look that doesn’t do the actors any favours.

Albert Whole years at drama schools are sent to the same photographer, with all the students sucking the same lemon.

Vivian I do get sick of being able to spot the photographer before the actor.

Adam There is one photographer who everyone loves, and what he does to eyeballs is insane. He just whitens them to the most brilliant white and it looks crazy.

Pete Look interesting rather than glamorous. But I suppose if you’re young and pretty that might not be true.

Adam I’ve always fallen into the character bracket, so I don’t need to look pretty.

Vivian My agent laughs when I call him and ask whether it’s time for new headshots. “Gosh, are you at that stage already? Don’t worry, meetings will come in.” It’s something I always think about when I’m not working.

Adam Has anyone ever had an experience of getting new photos done and then seeing a significant uptick in castings because of it? I am genuinely curious, because that’s what we all want.

JonI got a career-changing job about six weeks after changing photos, but I’m pretty certain it was a coincidence.

Vivian I have. About eight years ago I got new ones done that were more ‘pretty’ and I definitely saw an increase in meetings, I’m sorry to say. But the reward for being ‘aesthetically pleasing’ is a real thing. Casting is the root cause of lack of representation and diversity on our screens and stages.

JonThere’s that old gag about agents and casting directors going through a pile of photos and saying: “Ugly… ugly… ugly… possible… ugly…”

Albert I once directed a play and the star sat in on the castings. He held up photos at arm’s length so he could see the door and the photo and then burst out laughing on several occasions at the difference between the actor and the photo.

Rosemary What a **** that star is.

John Agreed.

Adam Thirded.

Albert A photo should say hello in the way that you might catch someone’s eye across the room at a networking occasion. Some people look so ferocious in their pics that you wouldn’t go near them with an armed guard.

Adam It’s like networking in the sense that it’s a bit of a dark art: we’re not sure if it actually makes a difference, but we want to give ourselves the best shot.

JonI always overcompensate and try to look serious and vulnerable and amused and approachable and slightly wry and intelligent and kind, all in the same awkward facial expression.

Rosemary My photo sort of says “fuck you”. It has done me no harm.

Peter A photographer I know used to say: “Challenge the camera. Tell it to fuck off.” It often worked.

Adam I know one who says he gets the best shots in between when the actors are posing.

Rosemary If I did a pouty face, I would have to go home afterwards and flay myself.

John This may sound stupid, but remember to look at your headshot if you haven’t for a while – remind yourself what you are supposed to walk in as.

JonI’m sad that black and white pictures have gone out of fashion. They are far more flattering.

Adam The obvious is also worth saying: never get your mate to take it – the one who says he can save you a ton of money and do one just as good as the pros.

Albert Would you get a mate to mend your sink because he says he can do it better and save you money, or would you get a plumber? Get a photographer whose work you can look at and talk to them first. I hate the way the internet has stopped people having pre-session chats with the photographer. Some photographers will only take your booking online and you don’t get the chance to sound them out.

Rosemary Usually, your agent will suggest a good one. They have a good idea of your casting.

Jenny I detest having my headshots taken, and even worse having to stare at myself a bazillion times to choose them afterwards. That said, after so many years in the biz, I think I’m becoming immune to it and just get it done. Embracing my age is a good thing. I’m always tempted to go for the additional charge of a stylist, but I never do.

Peter And make sure you consult before making your choices. You’re not the best judge.

John Yeah, an honest opinion is good. Don’t just ask your mum.

Jenny I’m much better at picking others’ headshots than my own. When friends put choices on Facebook and ask you to pick, that’s always so easy, but my own vanity gets in the way of my choice I suppose.

Adam Your agent is the best judge. Photos are really for the agent. He or she is the one using them with suggestions, so they should feel the most confident about them.

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