Headshot tips for child actors

The single most important factor in considering the types of headshot that are appropriate for children, and what’s most likely to help them get auditions, is the need to keep them as natural-looking as possible.

The selection of shots I’ve chosen here to illustrate my point are from a recent shoot that I did for The Young Actors Agency in Brighton.

In my opinion, there’s nothing worse than headshots that have been Photoshopped within an inch of their lives, and there’s nothing that irritates Casting Directors more than having someone walk into an audition who looks nothing like their casting headshot.

Headshots should be about presenting ‘the best version of yourself’ rather than ‘the person you’d like to be’, and that’s especially true for children, who are equally likely to be cast as the type of character they actually are, as for their ability to play against type.

One of the reasons it’s great to work with Jane and Louise at the YAA is their recognition of the importance of letting their young clients’ real personalities shine though in their headshots, and that directly informs their brief to me in terms of the style of shot that they ask me to create, always using a natural setting rather than the studio.

From an agency branding perspective, it makes sense for them, as it ensures that the look of their artists’ headshots are as consistent as possible, and that they are therefore more likely to be easily recognised as YAA actors.

But from the perspective of helping to get their clients auditions, there’s a huge value in going for a more naturalistic look, as it helps communicate the fact that these are real kids who appear relaxed and comfortable, rather than highly stylised stage-school divas with all the attendant tantrums and tiaras! Casting Directors have told me that getting a sense of what someone might be like to work with can sometimes be just as important as the acting experience in their résumé.

And one of the reasons that it’s a great idea to shoot children’s headshots in a natural setting, is that the kids are much less likely to feel under the pressure to perform when they’re out in the elements than when they’re under the spotlight in the studio.

As with any type of headshot, one of the most interesting challenges of these sessions is to work with the kids to draw out natural expressions - if they’re smiling, it should never be because I’ve asked them to (and certainly not because I’ve asked them to say ‘sausages’!), but because something we’re talking about has actually amused them and they’ve allowed me to capture that.

But I also love the some of the more serious expressions in the selection of images I’ve included here, where the kids are engaged with, and involved in, the whole process, rather than obviously posing for the camera. When a sitter is engaged in the headshot process, you can clearly see it in their eyes, and that in turn makes us as viewers want to engage with them.

On this shoot we shot 25 kids over 6 hours, which was actually pretty civilised compared to some shoots I’m asked to do, which can have up to 50 sitters in a day and, in the corporate world, often many more. But even with the relative luxury of having an average of around 15 minutes with each child, it’s still a fairly short amount of time in which to gain their confidence and trust, and to build a rapport that makes them comfortable enough to be themselves.

And thinking about what that means in practical terms for headshot sessions with children in general, there are some key themes which come to mind in terms of getting great results, which you’ll hopefully find useful regardless of whether you’re an agent, a parent or a professional headshot photographer yourself.

Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. A very basic point, but one that’s surprisingly often overlooked, is the need to ensure that kids are well-fed and well-rested before they come to the shoot; if they aren’t feeling at their best, they won’t give you their best, and they typically won’t make any bones about it!

  2. As for clothing - and you’ll read this in just about any tips piece on headshots that you’ll find anywhere else - keep it simple. No bright patterns, no big logos, and keep jewellery to an absolute minimum. It’s partly about ensuring that as little as possible detracts attention from the face, but for me, it’s more than that; it goes without saying that dressing up is something that most kids love, but it’s also usually strongly connected to a performance of some kind. And paradoxical as it might seem, the last thing I’m looking for from child performers in their headshots is a performance! I’m looking for them to be themselves.

  3. Even if there is limited time for each child in group sittings, make sure there’s at least enough time so that they don’t feel they have to sit down and put on their ‘camera face’ immediately; I always make a point of starting every sitting with a chat - however brief. For younger kids it might be something as simple as asking what their favourite colour is, or for teenagers it might be what role they would like to play on TV; but whatever the question, the aim is to get them out of the mindset that they are ‘on a photo shoot’ and to get them to reveal something about themselves - if they’re being themselves, that’ll shine through in their pictures.

  4. Rather than asking them to give you an expression, ask them to think about something. If you want someone to smile, ask them to think about something that makes them smile - just asking someone to smile is almost guaranteed to result in the rictus grin that haunts the average school photograph! But when you ask someone to think about something, you’ll notice that the expression starts with the eyes. In photography-speak, the importance of ‘smiling with the eyes’ is one of the oldest cliches in the book, but cliches are only cliches because they’re human truths, after all.

  5. Don’t treat children like kids! Children of all ages know instantly when you’re talking down to them and on that basis alone will decide they’re not going to play the game. I’ve found time and time again that the simplest way of engaging kids in a photo session is to talk to them about something that feels ‘grown up’ to them - I’ll often explain to them about what the lights I’m using are doing, or explain to them specifically why an expression that they are using works or doesn’t work. The easiest way of doing that is often just to show them on a monitor - once they feel that they are collaborating in the process rather than just having a camera pointed at them, they’re usually more than happy to play along.

And, for me, that last point is the key to any successful headshot session: the best results don’t come from the lighting, the direction, or the technical ability of the photographer; they come from the human collaboration between the photographer and the sitter, working together to create an image that is not only commercially impactful, but one which the sitter feels represents them as they really are. One of the best compliments I can receive as a portrait photographer is for my clients to recognise something fundamental of themselves in their photographs - and to walk away having said ‘that’s me!’

If you’d like to have a chat about my approach to headshot sessions, drop me a line at david@shootmenow.co.uk or give me a call on 07810 805 332.