Steven Sabel's Twist on the Trade: A Head Above The Rest

Steven Sabel


Most head shots are horrible. Mine is. My headshot is a perfect example of a number of things that are wrong with most headshots. Before I get into all that is wrong with my headshot, and many headshots I see on a regular basis, let me give you the really lousy and lazy reasons I don't have a better headshot. I have no excuse. I know several very good photographers who take fantastic headshots, who would give me a great price for a setting session with multiple looks. I don't want to do the work. I don't want to take the time to schedule the session, choose the looks, decide a location, and drive my ass to the location to pose for photographs. I hate posing for photographs. It's a good thing then I'm not trying to build a career in front of a camera. I always laugh out loud at actors seeking film careers, who say they hate posing for pictures. It is sort of a requirement of the trade.

After the arduous work of having to pose for photos in my favorite clothes in front of cool locations, I don't want to have to filter through the scores of photos to narrow them down to the best selection. I mean, I don't want to spend that much time focused on how my own face looks on film. It's a good thing I'm not out there trying to land a national commercial. I don't want the anxiety of having to choose just one photo to be my commercial look, and one photo to be my comedy look, and one for dramas, and one for stage – it's just too much stress! Lucky for me, I'm a producer/director, and those rare times when I do get on stage or (God forbid) in front of a camera, it's for my own productions. I don't have to submit headshots to anyone…

My horrible headshot

I can actually remember the days when the industry standard was to submit hard copy black and white 8 x 10s. I remember composite cards, or “comp cards” for actors: an 8 x 10 composite of multiple black and white shots in different looks. Only print models really use them anymore. If I recall my own comp card, it contained a headshot in the center, surrounded by one shot of me as a gang member, one in business attire, one “sporty” look, and one of my silly grin with a can of generic peanuts in my hand. The goal was to get into the room by showing your various “looks.” Fast forward to less expensive color printing, and suddenly the industry standard was color 8 x 10s, and black and white comp cards disappeared. Show them that beaming white Procter & Gamble smile to get yourself a call, and bring your portfolio of looks with you in case they ask for them.

   The digital age changed everything about headshots, and I mean everything. Most importantly, digital technology has changed how producers and casting directors view headshots. It used to be that they received them in the mail in giant manila envelopes. They (or some assistant of theirs) opened the envelopes one by one, removed the contents, and immediately had your photo, your resume, and your trite little cover letter right in their hands all at once. They were seeing actors for the first time in full 8 x 10 color print, one at a time. Not anymore.

Bring on the digital thumb nail. In today's world, we view actors by the page full, all at once, sometimes as many as 20 to a page on our computer screens. When a producer or casting director sees an actor for the first time, it is in a 1 x 2 photo surrounded by 15 other people who look a lot like you. If we are looking for a very particular type, we can scroll screen after screen of tiny little faces until one catches our eye enough to actually click on it to see more. Oftentimes we simply give each face a number ranking of one through five, and then ask the software to eliminate anything that isn't a one or a two, before diving any deeper into the quest for the right actor. In most cases, an actor has already had to survive at least one or two rounds of digital elimination before anyone actually opens their profile to see their resume or other photos.

   The importance of the headshot has changed. The specifications for a good headshot that does its job, have also changed. My headshot is 10 years old. That's the first thing terribly wrong with it. Your headshot MUST be current. At this point in my life, I almost always have a beard. The only exceptions to that are when I am playing a role that requires me to be clean shaven, which isn't very often. However my age and my facial hair are not the worst parts of my old headshot. The style is completely wrong as well. There was a time in the past when headshots taken from slightly above the subject were the in thing – especially when you have a prominent Roman nose such as mine. Head shots today must be straight on. One of the important reasons for straight on photography is the ability to capture and fill the frame with your face. It is ALL ABOUT your face! If your face isn't filling the frame of your headshot, you are wasting very valuable thumbnail space with content that does not help you get past the first elimination. Here's the good news: you don't have to spend so much time trying to choose which clothes to wear in your headshot, because if there is that much of your clothing showing in your headshot, it ISN'T A HEADSHOT! Here is a good rule of thumb. Pull up a thumb nail of your headshot. Put your thumb up to the picture. If you thumb covers your entire face, then you need a new headshot.

Full bodyshots can be important to have, and you should have at least one or two in the photo gallery of your casting site profile, but never… Let me repeat, NEVER submit a full bodyshot unless you are specifically asked to. Submit a headshot, and make sure your head is the most prominent thing in the picture. Show them your face. Don't show them your fancy shirt, your favorite blouse, that cool sweater, your broad shoulders, your pronounced cleavage, or any other of your “assets.” If that's what they are looking for, they will tell you. If that's what they're looking for, and they didn't tell you, then that's probably not what you're looking for.

   I'm the first person to tell you that this is an aesthetic art. Yes, it is about how you look, and yes, your body is part of how you look. That is definitely something you need to consider when you are submitting for roles. You know if you are truly an ingénue type, hunky guy, or sexy vixen – if that's what they are looking for. If that's what they're looking for, have that available to show them in your gallery, but get their attention with your face. Ultimately it's the close-ups that will matter in the end, and any true casting director knows that the face has to come first. Show them as much of your face as you can possible fit into a thumbnail.

The days of agents, managers, producers, casting directors, and personal trainers telling actors to stay in shape are never going to end. As I said, it is an aesthetic art, but I hope the days of agents and managers telling actresses to show their cleavage or their bust line in their headshots has come to an end. That isn't how any actress wants any job to begin. “He picked out of the digital pack because he liked my bosom,” shouldn't be a thing. If they can see your bosom in the thumb nail, then your head looks like a pinky nail.

   The casting site profile gallery is the modern comp card. That's where actors need to have their “sexy” look, their business look, thug look, sporty look, serious shot, comedic shot, full bodyshot, etc. If they are interested in your face, they'll find the other photos, and hopefully your resume as well. If you're lucky, they will spend a few minutes to look at your reel.

It takes a lot to get ahead in this trade. A good headshot can give you a leg up. A poor headshot can keep you in the fringe. Just like anything else in this industry, if you want a really good headshot, you have to do the work to get the work.

Research good photographers. Actually research, as in visit their websites, look at samples of their work. A Facebook post asking friends for recommendations is something you do when you want good Chinese food, not when you are selecting something as important as this is to your future career. Have friend take some sample shots of you – even on their phone – in the type of looks you are considering, in different types of light, with different make up. Yes, I'm saying REHEARSE you photoshoot. What a novel idea. Look at the “dailies” from your practice shoot, and learn from them before you go for your actual session. Be well rested the night before your shoot. Drink tons of water – its good for your skin. East something light – it's good for your color (a little sugar in the blood). Most importantly – have fun at your shoot. Be an actor there. Do what you do. It will show through in the photos, and make the work of choosing the best shots an easier task to accomplish. When you choose the best shot, use your head.

Steven Sabel has more than 30 years experience in theatre production, including more than 20 years in production management. He is an award-winning producer and director with more than 130 successful productions to his credit. He also served for 12 years as a community journalist and newspaper editor, and he has 17 years experience as a theatre arts instructor for adult actors and younger students: His independent production company, STS Productions, has produced successful theatrical ventures in a wide variety of venues for more than 20 years. In 2010, Steven founded the Archway Theatre, where he serves as producing artistic director.
As the founding artistic director of the Redlands Shakespeare Festival, Steven managed the creation and foundation of the organization from the ground up, and served as both artistic director and executive director of the thriving organization for nine successful seasons.