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Portrait vs. Headshot: What’s the Difference?

When you start talking about photography, it can be hard to distinguish between a portrait vs. a headshot. At first, it may seem that it’s just a matter of terminology. But that is just not so. The simplest way to state it is that a headshot is a type of portrait, with one of the biggest differences being how the images are going to be used. Headshots are for professional and official use, whereas a portrait is used in less formal settings. 


What’s the Difference Between a Headshot and a Portrait?

Headshots used to be just for models and actors. They served as a resume for entertainment professionals. But today, a headshot is used widely for a variety of purposes. They are useful for professionals who need them for marketing purposes. A professional headshot can be used online to present a professional image on a business website. They are also useful for profile pictures on LinkedIn, Facebook, or other social media sites connected to a business.


Portraits, on the other hand, are less formal and more personal. They tell the story of the subject and may have a wider view than a headshot. A headshot needs to be straightforward; a portrait can allow for artistic license. Photographers can use different lighting, features, props, or anything else to tell the person’s story. 


Professional photographers make a difference between headshot and portrait images when they are capturing them. Here are the in-depth differences between these types of photographs.

The Subject

Headshots have a single subject. Just one person is included in the photo; portraits can include any number of people. The goal of a headshot is to feature one person without any distractions. A portrait may also be used as a marketing tool. Sometimes you need more than just a head and shoulders photograph to tell your story or market your business.  


The Focus

A headshot and branding portraits are used in professional settings. The purpose is to represent you, your image, and your personality in a professional manner. Think of it as your “official” image. Headshots are used on materials and websites linked to your professional life. Its focus is on you and your face. The headshot is focused on a head-and-shoulders look with the head taking up most of the frame. 

The Crop

How the image is framed or cropped is a significant factor in determining if a photograph is a headshot vs a portrait. The headshot, as the name implies, is an image that is mostly the subject’s head. The eyes are critical and often the focal point of an image. A headshot can include the shoulders and some of the arms or upper body, but the face will fill the largest portion of the frame. 

The Lighting

The lighting for a portrait or a headshot can be changed. Professional headshots require soft lighting. To achieve the up-close nature of a headshot requires soft lighting. A headshot may have shadows, due to the use of lighting. A portrait uses brighter lighting which makes the image shadow-free. 


The Mood

Professional headshots have a friendly, relaxed mood. Depending on the primary purpose of the headshot, the subject may smile. They want to communicate a specific message to observers. It’s important for a headshot to communicate trust, friendliness, and approachability. Professional business headshots for use on websites or other materials usually try to aim at demonstrating these qualities. In some industries, a headshot may be needed to display concentration, knowledge, and toughness. 


Portraits, on the other hand, don’t have a specific approach. It all comes down to the message that needs to be conveyed, and where it can be best communicated. They may be bright with tons of light pouring through the windows. Or, portraits may be dark and dramatic.


Portraits tell a story. Headshots introduce the subject and communicate a quick message to observers.


As you see, there are several key differences between a portrait vs. a headshot. Headshots portray a professional image, whereas portraits are more casual and can be of more than one person. Whether you need a portrait or a professional headshot, contact Kyle Bondeson Photography to book your session.