The Difference Between Commercial and Theatrical Headshots

November 12, 2020

In acting, there are two main areas for projects – commercial and theatrical. To understand the difference between the two, you need to consider the uses of each shot. So lets first define commercial vs. theatrical headshots.

  • Commercial – Designed to appeal to advertisers and ad agencies. The purpose of a commercial headshot is to promote a product to a specific demographic. In your commercial version, you really want to consider what demographic you fall into.
  • Theatrical – Tailored towards casting directors that cast television series and films. The purpose of a theatrical headshot is to show the layers of an actor’s personality. In your theatrical version, there’s more emotional depth than in a commercial headshot.

You might think these are interchangeable, but they’re not. Each has a particular photographic style.

  • Smile – One way to define a commercial headshot is by a big smile, while in a theatrical shot there isn’t a smile. The line between the two has blurred over the years; today, the closed mouth smile or smirk can be effective for both. But traditionally, commercial means smile and no smile means theatrical.
  • Lighting – Another difference is in the lighting choices the photographer makes. Shots with dramatic shadows 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 white backgrounds or brighter ‘happier’ colors.

When actors put commercial or theatrical labels on photographers, it’s because they’re noticing the photographer’s style. However, 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 feel with either big smiles, softer lighting or a colorful background. If one of these elements is present in your shot, the image will pass as commercial. The same is true with theatrical. If a photographer has a bright and happy style, see if they have any images with subtle expressions, dramatic lighting or darker color choices. That means you can expect theatrical shots out of the session.

See if you can identify the commercial vs. theatrical headshot in the images to the right!

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