What’s the Difference Between Commercial and Theatrical Headshots?

Here’s the question you should be asking: Can the photographer bring out both my commercial essence and my theatrical essence?

Vanie Poyey Los Angeles Headshots

The answer seems kind of obvious, but I sometimes overhear actors talking about which photographer to choose based on whether or not the photographer is a commercial photographer or a theatrical one.  I feel like asking, “Huh? Hold on there, what do you mean by that?  Don’t you want both commercial and theatrical headshots out of one session?  Why would you label a photographer that way?  I’ve never heard photographers label themselves one or the other.”  They usually call themselves Headshot Photographers and headshots includes both commercial and theatrical images.

Here’s the question you should be asking:  Can the photographer bring out both my commercial essence and my theatrical essence?

To answer this question, let’s first define commercial vs. theatrical headshots.  The following definitions do not necessarily have to exist at the same time, but at least one or more of the following elements are what defines commercial vs. theatrical.

  • Smile vs. No Smile:  One way to define a commercial shot is by the big smile and conversely a theatrical shot traditionally is non-smiley.  The line between the two has blurred a bit over the years; often the ‘in-between’ smirky shot can be effective commercially and theatrically. But for the most part, our traditional definitions of  smile means commercial and no smile means theatrical still apply.
  • Lighting: Another difference is in the lighting choices the photographer makes.  Usually, contouring with shadows or harsh shadows for dramatic effect are defined as theatrical. Flat lighting is generally used for commercial shots.
  • Colors:  Theatrical shots can be defined by darker, moodier colors, while commercial shots can be expressed with brighter ‘happier’ colors.

So it becomes clear that when actors put commercial or theatrical labels on photographers, it’s likely because they’re actually noticing the particular photographer’s style.  That doesn’t mean that the photographer only shoots commercial or theatrical.

If the photographer has a dramatic lighting style, look to see if there are shots in his portfolio that convey a lighter essence with either softer lighting, or smiley images, perhaps with colorful clothing choices.  If any one of these elements are present in your shot, the image will pass as commercial.  Same with theatrical.  If a photographer has a bright style, if you see images with subtle expressions, maybe a little smirky, or even dramatic lighting and with darker color choices, that means you can probably expect theatrical shots out of the session.

Voted one of La’s favorite headshot photographers by Backstage Readers’ 3 years in a row, “One of Hollywood’s Best” as mentioned on the Ricki Lake Show and featured on the “Tia and Tamara” show, Vanie Poyey delivers headshots with personality for actors that don’t like to pose.

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