Is It A Portrait Or A Headshot

I often see people that are using “headshots” to represent them professionally that are actually portraits, so I want to explain the difference between headshots and portraits.


Number 1: Portraits do not have to follow any rules, whereas headshots have a very specific set of guidelines. Here are some of the guidelines for what makes a headshot a headshot

This is not a headshot!

  1. Portraits usually try to tell a story and are very personal. It may be a shot of just you or of your whole family, and it’s usually kept for sentimental value. A headshot has a very specific purpose: It’s meant to represent you in a professional way. They are typically used for actors who want to get auditions, business-people who need a photo for their website, and other things like that
  2. Portraits can include any and all parts of your body, whereas a headshot is typically just your head and the upper part of your torso. There is also another type of shot that some casting directors like that shows more of your body called a 3/4 shot. This is not actually a headshot, but can be just as useful.
  3. In portraits your subject can be looking anywhere, and a great photographer can use that to enhance the feeling of their images. In headshots the subject must be looking at the camera. If you’re not looking at the camera you are saying that there is something more important to look at and therefore are not engaging the viewer.
  4. No hands in headshots. End of story. This used to be popular but has since gone out of style.
  5. The lighting in headshots should be very even. I typically will like a little bit of shadow on men, but on women the more even the better. And no matter who you are there should be no hot spots from the lights are shadows that are so harsh that you can’t see part of the person’s face.
  6. In a portrait you can wear whatever you want (or nothing at all!) But in a headshot you should wear clothes that you are comfortable in and don’t distract from your face. Definitely don’t wear any jewelry (unless you’re well known and it’s part of your brand), and if you’re a woman don’t wear anything with a plunging neckline, as your cleavage will distract the eye from your face, which should be the most important part of the image.
  7. I’ve seen people in portraits wear crazy makeup, paint their faces, and do tons of cool things like that, but in a headshot you want to keep it to a minimum and look as natural as possible.
  8. In portraits you can shoot from the ground or from a ladder and anywhere in between. In headshots you want to shoot right about eye level. If you shoot up at your subject it’s going to make them appear much larger and a give you a great view right up their nose. If you shoot down on them it makes them appear much smaller and shorter than they actually are. Shooting at eye level provides the most realistic view of the subject.


Number 2: You are in color so your headshots should be in color. The only reason that people ever did black and white headshots was because it used to be cheaper than printing color, but now that it’s the same amount of money why would you ever choose black and white?


Number 3: Use a long lens. If you are a photographer do not shoot your subjects with a wide angle lens because it will distort their face.


This was taken with a 24mm lens. As you can see in the image above she definitely doesn’t look like this.

Number 4: If you’re a professional in a field other than acting and you don’t have a job all you need is a shot that makes you look confident and approachable, so stay away from distracting backgrounds or environmental portraits. However, if you do have a job already and just need to update your image that opens up other options to you. Maybe you want something that shows you in your work environment doing something that looks cool. That being said, I will always recommend that we grab a more traditional headshot as well.


Number 5: This isn’t a glamour portrait. People have pores. People have scars. My general rule is that if it won’t be there in 2 weeks I’ll get rid of it. But otherwise it stays. You want your headshot to look as much like you as possible. You aren’t doing yourself any favors by digitally removing something that you believe to be unflattering. All that that achieves is you walking into the room and having people do a double take when they see you and you don’t look anything like your headshot. I always tell people that even though they think that the thing they’ve been staring at in the mirror for their entire lives is the worst thing in the world, most other people probably don’t even notice it, and if they do they don’t really care. That being said, I’m more than happy to find angles and posing that work best for your specific body type and features that help minimize anything you don’t like about yourself while we’re shooting.


And lastly: Go to a professional photographer who specializes in headshots. There are a ton of great photographers out there that don’t have the first clue about how to shoot headshots simply because they’ve never done it. Save yourself a headache and let that amazing wedding photographer stick to weddings and let us headshot photographers do what we’re good at. That being said, any professional photographer is better than “that one person that you met that time who happened to own a camera”. These two shots (both of me) were taken with the exact same camera, lens, and lights. The only difference is that the photographer on the left didn’t know what they were doing, and the photographer on the right is a professional headshot photographer.