Differences Between a Headshot and Portrait Photo

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In this guide, we’ll be discussing the difference between a headshot photo and a portrait.

The two are often used interchangeably, but there are some differences between the two that you should know if you are a photographer!

We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):

What is a Headshot Photo?

A headshot photo is a very simple portrait.

When you head out to take or retouch a headshot, it’s important to be aware of the difference between headshots and portrait photos. While headshot photography can certainly include portrait-style images, they are not the same thing.

The headshot photographer will take headshots of clients in order to place them in their portfolio or on their website.

This type of headshot may include photos taken within the studio, but headshots are also often captured outside of the studio environment to give them an authentic feel.

When someone refers to a headshot photo, it usually entails a tight crop showing only the head and shoulders.

business headshot smile
headshot photo

What is a Portrait Photo?

A portrait photo is an artistic headshot that can include more than just one person.

A headshot photographer will capture clients in the headshot style, including only one or two subjects, but a portrait photographer may take multiple headshots of different people at once.

This type of headshot is typically more focused on the face and hair rather than headshots that are head-and-shoulders only.

Portraits can also be full-body and include more opportunities for different posing (since more of the body is exposed).

portrait example
portrait photo

11 Differences Between a Headshot and a Portrait

1. Focus

The main difference is the focus.

A headshot image is a head-and-shoulders shot with the head filling up most of the frame and little to no background information visible.

The headshot photographer will capture headshots that work purely as portrait images of the subject without any landscape, cityscape or other details that detract from their head and face.

These images are often headshot head-and-shoulders headshots.

Here are other key differences to be aware of.

2. Number of Subjects

A headshot photo is a head and shoulders shot of one person.

A portrait isn’t limited to just one or two people, though.

There are group portraits, but there aren’t “group headshots.”

group portrait example
subjects in a photo

3. Cropping

The second difference between a headshot and a portrait is the cropping.

The cropping on a headshot is where the head nearly fills up the entire frame. Headshots will crop the shoulders and neck.

The cropping on a portrait varies depending on the photographer. If it is a full-body portrait then the crop will ensure the whole body is in the frame.

If it is a group portrait, then the crop will ensure the whole group is in the frame.

4. Mood

The mood of a headshot is very different than that of a portrait.

Headshots are typically more serious than portraits as the main focus is on making the person look great as they would for a resume or an online profile picture.

Portraits can certainly include this style, but the second difference between the two types of photos is how much personality the subject is allowed to have.

Headshots are typically more serious, whereas portraits can include many different expressions and emotions.

moody portrait example
portrait — showing different expressions and emotions

5. Environment

Another difference between the two types of photos is the environment.

The headshot photographer will shoot in a studio setting, but depending on the photographer they may step outside to get some fresh air or use natural lighting. Portraits can be taken anywhere.

This is because portraits don’t have to just show one person’s face-they could include several different subjects in a group shot.

6. Style of Retouching

Headshots are usually retouched to remove blemishes, perfect the skin tone, darken eyes or brighten them, and enhance other features.

Portraits are often retouched because the photographer wants to pay homage to an artistic vision without being limited by reality.

The photographer may paint in a certain backdrop or change the lighting and colors in the photo to create an artistic effect.

7. Background

The background in a traditional headshot is typically completely out of focus.

The photographer is giving the viewer’s eye no reason to leave the subject other than their clothes or accessories, but even then, these are secondary to the face.

When photographing people in a portrait style there is often some detail visible in the background that can tell you where the person is or what they are doing.

Headshots are often about enhancing beauty, whereas the goal in a portrait is to express something specific about the subject.

This can range from representing them as powerful and confident for an executive headshot to expressing their youth with a casual portrait.

headshot vs portrait background
headshot vs portrait background

8. Posing

The posing guidelines for a portrait and a headshot have their differences.

A headshot should feature the subject looking “stiffer” and straight at the camera with a more professional sense of emotion on their face.

A portrait will often have the person making more unique faces-or they may be doing something interesting like playing an instrument, skateboarding, riding a bike, or giving a high-five (for example in environmental portraits).

9. Marketing

When marketing your photography skills it is important to know which type of photo you are taking and who the photo will be aimed at.

It is wise to avoid sending out headshots to clients if they are looking for something more artistic.

If you want to shoot portraits then it would make sense to create a portfolio of your work showcasing this style.

10. Typical Situations

Headshots are typically used by actors, singers, models, and business people who want to have an image that represents their personal brand.

Portraits are more common in groups of people, modeling work, and weddings where they portray the wedding party members or other guests.

Headshots can also be included as part of a portrait session should an actor want to establish their credibility as more than just an actor.

A portrait is also sometimes included with a headshot, but it isn’t typically the main focus of them both.

11. Printing

When you are printing either of these types of photos it is important to consider the size and shape that will best suit your needs.

Neither has a standard or common aspect ratio like print sizes for 4×6, 5×7, 8×10, 11×14, 16×20, etc…

Headshots can be any shape at all, but are most commonly printed in the 2:3 aspect ratio of 6×4 or 8×5 and also 4:5 ratio.

45 ratio example
4:5 ratio example

Portraits can be any size, although portrait sessions are typically longer than headshot sessions so the prints are larger. To learn what paper type is best for headshots, we also recommend our guide → Paper Type for Headshots

Headshots tend to be printed at smaller sizes-like 4×6, 5×7, and 8×10 because they are often handed out to be put in multiple places such as wallets, frames, passports, websites, etc.

Portraits are often printed in larger sizes, like 11×14 and 16×20 to hang on picture frames in a house for example.

Final Remarks

We hope you enjoyed this guide on the differences between a portrait and a headshot.

This guide is a part of our Headshot Photography Tips Hub, so be sure to check that out to further explore headshot photography tips and insights.