For commercial dancers, a great headshot can take you far. In fact, the dance headshots I took that finally landed me an agent have continued to ‘get me in the room’ for over three years now, thanks in no small part to my meticulous preparation for the shoot, choosing a photographer experienced in taking commercial dance photos, and not changing my ‘look’ drastically since then.
Since that first photoshoot, I’ve come to realize that a professional headshot is one of the most important investments commercial dancers can consider which, especially these days, can truly make or break your ability to get booked on a job. Since 2020, auditions and castings have shifted online more than ever, making your photos your first - and oftentimes only - impression to be considered for a role. For dancers seeking representation, well done photos will also be a great indicator to an agency that you are ready to work professionally.
These photoshoots need to be taken as seriously as if your career depends on it; because it actually does.
With all that pressure on having the perfect professional headshots, it may feel extra stressful to plan a photoshoot. Have no fear though, these tips will help you prepare for and nail your next commercial dance photoshoot:
How to prepare
1. Check in with your agents
If you’re already represented, make sure your agents know you’re preparing to take new headshots and ask what they think you need in your portfolio. They may be seeing trends among photos that are getting their clients booked and have some insight on what will help you get noticed or what ‘looks’ you’re missing.
If you don’t have an agent, head to an agency’s website or social media pages and check out their clients’ photos to get a good idea of what they expect from the dancers they represent. A good bare minimum for commercial dancers is to make sure you have a ‘commercial shot’ - think solid-colored top in front of a clean background that you’d imagine would book you an Old Navy commercial - and a ‘body shot’, usually a full length image in more form-fitting or trendy clothing that you’d send in for a music video casting.
2. Spend generous time researching and reaching out to photographers
For dance headshots, it is helpful to hire a photographer who is experienced in the dance niche. Check with agencies to see if they can send you a list of their favorites (even if you’re not represented by them yet!) or head to Instagram and source photographers from other professional dancers’ headshot tags. Once you’ve got a list, it doesn’t hurt to contact them over phone or email to talk through your needs.
“Always vet your photographers,” says Claudio Robles, a professional photographer who often works with commercial dancers, “Vet for professionalism, ethics, conduct, involvement with pre-planning and organization.” He also suggests having your budget ready when you reach out. “Usually every photographer is willing to work with budgets and tailor the shoot accordingly,” Robles says, “If the Dancer reaches out to the photographer and they are given the standard rate with x amount of outfits and edits, ask what could be done with the budget they have and where things can be adjusted.” Remember, professional photos can be pricey, but “these are your tools to booking gigs, so the investment will come back,” Robles says.
3. Hire professional beauty and styling help
I have always invested in a makeup artist for my headshots, which I suggest whether or not you are confident in doing makeup yourself. It is very helpful to have someone at the shoot who can offer you touch-ups throughout, or even do hairstyle changes, which many makeup artists will offer as well. That extra set of eyes can make all the difference in getting the perfect shot!
Have control of the shoot by stating what you need from it and what the photos are for.
Stylists are also an under-utilized investment for your photos, both to make them stand out and to help you really bring your personality into your photos. If you’re on the fence about incorporating a stylist, know that the work they do for your shoot is more than just simply putting together some interesting outfits. “Fashion is an art form and styling your headshot is really like you're painting a portrait; only your medium is knowledge and clothing,” explains professional stylist and dancer Stephanie Scull, “When creating a portrait, your image needs to be well balanced with the right level of contrast and saturation in order to not only highlight your face, but to stand out on a sheet with 100 other thumbnail size portraits. Different lights, camera lenses and backdrops will also affect the way your clothing looks in a photo, so you really need to consider all of those factors as well if you want to nail it!”
4. Create a mood board to send to your photoshoot team
One of the best things that I did in preparation for my last headshot photoshoot was create mood boards for each ‘look.’ For example, I knew I wanted one outfit to be a ‘rock look’, so I used Canva to make a collage of images from Pinterest and Instagram with the poses, clothes, hair, makeup, and overall vibe I was aiming for with the look. Robles suggests including pictures of your outfits with your mood board if you can. “Laying the outfits out on the floor or a surface is highly recommended, that way the photographer can see the textures and color schemes and plan accordingly for backdrops or themes on set,” he explains, but be aware, “There is zero need for the dancer or model to send photos with the articles on. And if a photographer asks for photos with the items on, that is a red flag and should be addressed immediately.”
Sending a mood board to your photographer, makeup artist, and/or stylist will make them infinitely more prepared to give you exactly what you want at your shoot, so be ready with your mood board when you reach out to each of them. “I always ask for inspo photos, what category they are trying to fit into, what job they are trying to book, and any colors they like/hate wearing,” says professional stylist and dancer Heather Kelly, “Being more specific is very helpful for me to achieve your desired look. For example, ‘I want a sexy look that would get me booked for an award show with Dua Lipa’ or a commercial look that would get me booked on a Disney show.” If it seems daunting to hand over control of your outfit or makeup to someone else, have no fear. “At the end of the day, you can always change parts of your look the stylist puts together because they’re your photos,” Kelly says, “I want you to feel like your best self always!”
5. Make a playlist for the shoot
Another personal trick of mine is to create a playlist for the shoot that makes me feel like my most confident self - usually it’s full of all the artists I want to dance for, to remind me why I’m there and get me pumped up. Robles suggests the same, as he says, “when someone comes with a playlist ready, it helps the overall outcome be that much better because they were in their full comfort zone, down to the music!” Most photographers will have a way to hook up your music, but bring a small speaker just in case!
6. Enlist a hype buddy
If you’re worried about going it alone at a photoshoot, I’d suggest bringing a friend along for moral support - and maybe to point the fan at your hair for that ‘body shot.’ Having a friend at my photoshoot to help hype me up has boosted my confidence every time. Especially if you’re not used to taking photos, having someone you trust there will help you relax and make the environment more comfortable for you.
On the shoot day
1. Pack extra wardrobe options
Sometimes, all the preparation in the world isn’t enough when you realize those striped pants really don’t flatter you on camera. Even if you’ve planned your wardrobe before, bring extra options and basic pieces just in case something goes awry. This is when a stylist really comes in handy! Also, if working with a stylist, some of your clothing may need to be returned, so “be mindful of tags, crotch stickers and fragile fabrics/seams,” when getting dressed and changing, suggests Scull.
2. Get there early
I see photos as a very important investment in my career, so when I plan a photoshoot I like to make sure it’s the main thing I have going on that day. That way, I have more control over being well rested, getting there early, and finding parking or the location of the shoot without stress. Figure out what time of day makes you feel your best (for me it’s the morning) and schedule your shoot for then! Giving yourself that extra time also gives you the chance to show your photographer the final outfits you chose and decide the order they want to be shot, Robles says, which makes the entire process much more efficient.
3. Clearly communicate during the shoot
The best thing you can do for yourself during the shoot is to constantly communicate with your shoot team to make sure you’re getting what you want. Dancers can ensure a great relationship with their photographer by “giving suggestions of poses they want to try as well as communicating with the photographer during the shoot as much as possible,” Robles says, “We are not mind readers, and not every photographer will ask if the dancer approves of the angles and lighting and all of that.” This is your time and money, so speak up to make sure your photos come out how you want them to!
Along those lines, make sure your photoshoot team knows the purpose of your photos, so they can get the vibe right! “Have control of the shoot by stating what you need from it and what the photos are for, like if they’re for a specific casting or audition, or just updating the photos for websites and casting hubs,” Robles says.
This is your time and money, so speak up to make sure your photos come out how you want them to!
When you get your photos
1. Communicate about edits
Most packages from photographers will include a certain amount of edits, which you select from the raw files. If you have an agent, send your raw photos to them first so they can help you pick your selects for editing. Be clear with what you want from the edits, for example if you want your photos to still show your freckles, make sure the photographer knows not to smooth them out during the editing process.
2. Know your social media posting etiquette
It’s common courtesy to the team you worked with to tag them when posting your headshots on social media, crediting them for their work. It’s also a nice gesture to ask your photographer about their preference for how to credit if you post an unedited photo or one you’ve edited yourself. “We always highly suggest to not post any raws until after edits, to preserve the impact of the photos on what ever platform. But regardless, credit should always be given on both ends,” Robles says.
3. Send to your agents and upload to casting sites/social media
Send your final photos to your agents so they can add them to your portfolio. If you upload your headshots to casting sites or a personal website yourself, be sure to update them as soon as you have them edited. Let the photos get to work for you ASAP!
Don’t forget to utilize your new photos on social media as well. Even if you don’t drop them all on your Instagram feed right away, you can create a story highlight called ‘Headshots’ that your most up-to-date photos can live on right at the top of your page. Pro tip: August 19 is World Photo Day - a perfect day to drop that new headshot on social media.
While it can be overwhelming to get new dance headshots, the results will be well worth the effort if you put in the time to be intentional and clear with the objectives of your shoot. As Scull puts it, “A dancer's photos are the number one determining factor as to whether or not that dancer books a job or gets called into an audition... So these photoshoots need to be taken as seriously as if your career depends on it; because it actually does!” Utilize these tips to help ensure your next commercial dance headshots get you ‘in the room’ and book you the job you want!