Within two weeks of moving to LA, I scheduled my headshot session with Vanie Poyey. You can read about that experience here. Every agent and casting director I’ve worked with says I look like my headshots. Damn right, I do!
I always like hearing the stories about what makes an artist tick. Like many artists, Vanie started when she was really young. Here’s my Q&A with her:
Why did you become a photographer?
Two main reasons. First, my dad was a hobbyist, and a camera was always around, so I took photographs just because my dad did. Second, as a teen, I was a bit of a rebel. I had big wild social life and I wanted to document my funky friends and the the things I did.
I loved taking pictures of dark and underground places back in the day of film. My favorite was black and white pictures. It was very exciting to turn it in to the lab and wait in anticipation for them to process it. Half was junk. But I’d have a gem in there.
I didn’t actually do much photo printing until after I was already a pro and continuing classes. I was already shooting on digital when I took a film class. It was the most painful “A” i ever got. I was used to digital – checking my work, making sure it was good and doing post instantly and being done, no chemicals, no waiting. In this class, I was doing portraits, burning and dodging. I wanted to print a photo I took. It’s on my website in lifestyle section, but it took probably 10 tries to get it done correctly.
How has photography changed since the days of film?
The big change is the photographer has now become the photo lab. We’re doing a lot more work than we did in the days of film. Now, you’re doing social media, advertising, your own processing because it gives you the ultimate control to stylize your work. I’m definitely working longer hours.
How did visual arts at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and then at Otis School of Art and Design influence you?
I am influenced by film and TV. I don’t even look at other photographer’s work. I’m constantly changing. I never stay the same. Two years ago I was shooting differently. The imagery I’m exposed to changes my approach. Actors are always looking at TV and film and dissecting the acting and how they approach character. I’m doing the same thing with lighting. I’m looking at shows like True Detective or movies like Birdman and looking at how it’s lit. I like a specific look, I want to recreate it.
What do you love about working with actors?
Personalities. They are not boring. It’s fun because they have more to give. It’s easy to extract personality from them. Actors are very interesting.
Working philosophy? How do you approach a headshot session?
We talk about marketing. Most actors I work with are seasoned and are ready to have that conversation. They understand a headshot is a business card, not a glamour session. I find out the age range they’re trying to target, I hone it down and also what auditions they want to go out for. I get them talking about notes agents gave or age range they want to play and then give them some marketing looks that are popular right now. After that, I hone down which marketing looks work with them and then fit it into a packages offer.
My philosophy is there is no real difference between theatrical and commercial shots. I believe the essence and context will change. Once you figure out your target market, you’ll realize that you will play the same character commercially as well as theatrically.
For example, a businesswoman theatrically might be nice blouse and a suit. A little upscale. To look like a detective, lawyer, or FBI, or teacher in a classroom, she may ditch the jacket and simply roll the sleeves up.
How do you capture personality knowing casting directors are only going to see a thumbnail?
That’s where the technical stuff comes in. To capture attention, you need a vibrant, strong photo and to make sure the actor is acting on camera so personality comes through in the photo. You need to entice casting directors to click on the photo. Back in the day, you would shoot a 3/4 body shot, because the body could communicate more. That was the 90’s and early 2000’s. You can’t anymore. You can’t have the body. That’s why I have actors act with me on camera – you can’t help but bring out their personality. They’re not just posing.
That was a hard shift from physical to facial expressions. Again, headshot trends change, so I have to stay current. Images are getting tighter, color is unforgiving and you have to completely rely on facial expressions.
How come the color on your photos pop?
I use a secret formula that’s good for actors. There’s two schools of thought when it comes to headshot photographs. Shooting in RAW (image capture that pros use) is the equivalent of a film negative – you take it into light room, process and contrast, burning/darkening, etc. Amateurs shoot in jpeg – the camera processes the image for you, so it’s pre-processed. Camera doesn’t give you optimum control. You can’t selectively burn and dodge and create images to liking, and the color balance might be off. The shot is influenced by surrounding color more so than negatives. The contrast and way you want to present images is out of your control. They tend to look drab and flat and the photographer who shoot jpegs, hands you your CD and you’re done. The shots look like crap and don’t grab attention. I’m a purist. I shoot in RAW and modify without touching original file. I can process it a million ways. I process colors one way and apply secret formula (vibrant look), especially for online and print.
What should your headshot communicate?
Your brand. Very specifically your brand and what you can act/play. Headshots shouldn’t confuse the viewer as to who you are. Less is more too. I believe in the KISS principle (Keep it Simple, Stupid). It’s the number one sales technique for a reason. There’s a tendency to over do it and give people too many choices, but they don’t buy. 10 – 15 photos is redundant. It’s different outfits with same smile. They will wonder who you are. Actors should really cut down what they post online. Be very specific with marketing looks and make sure brand is clear. Few pics should communicate the specific roles you play, e.g., “I can play dad, blue collar or FBI agent.”
What can an actor do to make their headshot session successful?
Do the research. Do your due diligence. The photographer is going to work for them. Ask agents, friends, spend time with photographer talking about needs, portfolio/reviews and general consensus. Let go and trust you’ve made the right decision. Come in with a good attitude. I can’t tell you how important that it is. A negative attitude is contagious. If you want positive results, you need positive attitude. Nobody wants to let a client down. That neg attitude is a lot of pressure, it stifles creativity and my ability to be me and do what I do successfully. Mimicking the wording in breakdowns to make sure your specific look matches what casting directors need.
If you want quality headshots that will work for you, go to Vanie. Tell her I sent you.