Classic headshots or contemporary headshots?

Here’s a tricky one.

So, with a headshot, I guess your primary concern is whether the shot is going to generate interest in the eyes of casting directors. We want a headshot that is going to get you, at the very least, a foot in the door. You have two options you can take:

The Classic Headshot

The ‘classic headshot’ is defined here as a headshot that is specifically designed for the role you’re intending to cast for. The idea is that the casting director already sees you in character in the headshot, and so requires less imagination from them to put you in the role. The theory is that this will help you with that specific role, and if you apply for the same type of roles, you can really put these to good use.

Classic Headshot Exampl

An example of a classic headshot. Very intense and to the point, but not much use outside of that particular role.

The Contemporary Headshot

The ‘contemporary headshot’ is a bit more ‘you’. It’s you at your best, showing your character and personality in the shot. It is designed to display you as a confident, approachable person who will be easy to work with. The idea behind the contemporary headshot is that you’re appealing to casting directors on a personal level. This kind of “blank template” headshot is perhaps more multi-faceted or versatile, giving the actor a chance to put the same shot up for multiple parts.

Contemporary headshot example

Maybe not as intense as the classic “moody” headshot, but way more versatile.

Which is Best?

This is a difficult question to answer, and I guess quite subjective. With a classic headshot, you’re talking about a headshot that is tailored specifically for that particular role. Oftentimes, from a purely aesthetic point of view, a classic headshot can look a lot more intense or pleasing to the eye. If you go up for a lot of parts where you play a baddie, then the headshot of you looking sinister and dangerous could seem the best option. The casting director instantly sees how you look in the role, and as a result, so the theory goes, they will be able to better place you in the story just by looking at you. The downside is that this means you can’t use that headshot for any other types of role. If you have five other character headshots, that might seem OK, but it means the casting directors only ever see you as the part, never the actor. Also, a role is a very fluid, almost infinitely malleable concept. Your baddie might be very, very different from the script’s baddie. The character headshot, therefore, can be a risky proposition. There are, however, times when your headshot, such as the one above of Tomi May, absolutely nails everything you’d want from a classic headshot.

So what about the contemporary headshot?

OK, so the contemporary headshot is perhaps more versatile. The casting director is going to see YOU, not you in a role. The first person they’re going to meet is the actor applying for the role, and not the actor already in a part. It could be argued that this is a more confident and personal headshot, I think that’s probably the position I subscribe to. A contemporary headshot can be a lot more intimate and engaging. A contemporary headshot is perhaps more, professional, dare I say? Perhaps that’s the wrong word. A contemporary headshot, no matter what your opinion, is one that separates the actor from the role. I think this is perhaps why it’s more professional. A character headshot is selling you, not your ability to look vaguely like what the job might require. In the second shot of Tomi May, we see him looking calm, confident and relaxed. He’s a good looking guy, and at the same time, it’s not hard to picture him screwing his face up and being a bit villainous. This is the benefit of a contemporary headshot. It leaves space for the imagination.

You still haven’t told us which is best?

Hmm, fair point. I dunno which is best. I know what I prefer, and I know what I would have for myself, and that’s a contemporary headshot. I think an actor trades on their ability, obviously, but I also think there’s a hint of personality cult in there. Nobody wants to work with someone they can’t get along with, and a contemporary headshot can really tell the casting director a lot about the person that wants the job.

I look at it this way: If I’m shooting an ad for a campaign, and I’m looking for an assistant that I have to pick based on a photograph (not realistic, but this is an analogy), I’d be more inclined to see a shot of the person just looking confident and easy to work with, as opposed to a shot of them rigging up a light stand or fiddling with an image on a laptop on location. That’s how I see a headshot. Does the casting director want to see  your vague interpretation of what you think a that role looks like, or do they want to see a headshot of someone who is confident, slightly intense, focused, and at the same time, approachable?

Add to that, a contemporary headshot has more general application. It can act as a facebook profile, a LinkedIn profile, a shot for your website, or any other medium through which you promote yourself. In a contemporary headshot, you can still display the gamut of emotions that require the part, but instead of using a big leather jacket to show you as a baddie, or whatever, you instead concentrate on facial expression, which tells the casting director A LOT MORE about your ability and suitability for the role.


WIth a lot of headshot photographers, you only get a choice of two or maybe three finished images. In instances such as this, you might be better off just going all contemporary, as you don’t really have enough of a choice to work your entire range of parts in only three headshots. At London Headshots, you get six finished images, so I suppose if I were to suggest a split, I’d probably go with three contemporary headshots, and perhaps three classic headshots just  for those roles where you know it’ll help.

But I’d always, without fail, aim to put the contemporary headshots up for a casting first. It’s not a prerequisite to shoot with me if you read this blog, so keep this information in mind for whoever you shoot with.

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