Actors: the headshot is the thing. Headshots make your first impression for you. They represent you as amateur or professional, confident or unsure, ready or unready. A picture does speak a thousand words, and as you build your career, nothing should be more important than seizing control of what your headshot says about you.

If you’re like most actors, your budget is tight for every expense, from rent to take-out Thai. But this isn’t the moment to be frugal. If you have the choice between having a friend take shots for you this weekend or saving up for four months and using a professional, go with the latter option. Agents, managers, casting directors and even student film directors are used to seeing professionally taken photographs.

And professional photographers are like directors (at least, the good ones are). They bring out something special in you, a performance captured in a single snap of the shutter. You want to do more than have a flattering photo taken, though of course that won’t hurt. Casting professionals look at pictures of very attractive people all day long. In order to stand out, you want your photo to haunt the viewer. The most eye-catching shots give a sense you’re looking at a real person with something actively on their mind.

How do you find the right photographer? Start with personal referrals. Ask all your actor buddies to show you their headshots and take note of any you really love. With personal referrals in hand, go to Reproductions in Hollywood and pick up a headshot book (they’re free) that will show you sample headshots from some of the best photographers in the city. Compare indoor, studio shots to those taken in natural light and decide which you prefer. Then start making choices. Weed out any photographers whose work is not technically perfect. (Focus should be sharp, especially the eyes.)

The next step? Meet with three to five photographers, minimum. Most will have you meet them at their studio, where you can see more headshots, learn about where they like to shoot and get a sense of what it’s like to spend time with them. Choosing a photographer should feel like choosing an audition monologue-you want to be shown off at your best and most natural. Spending time with them shouldn’t feel like work. What if you love someone’s photos, but your rapport with them feels awkward? Thank that photographer for his or her time and move on.

Going with a professional photographer usually comes with the added bonus of a great makeup artist. Good makeup makes the photographers’ work look better, so they’re likely to have a small number they recommend and trust. (This is another expense, yes, but listen well and often to this advice, actors: cut back on drinks at the bar before you cut back on your headshot fund.) Makeup in general should look natural, not heavy. Advice for actresses in particular: if you like a photographer but think the makeup in sample photos looks a little too “night,” ask if he or she can recommend someone whose work is more “day.”

You can also discuss with your photographer whether to go with color or black and white headshots. Color is quickly becoming the industry standard, even in New York (it has been standard in LA for some time). If you are planning to look exclusively for work in the theater, black and white may suffice, but color is the recommended choice by most casting directors and agents.

The next step? Wardrobe and hygiene. You want to look perfect on your day, so plan to wear new clothing or items that don’t show their age. Anything that droops, shows wrinkles or has to be readjusted too often? Make another choice. Remember, this is your one chance to make a first impression. If you wear something ill-fitting or faded, you risk the unconscious thought (or maybe the conscious one) that you lack attention to detail and aren’t serious about your career. Talk with your photographer about what color choices will go best with your skin tone. Plan to bring two to four “looks” to your shoot so you’ll have plenty of choices later.

For the week ahead of your shoot, drink 10 glasses of water a day and get plenty of sleep. These simple steps will reduce red-eye and under eye circles and do wonders for your skin. (Supermodels swear by daily naps to keep their complexions clear.) Avoid fried foods, chocolate or any other treats that have ever led to breakouts. Use a gentle exfoliating soap, preferably something you’ve tried before, every other day to be sure your skin looks clean and fresh.

And on the day of your shoot, have fun! Challenge yourself to be brave in front of your photographer and work with them as you would any other creative collaborator. Don’t wait for your photographer to tell you what to do, strike some of your most comfortable and familiar poses. The more you bring to the table, the more your photographer has to work with. He or she will get a good sense of you and may direct you to try things you wouldn’t have expected. The result? Your shots won’t be boring. They’ll be like you. Be sure to ask for a variety of looks so that you have some face-only photos and some body shots (which show at least 2/3 of your entire body).

It’s important to keep remembering that your presence is enough, especially when you get your proofs from your photographer. Now that you’ve had professional headshots taken, the final test is having the good judgment to make the right picks from a great day’s shoot. First, weed out any shots that aren’t in perfect focus, no matter how much you like them. Then cut any that make you look not-quite-ready for the photo to be taken, or shots in which you look bored or generically “intense” or “happy.” Once you’ve done this, you’re down to your real choices.

Avoid the urge (strong though it may be) to go with the photo that makes you look the most attractive. Instead, show your final contender shots to your closest friends and family, along with any industry contacts who are willing to look at them for you. What photo looks the most like you, as you look every day (and not from that perfect angle)? Auditioners want you to look like your headshot when you walk through the door. They chose the person in the headshot, and if you’re not that person, you’ve disappointed them before you’ve said a word of your monologue.

Even more importantly, what shot gives the viewer a true sense of you as a person? The people who are hiring you will likely only get two minutes with you in the audition room or at a casting call, but they’ll look back at your headshot later as they consider their casting options from the day. A photo that exudes your personality will help them remember the person who came in the room and gave such a strong reading.

And finally, consider retouching-but not too much. A heavily retouched photo will make you look painted and unnatural, and improve the odds that you won’t resemble your headshot as closely as you should. Save retouching for things like removing distracting hairs that fell across your face or for softening a shadow here or there. Specify “light retouching” to any technician you work with and be sure to personally approve everything they plan to do. Most duplication houses that specialize in headshots (and remember, you’re not scrimping so that’s where you’ll go) will supply light retouching services for a minimal fee if you also use them for your reproductions.

There’s much in the actor’s life that the actor can’t control. But headshots are an important exception. There are great photographers, there are good makeup artists, the right wardrobe is hanging somewhere, and a fun afternoon can be had even as you take this serious step toward moving your career forward. The importance of a headshot can’t be overstated. But every actor willing to take these steps purposefully can have a great headshot.

For more acting tips or info on audition notices & casting calls be sure to see my other articles.

Shine On!