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Headshots – an Actor’s Calling Card

In business, there is no tool more valuable than the perfect card. Companies have been known to spend small (and not so small) fortunes having artwork drawn up and cards produced. For something so little that it fits in your wallet, there are an awful lot of decisions to be made – full colour or monochrome? Glossy or matt? Sleek or sketchy? Graphic and linear or fussy and swirly? Single or double sided? And all that is just for starters.

In recent years, the UK has begun to acknowledge Acting as a business instead of something altogether more flighty. The term ActorPreneur, unsurprisingly coined in the USA, is one I learned eight years ago while attending my course in Los Angeles. The first seminar during enrolment week was led by the founder of the school, Alan Nusbaum. He enlightened us all with his perception of our industry, and the professionalism required to succeed within it. At 27, it was the first time – not counting my family’s support – I had been told that my chosen path was valid. Alan talked to us all about our forthcoming programme of study, explaining that a proportion of the course would be dedicated to learning about The Business of Acting.

In 2008, people weren’t talking about such things in the UK. People talked about having the right agent and being in the right place at the right time. They spoke of training and experience and industry know-how, all of which are still very important. However, there was something incredibly empowering about being taught how to promote ourselves as the businesses that we wanted to become. That is the essence of being an ActorPreneur.

Of course, since then there have been numerous books published on the topic – how to become one, how to succeed as one, how to be happy as one. Also since then, the concept has crossed the pond to our side, with more and more Drama Schools building course components around the business elements of this cut-throat industry.

By this point you may have joined the dots and realised the parallel I am drawing between an Entrepreneur’s business card, and an ActorPreneur’s headshot. The headshot becomes the card; an actor’s calling card.

My time as a Drama student in Los Angeles taught me many valuable and unforgettable lessons. I had never understood the importance of picking the right photographer until the shoot I booked in Burbank. We were encouraged to browse the galleries of several reputable photographers, making comparisons in terms of angles, lighting, backdrops, exposure and frame size. It was all Greek to me to begin with; they all looked like good photos of very pretty people. That said, I did eventually grasp what the American Casting Directors meant when they said they wanted to see a headshot that makes the actor’s eyes pop.

I have had several photo shoots since, though I have to admit, none with quite the same novelty value. I won’t tell the tale again, but nothing strips away the glamour of Acting nearly as efficiently as a shoot on which your wardrobe changes take place in a multi-storey car park pay-point alcove, and your make up adjustments are made in the boot of a 4 wheel drive vehicle. Oh, and did I mention that your backdrops were alleyways and corrugated iron lock-up doors and even the aforementioned multi-storey car park itself?

I have liked all the people I have been photographed by, and they have each produced nice pictures. But a winning headshot is more than just a nice picture. It is impossible to define the qualities needed for a headshot to have the wow-factor, but you know when it has it. As a regional actor, one of the big decisions to make is whether or not to travel down to the big smoke, where skilled industry photographers are ten-a-penny, for a shoot. I have done that before. The truth is, it didn’t guarantee me the shots I needed to get noticed. In reality, those particular shots didn’t get me through very many doors at all.

This time around, with my three year interruption to Acting finally coming to an end, it has never felt quite so important to make the right choices. My new headshots mark the return to the path I never meant to veer off for longer than a few days. They mark a return to where I want to be.

Having trawled the internet with my agent, emailed various photographers for quotes and information, and stared at far too many strangers’ ten by eights, my session was, at last, booked. Scheduled for the same day that most teachers would be embarking on Inset sessions, LovelyMan and I would take a day trip together to Chester where Tony Blake Photography was based. With an overnight bag stuffed full of potential outfit changes, my almost redundant hair straighteners and the make up to achieve the most barely there look, I arrived outside the beautiful character building at the bottom of the main shopping street in Chester.

As per the instructions in my e-mail, I dialled Tony’s number to alert him to my early arrival. As I pressed call, a cheerful gentleman coming from the right, supermarket bag in hands, dipped into his jeans’ pocket with a smile. “I think you might be calling me,” he said as he drew nearer. Sure enough, this was Tony. Kissing LovelyMan goodbye, I was immediately relieved of my bag by the chivalrous Tony, and led upstairs to his studio floor.

Taking me into the dressing room, Tony apologised profusely for “not being organised” which was completely unnecessary, particularly as I had arrived almost fifteen minutes early. As he set the space beneath the mirror up for me – I should actually add that the space looked beautiful as it was. Tony was simply rearranging the hair and beauty products he generously provides for clients to use, and making sure everything was laid out as it should be. So, while he busied himself with that, we laughed about the Type A nature of so many creative individuals. I immediately felt at home!

The first thing Tony did, was show me around his amazing gem of a studio. It is everything I love about quirky period buildings, with its wonky floors, huge windows and exposed wood. As we wandered round, Tony explained how he uses the windows to make the most of the natural light offered up by the day. He talked me through his ways of manipulating it with clever kit, creating the best set-up for his shots. The passion he spoke with, filled me with enthusiasm, leaving no space for the awkwardness sometimes felt in the lead-up to a headshot shoot. Back in the dressing room, over a lovely cup of herbal tea (minus the herbal teabag, but it was a mean cup of hot water) we discussed what I wanted from the shoot. Tony perused my wardrobe choices, hanging the photo-worthy items on the costume rail, all the while buzzing about our shoot. By the time he left me to get ready for the first set of snaps, I realised that I felt more relaxed than I ever have at the start of a headshot session. That had to bode well.

I can honestly say, the couple of hours that followed just flew by. I felt comfortable from start to finish, which is a rarity on a headshot shoot. I know it is a surprise for a lot of people to know, but actors are at home in role; we feel comfortable in the spotlight when we are not having to be ourselves. The prospect of having to stand, sit or pose in front of a camera without the security of a character mask, is enough to make most of us clench every muscle from the deepest points within. It is inevitable that the resulting headshots are often less flattering than we would hope, occasionally capturing little of our personality, rarely making our eyes pop.

This time was different. Maybe it was the fact that Tony talked to me throughout, praising me and encouraging me, sharing anecdotes and talking me through the tweaks he was making to our backdrops as the shoot progressed. He showed me the pictures on the camera screen as we went along, checking I was happy with the direction we were going in, making me feel more in control of the shoot. He played music into the studio, plied me with hot and cold water, and was happy for me to take my shoes and socks off and pad around like the barefoot beach bum I dream of being.

I think it was a combination of all of the above. I felt like me, so I behaved like me, so I looked like me. Perhaps the most important thing of all, is that Tony never asked me to pose. He simply positioned me on a spot, asked if I was happy to stand, then instructed me in terms of angles only. The rest just happened.

Needless to say, I left with a buzz, feeling genuinely excited about seeing my pictures. Tony was great to work with after the shoot as well. He had the proofs ready for me super speedily, in time for a meeting in London with my agent. He made the adjustments and cropped my chosen shots almost immediately, and was ready to make further changes had I asked for any.

I suppose the most important thing to tell you, is that my agent and I are both delighted with the shots. I honestly never like pictures of myself, so to be able to look at these ones and think that each says something about who I am, makes me feel pretty comfortable with my choice of photographer.

Just in case anyone thinks me suddenly vain, let me clarify – loving my new photos does not mean I love my face. But if a headshot is an actor’s calling card, there wouldn’t be much point in using someone else’s face.

So, to Tony Blake, I say a huge thank you! And to anyone looking for a photographer who won’t break the bank, but who will help bring out the best in his subjects, look no further than Chester

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