Portraits versus headshots
A common question amongst photography clients and even many photographers is: What’s the difference between a portrait and a headshot?” Before giving you our opinion, which is also how we use the terms on our website, let’s start with a few basics:
Technically, all headshots are portraits. Let’s look at the true (Webster’s) definition of portraits as it pertains to photographs:
- PICTURE especially: a pictorial representation of a person usually showing the face
It goes beyond pictures too. Before photographs existed it was common for portraits to be created by drawings or paintings. In fact, that’s the definition many people assign to “portrait”.
So where does that leave us?
Let’s look at some common explanations that we disagree with:
"Headshots are pictures for ID cards, portraits use better lighting and technique”
No, that’s the difference between a good or bad headshot. And they are both still portraits.
“Headshots are pictures of people from the shoulders up, portraits show more”
First part is correct, second part is not.
“Headshots are more of snapshots where portraits are more artistic.”
Again, that’s just the difference between good and bad.
Based on a quick read of the Webster’s definition you may conclude that any picture with a person or persons is a portrait, but that’s not completely correct.
Pictures of people are portraits.
Let me give you some examples: Photographs of people in which the purpose of photograph is to illustrate the person (or people) is a portrait. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small poorly taken image for a yearbook, an image of a model taken for his or her portfolio, a well-crafted headshot of a professional taken for a website, or a glamorous celebrity pictorial shot for a magazine taken at a fancy location by a crew of 20. They are all portraits.
So all photographs of people are portraits? No, no quite. There’s a difference between a picture of a person, and a picture with a person in it. For example when we shoot catalogs there may be a person, persons or model being photographed in a dress that is for sale. This is a shot of the clothing item with a person wearing it to enhance the look of the dress. Similarly, if you took a picture of a landscape or home and there was a person in the shot. That’s not a portrait even if the subject(s) in the photograph are integral props to the image.
How we use the terms “headshot” and “portrait”.
Headshots have a simple explanation: A portrait of a person with the bottom of the frame starting from mid-chest to the chin, and with the top of the frame being anywhere between mid-forehead to the top of the head. How each subject is exactly framed can be very different based on their profession, the images use, their personal characteristics and the message the photograph is supposed to send.
When we use the term “portrait”, we use it in the sense of an environmental portrait: A picture of a person with other elements or background to help tell the story. Let me give you some examples:
- A judge with his robe using his bench as a background.
- A lawyer in the law library.
- A physician in a treatment room.
- A real estate agent in front of a sold sign.
- An inventor holding something he designed.
Images above don’t need words to tell you the profession of the subject, and when done expertly, it came make the subject seem even more adept at their trade.
Who uses which?
Headshots are commonly used by business professionals on websites that list employees, officers, agents and so forth.
Actors and models use headshots because the story needs to be told by their expression and look, and nothing else.
Some business professionals may also get portraits. For example: in annual reports.
Personalities like broadcasters, writers, athletes benefit from portraits that depict their profession.
Portraits are also often used for advertising and editorials.
On our portraits page we classify portraits by the type of story they tell. For example: skills, a profession, a business, or to include a location.