WARNING: This is NOT a work of fiction. The names have been changed to protect those involved. (Also, because I’ve intentionally blocked them from my memory.)
When I moved to Los Angeles, I had a few dollars in my pocket, a job lined up, and an apartment to live in. Personally, I thought that I was ready. Boy, I was wrong.
I knew that the first thing that I would need is a headshot. After all, even in all my ignorance, I knew that I’d need a good headshot to get in the door with any Casting Director, Agent, Director, Producer, etc. I mean, how could Quentin Tarantino cast me if he didn’t know who I am?
So, I began my “research” which in those days consisted of looking at the most recent copy of Backstage West and the local newspaper. My eyes were immediately drawn to an advertisement that said “FREE SEMINAR. Meet with an Agent to discuss representation.”
This should have been Red Flag #1.
I thought to myself that I had nothing to lose, so I printed out a hard copy of a headshot that my Dad (an amateur photographer) had taken for me and submitted it along with my resume. Then, I forgot about it.
A few days later, I received a phone call setting up an interview. This agent (let’s call her Betty) had seen my materials and was eager to meet with me! I was absolutely elated. Here I was, fresh off the 405 freeway from San Diego and I was getting an interview with an actual agent! The interview was booked, and I was ready to go!
That Thursday, I arrived at a blank store front on Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks fifteen minutes before my interview time. I walked in to the space and there was a make-shift secretary table consisting of a folding table and a white plastic chair.
In retrospect, Red Flag #2
A disgruntled lady (let’s call her Maria) came out and took down my name. She seemed jaded and frustrated with something. I sat in the waiting room for about fifteen minutes in complete silence, just me and Maria. Then, a phone rang. Maria answered it and looked at me. “Betty will see you now.”
The next few minutes were a complete blur. Here was this woman, Betty, whom I had never met before, raving about my look and how I could be a great “commercial actor and model”. She talked about how I had potential to get a campaign and make hundreds of thousands of dollars and how I could have my face on billboards. Then, she told me what this company was about. Her agency was a modeling agency that had some connections to the commercial world. She suggested I get headshots that reflected that. In fact, they were going to be doing a headshot session with three photographers at this very office this weekend. She said that if I took these headshots she would love to represent me. She even had a project to submit me for this week. She said, “It’s a great deal. You’ll pay $300 and you’ll get photos for 3 different photographers.” So, being the naive newbie that I was, I said yes. I came out of my meeting excited. I took out my checkbook (which I always carried on me for some reason), and handed a check to Maria, no questions asked. Maria looked at me like I was an idiot. I didn’t care though. I was getting professional headshots!
Yep. Unhappiness should be Red Flag #3.
On Saturday, I arrived at the same hole in the wall store front with about 6 or 7 changes of clothes and a huge smile on my face. I had gotten a great night of sleep, a workout that morning, breakfast, and I was ready to go. I walked in to find a scene completely opposite of what I had seen earlier that week. There were ten or so actors, all with bags of clothes and hangers all waiting to take photos. All of them looked either nervous or disgruntled (nothing in between). I signed in with Maria again (who had the exact same look on her face) and sat down.
An hour later, I was asked to change into my first wardrobe by a sweet young lady named Helen, who couldn’t have been much older than I was. In fact, she looked like she was fresh out of high school. I didn’t know what to wear so I asked her and showed her what I had brought. Helen chose a white short sleeve button up and khakis. She was very happy and positive, and she said, “We’re just going to go outside and see what works, okay?”
White clothing for a headshot could be Red Flag #4.
Helen took me outside to a brightly painted alleyway and started snapping photos. Most them were photos from the knees up (¾ body shots) and a lot of them had my face facing away from camera either in profile or on an angle. I asked her what her background was, and she said mostly print and catalogue, and that she had just gotten out of school a few months ago.
For the types of shots, how I wasn’t facing camera, and the lack of professional experience from my photographer: Red Flags #5, #6, and #7.
I came inside after shooting with her and was quickly changed into another outfit: a black tight fitting t-shirt and jeans. This second photographer, Jim, was the opposite of Helen. He was gruff and stoic, and he told me to pose for everything. He kept saying things like, “No, that’s not it. Do something different.” I would do something different with my face, a different mannerism or adjustment and he would mumble under his breath, take 3-4 shots, and then stop. He looked disgruntled and frustrated, just like Maria had been when she checked me in. He looked like he absolutely hated his job.
Red Flag #8.
I came back inside and met with the third photographer. Betty was standing with this one and looked like she was getting ready to help, so I shrugged off my frustrations about Jim and put my focus on this session. The photographer, Chris, seemed like he knew what he was doing. He had a full set up against a white backdrop with speed lights, and a second assistant working with a bounce. Betty asked to see what I had taken shots in already. I showed her the white button up and the black t-shirt. She asked me if I had anything more formal. I showed her a few more button-up shirts along with ties and the one suit that I owned, a nice charcoal grey that I had purchased after graduating college. Betty said that she thought I needed some classy photos: something that showed off my sexy side (I am not what you would classify as a sexy model type.) She chose to stay with the white short sleeve shirt but put the grey suit over it with no tie and two buttons undone at the top of the shirt. I looked like a reject from Vince Vaughn’s Swingers crew.
For being completely off brand, Red Flag #9. For choosing the same white shirt I had used before now on a white backdrop, Red Flag #10.
So, I took the third session. There was a metal chair in front of me, that the photographer used to pose me in various positions, my hands folded together, apart, leaning on the chair etc. They suggested fluffing my hair up to make me look like an Asian Elvis and even suggested that I do some Elvis moves as poses for shots. I was having fun, but a part of me was wondering if headshots should be focused more on my…head?
When I received my photos back, they were horrendous. Here was 4 hours of my life laid out on a proof sheet. It was obvious that I looked uncomfortable in all of them. None of the shots looked like me, many them were out of focus or “too artistic”. Above all, none of them were headshots.
At the time, however, I was too ignorant to realize that I had pretty much been scammed. I was too desperate to have “professional” headshots to know what those were. There were at least 10 red flags that I should have seen going up. Why did I subject myself to that? Why did I think that THAT was the experience that I was supposed to have with headshots?
Bottom line is there are at least 10 big things to remember from my red flags. Let’s call them teaching points.
- Free doesn’t always mean good. You get what you paid for.
- A professional environment means everything: whether it’s an actual studio or your next-door neighbor: your shooting environment needs to be professional.
- Positivity is a key part of success. If the photographer or any of their staff are negative about the product, that should be a big red flag.
- Photographers should know (not guess) what is going to look good on camera.
- Professional headshots are different from body shots.
- Professional headshots will have you facing the camera.
- Professional headshot photographers specialize in just that: not fashion, not lifestyle… professional headshots.
- Communication between a professional headshot photographer and their subject is key. You should feel comfortable from start to finish.
- Headshots should be exactly what YOU expect them to be. Know your brand, communicate your brand, and don’t stray from it.
- If you’re doing multiple looks with the same professional headshot photographer, make sure they aren’t the same, including background, wardrobe, and even your expressions.
I want to believe that you all will learn from my horrible experience. Hopefully I’ve gone through this so that you won’t have to.