What’s the difference between a headshot and a portrait?

Have you ever stopped to think about the difference between a headshot and a portrait? If someone asked you, what is a portrait or what is a headshot, would you be able to tell them?

When speaking of photographs, these terms are often used interchangeably, which makes it even more confusing. However, if you don’t properly understand the differences, you won’t know what your client is asking for. Or rather what they need even if they aren’t describing it correctly because they don’t know the difference between the two either!

Let’s break it down.

First, let’s look at a basic definition of each type of image.

Portrait – A photograph of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders

Headshot – A photograph of a person’s head

Well, that sure cleared things up, didn’t it?

Perhaps it would be better to say that a headshot is a particular type of portrait. 

In a headshot, the subject is typically looking at the camera and their face is evenly lit. The main point of the headshot is to show what the person looks like. 

Portraits, however, can encompass a wide variety of looks. 

Lighting can be everything from soft and even to harsh and dramatic. The subject may be looking at the camera or they may not, even though they are aware that the photo is being taken (unlike a candid shot). 

But this description is very basic. There are various factors that come into play when determining between a headshot and a portrait. Let’s go over each one in depth. 

Headshots will almost always be taken with artificial lighting. Natural lighting can be used, but it is more common to see flash or strobe lighting.

Regardless of what type of lighting is used, the subject will always be fully, and evenly lit. Broad lighting will touch all the features so that the viewer can clearly see the subject’s face. 

Artistic or dramatic lighting is not typically found in headshots. However, it can be seen in abundance in portraits. 

In fact, pretty much anything goes as far as lighting in a portrait. The range stretches from soft, even lighting like that used in headshots to a dramatic sliver of light on the subject’s face, leaving the rest of the face in shadow. 

There is also a specific crop that is typically used in headshots. Again, the purpose is to see what the subject looks like. To that end, there will be a tight crop around the subject so that the face fills most of the frame.

Crops for portraits are much broader. In fact, there aren’t really any rules at all. The subject may be placed anywhere in the frame, their face may fill the frame or it may only be a small part of the photograph. 

Many photographers will follow composition guidelines such as the rule of thirds when choosing the subject’s placement. Or they may purposefully break the rules for an artistic effect. 

Specific posing is important in a headshot. As the photographer, you’ll have to know how to position your subject to get the correct look for a headshot. 

Keep in mind that most of the time you’ll be photographing people who are not models. The average person tends to feel uncomfortable when getting their picture taken, especially in a formal setting.

Through correct posing, you can get a natural look out of nearly anyone. Here are a few tips to help.
  1. Have the subject stand up straight. If they need to sit down, use a stool or chair where they can perch on the edge with a straight back. The point is to get proper posture with the shoulders back and down. 
  2. Avoid having the subject’s shoulders directly facing the camera. Turn them slightly so the shoulders are at a 45-degree angle (this is slimming). However, the subject’s head will still be turned directly towards the camera.
  3. Tell the subject to stick their chin out a little bit, like a turtle. It sounds weird, but this will help define the jawline and remove double chins.
  4. Ask the subject to close their eyes a tiny bit. Many people will open their eyes too wide for a photo, making them look uncomfortable. 
  5. Take the photo from chin level rather than eye level. This slight angle change makes the person look taller and more powerful. 
Obviously, these guidelines are very strict and formal. But that’s what a headshot is for. It’s a formal image whose main purpose is to display what a person looks like, usually for professional purposes. 
In a portrait, anything goes! 
The subject can be laughing, twirling their hair, staring off into the distance, gazing seductively into the camera — and so much more. The only thing that limits the subject’s pose in a portrait is your own creativity!

Again, there are pretty strict guidelines for the background in a headshot. Most of the time, headshots are taken in a studio or anywhere indoors with a plain background. Often the photographer will have a backdrop for the subject to be in front of. 

What color should the background be? Soft gray is a good go-to for headshots. Other colors can sometimes interfere with the image by clashing with whatever the subject is wearing, etc. 

A white background can be a little stark. However, it is often used when you want to add branding to the headshot. 

Photographers use seamless backgrounds that can then be extended or stretched in Photoshop to make the image big enough for a specified size. 

It’s possible to take a headshot outdoors but be very careful with the background. Choose a plain background such as a concrete or stone wall or even blurred-out trees. 

However, be wary of shafts of sunlight, colorful flowers, or anything else in the background that could pull the eye away from the subject. Whether shooting indoors or outdoors, the main thing is to stick with a simple background free of distractions. 

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the rules are much more relaxed for portraits. Place your subject in front of bushes, buildings, statues, and literally whatever strikes your fancy. 

You can be creative and have them interact with the background or separate them from it with a shallow depth of field. Again, anything goes!

Just pay attention to make sure the background isn’t coming out of your subject's head. Tree branches, poles, or other objects look odd when positioned behind the subject’s head.

The final step in creating either a portrait or a headshot is to edit it.

A headshot will usually need to be retouched but shouldn’t need much. If you shot the image correctly with even lighting, there shouldn’t be much of anything you need to “fix”.

On the face itself, you’ll want to retouch blemishes and perhaps brighten the face a tiny bit to soften the skin. However, don’t go overboard. 

Remove non-permanent blemishes like pimples, but avoid editing out beauty marks, moles, or anything else that the person always has on their face. 

The same goes for wrinkles on older people. You can soften the appearance of wrinkles a little bit, but don’t edit them out completely.

Remember, the point of a headshot is to create an accurate representation of the subject’s appearance. Plus, erasing years off a person’s face can also erase experience of their appearance. Being older isn’t a bad thing in business!

Editing a portrait varies widely depending on the intent. Some portraits will be heavily edited to match a trend or create a certain style. In fact, many photographers develop their own style which is part of why their clients hire them. 

However, trendy edits can become dated quickly. Simple, clean edits are better if you are looking for a more timeless image. 

Understanding Portraits vs Headshots
As you can see, though the basic definitions of what is a portrait and what is a headshot are similar, they are two very different styles of images. As we mentioned earlier, it is helpful to think of headshots as a specific type of portrait.

As a photographer, it’s important that you understand the difference and how to create each type. When people come to you for a professional headshot, they are expecting a certain look. But when they come to you for a portrait, you have a lot more creative freedom. 

Have fun experimenting and let us know how it goes in the comments!


10 thoughts on “What’s the difference between a headshot and a portrait?”

  1. Roberta Czaplewski

    Excellent insight on discerning the difference between a headshot and a portrait. I’ve never been asked to do a headshot but I now know I would have broken all the rules. While I’ve personally had several headshots taken for business, I’ve always just relied on the photographer to know what was best. Note to self…. Know the difference, know the rules.

  2. Great info. I hadn’t really thought about the differences and if someone asked me I wouldn’t of had a good clear answer but now I do. Thank you for helping me grow as a photographer!

  3. Barbara Pastore

    David-Thank You ! This was very useful info for me… I always had just used the 2 terms interchangeably- won’t do that anymore! So thank you !! Have a blessed day !!

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