All headshots are portraits but not all portraits are headshots. Simple right?
Ultimately, you know the type of shot you want and it really doesn’t matter what you call it, but using the terms correctly can help communication between you and your subject so that everyone is on the same page.
What Is The Difference Between A Headshot And A Portrait?
The main difference between a headshot and a portrait is that a headshot is a specific type of portrait that is typically closely cropped to the head and shoulder and often used in some professional capacity.
Of course, the distinction between the two is academic at best. Shoot the photo you want to shoot and don’t worry too much about how to classify it.
Purpose Of The Photo
Probably the most significant distinguishing feature of a headshot vs. a portrait is the purpose of the photo being taken.
A headshot is typically used in some professional capacity. This can range from things like a corporate headshot that ends up on a company’s website to a performer’s headshot in costume. Either way, the purpose is to feature that person and who they are.
When taking the headshot, you, as the photographer, need to be acutely aware of why they are having headshots taken. Depending on their “why,” your approach, location, lighting, or posing can change dramatically.
The best approach is to have a detailed conversation with your subject well before the shoot so that you can gather all this information and plan accordingly.
What’s In The Frame (Cropping)
The second most significant factor in determining whether a portrait is a headshot is how the image is framed and/or cropped.
It’s right there in the name…a headshot is an image that is primarily of a person’s head.
Remember also that the eyes are the critical part and should be the focal point of the image. Getting the eyes in sharp focus is essential.
Headshots can include shoulders and some of the upper body or arms, but the head and face should be the largest part of the person still within the frame. Once the rest of the body is taking up more space in the frame than the head and face, I wouldn’t consider it to be a headshot anymore, just a three-quarter portrait.
Traditionally, the headshot is a well-lit photo without much in the way of dramatic photos.
But there are no rules that say you can’t make a dramatic headshot if that is the look and feel you are going for. It all goes back to knowing the purpose of the headshot.
Using off-camera flash is almost essential for high-quality headshots.
A common headshot lighting setup is clamshell lighting where you have a large light source from above (either on the axis with the camera or just slightly to the side) as well as either a reflector or a less powerful light source lower to fill out the shadows.
Creativity Of The Photo
While not always true, a creative photo is less likely to be considered a headshot.
While modern headshots have gotten more creative by using more color or backgrounds other than the more traditional simple single-color backdrop, most people referring to a headshot want something more conservative and classic for a headshot.
There is still room for a tremendous amount of creativity, but when talking about a headshot, the creativity comes from the person themselves, rather than things like backgrounds or props that might be used in other types of portraits.
This can be the person’s expression, makeup, or even costumes.
What is important in the headshot is the person and communicating who they are through their own appearance.
The Environment of the Photo
Headshots are most commonly shot with clean and simple backdrops, but not always.
I think the more important aspect of the environment when it comes to headshots is that the environment, whatever it may be, is not a factor in the image.
Whether a simple backdrop or a shallow depth of field is used, the goal of a headshot is to strip away the environment and make the person the centerpiece of the image.
This is why a business portrait of someone working in their office, for example, is not really a headshot, even though it might still have a similar purpose to the headshot.
I’ve seen other photographers say that the environment can play a role in the headshot, depending on the story you want to tell with the photo.
I disagree. Once you begin to incorporate other factors, like the environment, into the photo, then it should no longer be considered a headshot. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with using the environment to tell a story in a portrait, but if we are making the distinction between headshots and portraits, then doing so would make it a portrait, not a headshot.
Posing is just as important for a headshot as it is for a portrait, but given the tighter cropping, there is less to worry about.
A good headshot pose is one that accentuates a person’s best facial features while minimizing anything they might be self-conscious about.
Here are some tips I recommend to almost everyone for a headshot:
- Lean forward at the hips slightly. This brings the face closer to the camera than the body and slims out any part of the upper body that is in the frame.
- Stick your chin out and tilt down. As long as you don’t overdo this to the point of looking silly, this simple move will accentuate the jaw line and minimize any double chin.
- Tilt the head slightly. Don’t do this too much or you look like the average IG influencer taking a selfie, but a slight head tilt will add some energy to the pose and slim out the face a bit.
Number of People In The Photo
A headshot is usually just one person while portraits can include any number of people.
Because of some of the reasons I already talked about, the headshot includes just one person. The focus (both literal and figuratively) is on that one person and the goal is to feature them.
Portraits, on the other hand, can range from 1 to many people. You can shoot individual portraits, but there are also family portraits, group portraits, and even something like a class or team photo with hundreds of people in it is considered a portrait.
Headshots are usually thought of as more businesslike, but I think a headshot really just communicates the mood of the person through their appearance or expression. So any mood is fair game when it comes to headshots.