Photography: Nick Gregan
Photographers who find their passion a competitive field can always console themselves by remembering that at least they’re not actors. While everyone with a camera believes they could shoot a cover for Vogue, they aren’t all trying — and even those who don’t make it to the top can still make a living from their skills by focusing on markets smaller than the film industry. For actors, it’s Hollywood or bust and everyone is pushing for the same jobs.
But struggling actors are also an opportunity for photographers. To win parts, actors need headshots and to get those headshots they have to turn to photographers, creating a reliable stream of work at a price that ranges broadly around $225 for a two to three-hour shoot. It’s a realistically priced niche with plenty of opportunities.
Develop the Connection
Nick Gregan, for example, is a UK-based photographer who has been specializing in actors headshots for more than eighteen years. For fifteen of those, one client alone has been sending him more than 1,000 child actors to photograph every year. His typical rates are £225 ($352) for a two-hour shoot.
The shots themselves are relatively simple. At their most basic, headshots consist of a properly-lit, attractive head-and-shoulders shot. The challenge for the photographer is to develop the connection and understanding with the client that creates a similar connection between the image and the viewer.
“This is done by the eyes, they must have the wow factor, a depth of emotion, focused in the right place and finally a twinkle in them,” explains Nick.
That may be where the creativity in the shoot ends though. Headshots are fairly formulaic. They’re images shot for a purpose and provide little freedom to the photographer to play with poses. While US casting agents tend to be a little more flexible and are interested in seeing lifestyle shots that might include torso-length images of the actor laughing on a sofa or looking particularly stylish, the traditional shot is still just the head, the shoulders and nothing to interfere with the look. The photographer is free to choose the lighting, the location, the crop and the clothes but the biggest satisfaction is likely to be thrill of seeing the image open doors and create opportunities rather than turning an imaginative line into an original set of pictures. When you’re shooting an actor, Nick explains, it’s important to remember that the client is the star and the best way to get the most effective shot may well be to rein in your own creativity.
If that sounds a little frustrating at least the niche doesn’t have to be difficult to break into. Nick Gregan turned to photography at the age of 29 after working as a doorman at a luxury hotel. Initially, he shot disc jockeys and musicians but it was when he was asked to photograph an actor that his career really took off.
“His agent loved it and started sending me quite a lot of people,” said Nick. “I gradually found myself drifting into this field and enjoying it tremendously.”
More than three-quarters of Nick’s new now clients reach him through his website which he works hard to keep on Google’s first page of search results. But most of his clients come in through referrals and through a network of contacts that he’s created over the years that includes agents, colleges and casting directors. Actors also need to return for fresh photographs as the years pass, if they change their hairstyle or if they put on or lose weight. Child actors, in particular, may need new sessions as often as twice a year, giving a photographer a chance to build a relationship that lasts a lifetime.
“It’s important to many actors to feel comfortable with their photographer,” says Nick. “Once a relationship is established it’s much easier to keep in contact and check how their career is going and if my headshots are making a difference.”
From the Head Up
While launch may be slow then, a good headshot photographer should find that knowledge of his or her work spreads, bringing in new leads and new central referral points such as agencies and colleges which can send a regular and large supply of new actors to photograph.
And what then? If headshots are a little like interesting school portraits, creative photographers may want a little more from their profession. It’s a small jump from headshots to portraiture and family shots, a leap that many photographers are willing to make. Art can provide another higher risk outlet that allows the photographer to play with his or her camera while the actors pay the bills. (Nick Gregan has just completed his first exhibition of fine art nudes). But at least one other photographer has seen headshots as an opportunity that can allow him to build a reasonably large business.
Peter Hurley is a former Olympic sailor who came to photography while working as a model. The success of his own photography business led other photographers to ask about his process and marketing, and in 2007, he launched PH2 Headshot Photography. A network of associate photographers in eleven cities, including London and Rotterdam, as well as San Francisco and Washington DC, the project allows Peter to spread his brand beyond his own New York and Los Angeles bases.
Not all photographers are that entrepreneurial and not all are interested in building a business larger than their own studios. Nor are all photographers excited at the thought of spending a couple of hours creating a headshot in which the only goal is to make sure that the eyes connect through the lens. But it’s rare to find a field in which the clients are as competitive as the people they hire, the jobs are regular and the connections can pour a stream of new jobs into your studio.
“Whilst other markets are shrinking and budgets are being cut there will always be a market for actors headshots as there will always be actors entering the market,” says Nick Gregan.