Creating Characters within Portrait Photography
Nailing your type in your actor headshots
Headshots and portraits are not just about pretty images or beautiful people. Stories and characters create great portraits, and a compelling portrait has something more to say.
Particularly for actor headshots, the character that you portray in your headshot is incredibly important. That’s why I encourage actors to dive into understanding their personal brand and ‘type’ before we even get to the session.
Knowing what you are most likely to be cast for (and want to be cast for) is vital in going into your shoot. It will help guide you through what to wear, colours and styling, and poses and expression. As a photographer, when I know this information I can also give advice on backgrounds/setting, colours and lighting.
Over the years I have worked with many actors and explored various ways to capture different styles of portraits and headshots, as well as explore various characters and emotions through mood, clothing, pose, and lighting.
There is something about long sleek hair and elegance, isn’t there?
I wanted to explore capturing a feminine portrait, and Mady was a perfect subject. Her hair is seriously envy-inducing. That is her natural colour too!
In this studio shoot I utilised a dark blue background to contrast against the red of her hair. These colours are complimentary on the colour wheel, so I knew immediately that they would work in the shot. Her choice of clothing is simple and does not distract. The gentle fall of her hair feels ethereal, and this helps with the overall feel of the shot – it isn’t perfect, but it feels natural.
The rest of the shot is tied together by her clothing.
The red of her skirt creates an earthy palette to compliment her hair and the dark shade of her lips. There are only a few colours in this shot – it keeps it simple and cohesive. The colour in a portrait can make a huge impact.
She is posed gently, and I manipulated the light to be quite soft, and targeted to her. Immediately we are drawn to her softness and elegance. She stands out in this image, and to date it is one of my favourite images that I have photographed.
Getting a range of headshots to show your characters:
Often when I worked with actors and actresses, we create images that fall across multiple types and characters. Sometimes our portfolios consist of 6-10 strong images that convey a sense of character and allow the actor to show their entire range. This gives great opportunities to have different images that can be used to apply to different castings.
I worked with actress Gab, who brought lots of outfits to the session. The more options we could look at and discuss the better! We aimed to get a couple of looks and moods, so she could target different characters that may come up in various roles and auditions.
Gab knows she’s often cast as a stronger female, and often the bully or antagonist. We created a lot of headshots that spoke to that powerful character, and showed her strength in these characters. On the other hand, we also played with softer, relaxed and calm characters to convey that girl next door, best friend or romantic lead character.
We achieve this with a mixture of outfits, lighting and background colour/setting.
Relaxed, Happy & Bubbly Characters:
Not all actor headshots need to be serious. In fact, it’s always a good idea to capture a happy, smiling, bubbly image to put into your portfolio. Having a happy image covers you for the commercial side of acting as well as those happy roles as well.
You can convey happy quite easily through expression, and it’s best to try and capture authentic smiles. Engage in conversation and don’t hold it for too long. Have a laugh (or fake laugh), to get some variation, and try different smiles (teeth vs no teeth).
When conveying a happy and bubbly character, make sure that you also consider the rests of the image (not just your expression). Your outfit, styling and setting contribute vastly to the overall image. I love bubbly images with vibrant colours and open lighting (nothing too shadowy). It really helps create that enthusiasm you’re looking for.
Simple changes to outfit and pose are a way to contribute to characters and vastly change up a look of a shot. Even if you have a plain studio background on each image, a shot with a bright background vs a shot with a dark background can create two different looks.
Nailing the serious shots
Serious expressions in actor headshots are popular across the industry. When thinking about characters, a natural expression can be a gentle all-rounder primary headshot that can be used for multiple roles.
But what about the serious roles?
I’ve worked with Ben a couple of times. He often plays the villain, and works in a lot of darker film and sci-fi. When we created his latest actor headshots, we wanted to be creative with lighting and background to set a scene. We then worked on getting his expression just right.
Ben is a natural at getting into Character, and he doesn’t take the process lightly. I can see his intent and focus as we work together, and it’s evident he understands his types well. In this headshot, we captured him in thought – in his own space and zone.
It’s Okay To Ask:
Sometimes asking friends to help is a great way to improve your own work. If you are a photographer and need posing practice, finding someone who can benefit from the photos is a great plus, and will make the shoot SO much more enjoyable. This applies for other areas too – having someone to help, bounce ideas off, and get you feedback is a fantastic way to increase confidence for your (eventual) professional work.
See some more of my studio headshot and portrait work here.
Julia Nance is a headshot and portrait photographer based in Melbourne, Australia. Her vibrant creativity is inspired by her experiences. From photographing whales underwater to travelling in Europe. With a vast background in a range of photographic areas, it is Julia’s natural ability to connect with her subjects that ultimately drew her to the art of portraiture.
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