differences between headshot photography and portrait photography

7 Key Differences Between Headshot and Portrait

In article below, I’ll briefly discuss several key differences between headshot photography and portrait photography. I will also include some photo examples from my portrait and headshot images from my archives. I hope this guide will help you to learn more about differences between headshots vs. portraits and learn what suits your needs best.


1. USE

One of the main differences between professional headshot and portrait is what images are for. Headshot are commonly end up in LinkedIn profiles, on business cards, “Our Team” pages for corporate and business websites, etc.

On the contrary, portraits will commonly appear in more creative environment: magazines and other print media, “About Me” pages for creatives and entrepreneurs, blogs, etc.

Romulo Ueda’s in studio headshot (left) and more creative portrait for his photography website (right)

2. FEEL AND MOOD

Professional business headshot will normally have relaxed and friendly feel to it. Subject will often smile. The reason for that is because subject is communicating a message to the observer. Examples of that message could be trustworthiness, friendliness, approachability. This is a very common professional business headshot practice for image LinkedIn profile or business website. Of course, it all also depends on what field subject is trying to achieve.

Of course, occasionally, my clients request professional headshots that communicate a different message. Such as concentration, toughness, knowledge, etc.

Professional portraits, on the other hand, are usually are more straightforward. They often will go along and contribute directly to the feel of the story or article. In professional portraits you can see wider variety of moods. Portraits are often more dramatic, are less smiley, etc. In portraiture subject often is looking away from the camera or is engaging in some kind of activity.

Again, portraits are more about telling a story, where’s professional headshots are about introducing yourself or communicating a quick message to the observer.

A serious headshot of Bobbie Harte and a happy portrait of Brad Baxter with his product- Litter Robot.

3. LIGHTING

Professional headshots are usually photographed using big light modifiers (or buildings or concrete pavements if photographed outdoors with available light). Subject’s face’s in headshots often have with minimal, if any, shadows. This helps to create more pleasant and less dramatic look.

Differently from headshots, portraits often have more dramatic lighting. This allows portrait to have more artistic feel. Besides less traditional light modifiers, variety of other accessories like mirrors, glass, color gels are often used to achieve more artistic effects.

To put it another way, lighting tied directly to the feel and mood of the headshot or portrait. And depending on how you use the light, you can completely change the narrative of the image.

Two professional portraits under different lighting situations: Monica Fan (left) is photographed in my studio. On the other hand, Anthony Rineer’s portrait photographed with natural light in his restaurant.

4. LENSES

A professional headshot is usually photographed with a long focal length lens- 85mm and above. For one thing, longer lenses prevent face distortion. Also, longer lenses allow some room between photographer and the subject.

On the other hand, portraits are often photographed with shorter focal length. Lenses in between 24mm to 50mm work best and allow to show more body and surrounding environment.

As an example, iPhone’s wide-angle lens has an equivalent focal length of 26mm.

5. FOREGROUND AND BACKGROUND

Headshots are all about locking observer’s attention on to subject’s face. For this reason, professional headshots photographed in studio usually will have neutral and clean background. Environmental headshots will usually have a blurry background. As a result, observer doesn’t have any unnecessary and useless information to process.

Opposite to headshots, background and foreground in portraiture allows to enrich it. In effect, image has more visual elements that (hopefully) contribute to the story or message.

Horizontal portrait of Steven Acheson with his 2 week prescription medicine supplies. Photographed for Madison Magazine‘s 2018 February issue about medical marijuana

6. ORIENTATION: HORIZONTAL VS. VERTICAL VS. SQUARE

A professional headshot usually is tightly cropped to keep observer’s attention on subject’s face. Also, when it comes orientation, headshot most often is positioned vertically. If the image is for social media, it needs to have some room around the frame to allow square crop.

7. THE ELEMENT OF EXPERIMENTATION

A professional business headshot usually is fairly straightforward and safe. To put it another way, background, framing and stylization make an outcome somewhat predictable.

In contrast, professional portraits usually go the other way. They utilize different lighting scenarios, incorporate existing environment and elements available. Besides, paired with a variety of lenses, they allow to handcraft unique and original images.

Examples of experimenting with light and post processing. Samba Baldeh, Madison alder, District 17 (left) and Kajus Vitkauskas, Saka (right)

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