What Is The Difference Between Headshots and Portraits?

It’s all about the face. While portraits show a subject’s face, the face makes the headshot. Everything else is secondary. Attracting the viewer to focus on the face is what a successful headshot accomplishes. The lighting, expression, and focus keep the viewer focused on the eyes, and conversely, the face. That said, the headshot is a portrait. It’s just a specific kind of portrait.

The headshot is cropped in tight. A successful headshot has eye contact, and an expression that conveys confidence, approachability, and trust. It is shot in a manner that places the subject in a place of authority. It screams to the world that this person knows their business. It is a professional portrayal of the subject being the best they can be. Other portraits also represent the subject. However, they may show more, or all, of the subject. The environment is often included. In a non-headshot portrait there is often more artistic license taken. Colors may play a larger role, such as when a portrait has been color graded (colors added to convey a mood, often seen in cinematic films). Lighting may be dramatic, also lending to a desired mood. While the headshot is a literal portrayal of the subject, a portrait does not necessarily do the same.

Usage often dictates which type of portrait is used. Think of a company directory, the editorial page of a magazine, or a LinkedIn profile photo. In those instances a direct reflection of the subject is usually required. That is where the headshot shines. It represents the subject as the best they can be. Due to the space often being smaller, the face has to be the focus, and the person’s expression is what grabs our attention.

An anual report showing the company president in front of headquarters, or posing with a product the company makes, are examples of portraits. So too are the artistic photographs of people in recognizable environments. The attorney in his office, the singer with a mic, or a family at the beach. These portraits also represent subjects, but in a less formalized way. These are used in more emotional circumstances. Think about the chef in the kitchen or the editor at his or her desk.

Which is right? The headshot and portrait have different uses, but as Amy Bissonette, a Chicago photographer said, despite their differences, they both accomplish a similar goal… to tell a story in one photograph. Often, the headshot and portrait are used in conjunction with each other. Think of the annual report again, or photographs representing a brand. Knowing the differences often clears up confusion for someone needing one, or both. With these facts in mind, the client and photographer can speak the same language when planning a photo session in order to best portray the subject or subjects.