What Is The Difference Between A Portrait And A Headshot?

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Headshot Or Portrait Even A Photographer Gets Confused

Here is a question to get the portrait and headshot photographers talking. If it confuses the photographers, you can be sure it is going to confuse anyone looking for a portrait or headshot photographer as well.
If you have come here because you want to know the difference I will try to explain, from my own point of view.

One of differences between a portrait and a headshot is how the image will be used. As a rule of thumb, a headshot is used for some sort of ‘official’ use. It could be your profile picture for example, or for audition applications, identification, etc. A portrait though tells more of a story and is more often used for editorial work, blog or social media posts, adverts or for displaying on the wall.

In short, a headshot identifies the subject, while a portrait tells the viewer a story. There are of course other ways in which a headshot and a portrait differ.

Number Of Subjects

A headshot would include a single person, while a portrait may contain multiple people, along with other items, locations or props.

The Cropping

A headshot is about the persons head, or I should say head and shoulders. The focus is on their face to show people who they are. The majority of headshots would be framed quite close.

Portraits may be more forgiving in the framing and may include more of the body, if not all of it. A portrait may also include the surroundings so the subject, or person, is only a part of the final image.

That is not to say that a portrait can’t be just of the head and shoulders. Are you beginning to understand why there is so much debate about the difference between a headshot and a portrait?

The Mood Of The Shot

A headshot usually conveys a professional look. They are typically brightly lit so the full face can be seen and focus on the eyes. A headshot doesn’t usually evoke any form of emotion or feeling from the viewer. 

Portraits on the other hand can be used to convey a message of emotion. Lighting can be used to show a part of the face, or indeed a darker overall image. The individual’s expression is also used to develop the overall reason for the image. A look of happiness, sadness, excitement along with other emotions.

The Surroundings

Where the image is taken can also be a difference between a headshot and a portrait. 

In the majority of circumstances, a headshot will be taken in a studio with a plain background. That said it is also becoming more common now to have headshots taken outdoors or in an office environment. The subject though is usually separated from the background, for example the background may be blurred.

With a portrait the surroundings for a part of the final image. The surroundings help to put the person in place and help the viewer to associate the person with the reason for the photograph. The surrounding help to create the story that the image it trying to tell.

Artistic Creativity

This is probably, for me, the main difference between a headshot and a portrait. Headshots need to be realistic in that they are showing. It’s the WYSIWYG effect, ‘what you see is what you get’.

A portrait though is more open to the artistic talents of the photographer. Your photographer may experiment with different lighting, props, colours, clothing, angles, or backgrounds to create an image that they, or you, are looking to achieve.

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