The Wonderful W1

Yesterday I did some headshots for two chums of mine, David Thaxton and Nancy Sullivan. They're both fantastic actors, and have performed in some of the most prestigious shows out there, including Les Miserables and Passion, for which David won an Olivier award for Best Actor in a Musical. However it is their work outside of the West End that deserves similar recognition. W1 Workshops run workshops for young actors, whose access to high quality drama training is being checked by the spiralling cost of drama school fees (just to audition at RADA cost £90.) Their week-long intensive courses, feature tutors with a wealth of credits across TV, film and radio, Phillip Ridley is a regular contributor and their panels include agents from Grantham and Hazeldine and Curtis Brown.

The debate rages about class in the arts, and the lack of provision for those without and whilst castigating the likes of Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston seems a touch myopic, we need to ask, not who's the next Benedict Cumberbatch but rather where's the next Julie Walters coming from? Perhaps here...





Au Natural Light

Headshot photographers usually sit in two camps. Camp natural light and camp artificial/ studio light. Both have their merits, but I've always been a happy camper in the former, as is The Revenant D.O.P. Emmanuel Lubezki. In itself this is unremarkable, but choosing to shoot 90% of The Revenant entirely in natural light, is remarkable, seriously remarkable! Not least because of the constantly changing variable of natural light, but also because director  Alejandro G. Inarritu chose to film in the frozen wastes of Canada and Argentina, where temperatures dipped to a parky -40c. Check out the full article here... and check out how Leo got on here... and finally my take on natural V artificial...




The Master

The autumn season at Atheneum (Helsinki) will feature rare and unseen work from French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004). Considered the father of photo reportage, Cartier-Bresson was also one of the founders of the Magnum Agency, along with Robert Capa and David 'Chim' Seymour. 

I did my undergraduate dissertation on HCB, a strange choice for an English Literature student, but I was obsessed with his photos and his philosophy of the Decisive Moment. Put simply it is a Zen-like period of time where any given scene conspires to create near perfect composition. Its roots come from Zen in Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel who opined that if you're thinking about releasing the arrow, you're already too late (obviously paraphrased!)

I've been trying to take Zen like photos ever since, here's my attempt... Alongside The Master!


Pirelli Calendar 2016

We must tip the cap to the folks at Pirelli for their 2016 calendar. Say Pirelli Calendar to most petrol heads and motor boffs and the likely word associations are: boobs, lingerie and a smattering of spandex. Not so for 2016, which sees Pirelli celebrate women of importance, less get ya boobs out and more get your sizeable brains out. Annie Leibovitz subjects include, Amy Schumer, Patti Smith, Yao Chen and Serena Williams. The images are stunning, but more than that they stand tall against the tidal wave of images that portray women as purely aesthetic forms with tiny waists, hollow cheeks and no opinions of significance. So a tip of the cap... But still a long way to go.

Click on title to see behind the scenes video!

To Headshot

The folks down at Essex University Photographic Society asked me to write a piece on headshots and how I approached them. Putting my method down on paper was a tricky task as I knew an article comprised of 'errr I just sort of do it' wasn't going to cut the mustard. So I forced my own hands and here is the result...

A good headshot session starts with a good cup of tea. You're about to shove a large camera and lens in someone’s face for a few hours, so taking the time to chat and get on a level is just as important as your technical ability on the camera. All sessions are unique, however, there are a few things that I say to all my clients, one being; think small! What I mean is that the smallest movement of the chin, eyes or head make a huge difference within the frame, exactly the same as screen acting. 
    I shoot in the morning, as the sun is lower in the sky and the light is softer. Thin cloud is a real bonus too as it diffuses the light and creates an even tone. I also tend to backlight which means the light source (the sun) is behind the subject. I then use a reflector to throw the light back into the subjects face. The first 50 or so shots are all about getting the subject used to the camera, I’ll suggest quite bold, unnatural movements at first so I can then show what those movements translate to within the frame. I haven’t come across a client yet that doesn’t have a mini eureka moment at this point, and this is where the practical element of the session really begins. 
    I’ll shoot front-on, profile, 3/4, sitting, and kneeling all the while making a mental note of what I think suits the subject, For example a strong jaw profile lends itself to something off-centre or 3/4 as the line of the jaw adds to the composition of the image. I always have one eye on the sun, as it moves I’ll need to adjust the set up/ position of the subject accordingly. The cloud too will influence the on-camera settings so I often find myself looking up at the heavens and not through the viewfinder! 
    The two really vital things to cover whilst shooting are making sure you have covered all angles/ sides of the subject so they get a real breadth in their images and even more importantly... Chat! It is the difference between a subject that is comfortable and one that isn’t. Simple. By the end of the practical element of the session everything from the initial tea and biscuits to the positioning of the client in relation to the light should have produced a bunch of great images and in amongst them... The headshot.
    Next step is selecting the images. I’m quite hands-on with helping clients and will always suggest and guide. Ultimately though I encourage them to make the final decision. It’s their face after all! Once the images have been selected it’s time to give them the treatment in Photoshop, I’m quite protective about my methods here, as they’ve taken me a long time to put together. What I will say is that I believe re-touching headshots lies somewhere between beauty re-touching and more traditional portraiture (light touch) re-touching, ie, enhance and celebrate the natural features but this isn’t the next Dior campaign! Put simply, a good headshot is... You at your best, on a good day. 


More photos were taken in the past 12 months than in the rest of history as our lives are increasingly digitised 

Silver Linings Playing Up

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of taking headshots for members of the NYT Playing Up company. Playing Up is a social exclusion course for young people not in education, employment or training (NEETS) and is the equivalent of two  A-levels. It allows those who were previously unable to access higher education to do exactly that... and most of them will! Bristol Old Vic, Central School of Speech and Drama and East 15 are just some of the institutions taking on Playing Up grads this year.

There's actually a little white lie in that last sentence, because although Gavi Singh Chera was offered a place at Bristol Old Vic, he won't be taking it up. When he told me this just before I did his headshot, I got the feeling that he didn't really want to talk about it and so we just got on with the job in hand. Here comes the silver lining.

Gavi will be appearing in Behind The Beautiful Forevers at The National in November, in what will be Rufus Norris's debut as Artistic Director… Not bad for your first gig eh?

That's one silver lining, but there are plenty of others that stem from the work of the Playing Up course. As Associate Director Anna Niland quite rightly said at the recent Playing Up performance at the Arcola Tent 'This course changes lives.' Hell yeah.


Showcase your face #3

Below are the thoughts of a prominent casting director on headshots. She has worked at the National Theatre, The Gate, The Open Air Theatre and The Southwark Playhouse so knows a thing or two. She also moonlights for MI5.

I look for two main things in a headshot: firstly, it should be representative of the way you usually look on a day to day basis (albeit a good day...). For example, if you don’t wear any make up usually, don’t wear loads on the day of the photo shoot, or if you have lots of facial piercings, it’s a good idea to show this in at least one of your portfolio photos to avoid surprises.

The second is that a headshot should also show me roughly how old you are, and because of this they do need to be updated every so often. When someone comes into a meeting and they look 10 years older than their photo, it’s disappointing. Not only does it waste the director’s time, but also mine and yours, and on many projects time is not something we have much of for the casting process! Don’t be scared of looking old, it might just be I’m searching for someone who looks your age.

Showcase your face #2

Below is the redux version of my conversation with director Billy, he has directed shows at the Trafalgar Studios, The Print Room and The Riverside Studios, so he knows a thing or two. This is what he thinks about headshots...

It MUST look like you. I've been frustrated time and again by calling in people (certainly from things like CastingCallPro where I'm less likely to have seen them already) and finding they don't look anything like their head-shots. It's always worth noting that, for all the stress actors go through to prepare for auditions, the other side of the table is equally torturous at times. It can be long days of meeting person after person. By the time the end of the day comes and we start looking back over CVs and Headshots, we want to be able to connect actor to photo easily.

Similarly, I've seen photos of actors wearing broad smiles, or piercing intense eyes. If that's what your face naturally does, then fantastic but don't portray yourself in a photo as something you're not. I want the person who walks in to be the person who's photo I have in my hand. If the photo shows them smiling, I want them to be a smiley person. If the photo shows them as intense, that's why I've called them in. I want to see that intensity.

Having said that, do have a few possible headshots ready to go. Make sure they all fit the criteria above, but after that, see if you can get a slew of shots which express the (minor) variations in who you are. If I'm casting a period play, don't send that headshot with the shaved head. If I'm doing a comedy, don't send the frowning shot. 

I want you to use your headshot to make my decision for me. I want to see it and see how that kind of actor fits the kind of play I'm doing. And then, when I call you in because of that, I want you to look and act the way your headshot suggests.

Then, as a final point, it's all about aesthetic and that's not something you can pre-empt. If I'm casting a romantic lead, the chances are high I'm going to cast someone who fits into my understanding of "attractive". I'm an eyes man, so my attention is going to be drawn to the eyes. Other people look at the hair, the mouth, the shape of the face. It's impossible to predict. It's something interesting and eye-catching. If I knew what that thing was though, then I'd be writing my book on How to Get Ahead in Acting!

Showcase your face!

I was speaking to a prominent casting director the other day (let's call her Betty.) Betty mentioned that she was going to her first showcase of the year in a few weeks time. It seems that showcase season is upon us once again, for the next five months it's feeding time at a theatre near you.

It got me thinking about what role headshots play in showcase and so I got in touch with a director (let's call him Billy.) Over Whatsapp Billy, Betty and I sat down (sort of) and talked about the role of the headshot in showcase. Both agreed that within the first 10 seconds of an actor walking on stage they decide whether they buy it, or whether they don't (Agents take about 0.5 seconds to do this!) Perhaps this isn't a big surprise every drama school worth its salt will try and teach how important walking into an audition is, and what is a showcase? A massive audition in fronts of hundreds of people.

What is perhaps surprising is what happens next. Both Betty and Billy (they'd make a nice couple) said that if they're buying they then look at the respective actors headshot in the programme. So perhaps the second impression you make on someone who may potentially have an impact on your career is all about your 10x8. I then asked Betty and Billy what their impression would be if the headshot was 'a bit ropey.' They both just went a bit quiet. Weird.

Silence speaks volumes.


Mercury Falling...

It's futile to complain about the onset of winter, we had the best summer for years and now it's time for penance - it's here, deal with it, think about how nice a pair of thick socks feel? The alternative - become a hedgehog and hibernate. 

I'm embracing winter, a sort of chilly hug.

When it comes to headshots, winter presents its own problems, namely; weather and light (or lack of.)  Only the most willing subject and hardiest photographer would venture out in winter's worst - so what's the alternative to that beautifully balanced and diffused (there are always some clouds around!) natural light?

My alternative is actually a window… Well a window and friends. 

Windows naturally diffuse light and when their fitted with a slatted, Venetian style blind you can actually get an incredible amount of control. You can direct light and you can control the amount of light entering the room, an aperture if you will. Used in conjunction with daylight balanced lamps you can still achieve that natural looking headshot - and not a red nose in sight.


Say 'Cheese' and Chat...

Everyone has a camera these days because everyone has a phone. Even my Dad has started taking Selfies on his iPhone 5 ( I have an iPhone 4S!) 

Anyway, paternal phone envy aside, it got me thinking... This business of shoving a camera in someones face (headshots) to try and get that shot is rather bizarre. The first 50 or so shots of any session are useless, but that is not to say they don't serve a purpose - they allow the subject to get used to having a camera shoved in their face. The waves of understandable self consciousness that roll in as soon as soon as I bring the camera to my eye becomes less and less as the session progresses. By shot 300 the camera doesn't even exist anymore, the subject is looking at me and I am looking at the subject... With the occasional 'click' of the shutter.

There is however one key ingredient to this thesis, without which the whole thing would fall apart... Chat. Your Chat, My Chat, Our Chat. Thankfully actors are a chatty bunch and so this usually flows, but I have a great fear of one day photographing an actor who doesn't talk. It would be weird and the images would be awful!

So bring your different tops, your lotions and potions, but most importantly... Bring your chat!

You gotta spend money to make money...

The next time you're at Spotlight HQ have a look at the Spotlight photo book. As you probably know the book contains the headshot of every performer in Spotlight. What you probably don't know is that thousands upon thousands of these headshots are awful. Truly awful.

This may seem odd and odd it is. Your Spotlight picture is the first thing that a casting director/director/producer will see, before glancing down at your credits and maybe checking out your showreel. What kind of impression do you want to make? If your headshot has been taken by a mate whose 'into photography and spent some time in the darkroom at uni' The casting director will think... 'This actor hasn't been professional enough to get a professional headshot, shall I get them in?

I'll let you answer that. 

Being an actor isn't cheap, but if you give the impression of being cheap then you're already losing the battle. Headshots range wildly in price, and although you don't need to spend £600 but you do need to spend something -  so that when a potential employer sees your headshot, you give the best first impression you can.

So many things are beyond an actors control, getting a great headshot shouldn't be one of them. 



The debate doth rage...

The last person to have a B&W headshot in the US was Humphrey Bogart; are we seeing the end of the classic B&W 10x8, as colour bleeds its way across the Atlantic?

Hmm... sort of. There is no doubt that colour headshots are getting more popular amongst British actors. When I left drama school, having a colour headshot as your main Spotlight picture was considered very maverick indeed, perhaps even risky. So what's changed? The American influence is undoubtedly a factor - there is more American TV on our screens than ever before and most of those American actors will be rocking a colour pic. Often very striking and a touch too re-touched, they perhaps lack that classic feel of the B&W 10x8.

Another reason why us Brits are turning up the colour is because a lot of American TV shows have Brits playing lead roles and they've got to play the game with the studios and the game is colour.

The majority of the actors I photograph will choose a B&W as their main picture, but the best headshot I've done is in colour. There is no right or wrong, just like acting; it's all about instincts, go with what you feel. However, with the unfortunate proliferation of commercial castings, whatever you choose, make sure you have at least one colour headshot in the locker.