What's The Difference Between A Headshot And A Portrait?

What is a headshot and what is a portrait?

A headshot is an image of an aspiring actor or spokesperson, usually from the collarbone up, that is used as a marketing tool to sell their type to a casting director, agent, or manager. It’s a solicitation for acceptance, meaning, it asks the question, “Am I what you’re looking for?”

A portrait is an image of a person, from up close to full body, that captures who someone is in that moment in time. It isn’t selling anything. It’s a statement that says, “This is who I am, right here, right now.”

A headshot with regard to actors is used as a marketing tool to get work or representation.

A portrait is used to illustrate who someone is, like in a magazine, book, or as a work of art to be displayed.

That being said, many people refer to any image of someone’s head and face as a headshot. Are they wrong? No, that’s just part of the nomenclature.

Is there a gray area with headshots and portraits?

Is there ever an overlap between headshots and portraits — a sort of no-man’s land where one isn’t quite sure if it’s a headshot or a portrait?

Sure, some headshots can share certain characteristics of portraits, and some portraits can share certain characteristics of headshots but I believe that’s more the exception than the rule. 

Differences in lighting

Headshots in general are bright and more evenly lit with either natural light or studio flash. There are not a lot of harsh shadows or bright highlights that contrast with one another.

Portraits, on the other hand, can be evenly lit as well, but they can and often do include more shadows and highlights to achieve a more dramatic look.

There are fewer conventional constraints with portraits, allowing one to be more creative with the lighting. Not that one is better than the other, just different, because of their different uses. 

Differences in framing

Headshots typically don’t show a lot of the surroundings in which the subject is in, and any background that is seen is often out of focus on purpose, so the image draws your attention to the subject. 

Portraits may or may not feature the surroundings, it just depends on how wide the shot is.

There is in fact something called an “environmental portrait” that is used in corporate and editorial photography quite a bit. Its purpose is to include the surroundings to add a setting to the image. When that’s done, the surroundings are typically in focus as well, or slightly out of focus but not to the point that we can’t tell where we are. 

An environmental portrait of a greasy mechanic can be taken in his shop next to a car he’s working on, or a ballerina in her dressing room moments before she steps out on stage. Both include a recognizable setting and add to the story of the image. 

Which segues nicely into my next topic…

Portraits Have the Ability To Tell A Story

A portrait can more accurately tell the story of who someone is. For example, a 100 year-old African-American man sitting on the front porch of his home built in 1870 in New Orleans in the heat of an August summer gives you a lot more information than if you just took a “headshot” that only showed his head and face. 

With a headshot, there is no story because the intent of the image isn’t to tell a story, it’s to show what a person looks like.

Portraits can get crazy, headshots can get just a little crazy

There’s a lot more room for experimentation with portraits. You can have unconventional lighting, unconventional posing, crazy makeup or effects. 

Not so fast there buddy with your headshot. The most you’ll be able to get away with in the Crazy Department is with your commercial headshot. I’ve seen some unconventional framing and posing in that category that works really well, but anything beyond that and your agent will probably want to have a little talk with you. 

This style of pushing the envelope with a wacky pose or silly expression is a lot more popular with stand-up comedians and comedic actors than it is with the mainstream acting crowd. Still, if you want to stand out a little with your commercial headshot and grab a casting director’s attention, this might be something you want to experiment with. For more information about this refer to my article “How To Take Your Commercial Headshot To The Next Level”. 

Body Language

Since portraits can be shot wider to include more of one’s body, how the subject strikes a pose can contribute greatly to the attitude of the image.  

With headshots, since we’re up close and personal with one’s face, the expression is everything. We’re too close to even see any other part of the body, unless we’re in portrait orientation and we see more of the torso. But notice the term, “portrait orientation”. It’s borrowing an aesthetic from the conventions of the portrait world. 

Where is all this talk about the differences between headshots and portraits taking us? 

In knowing these conventions, and the unwritten rules of Hollywood, an actor can swim with the current or against it with their marketing. 

Most agents, managers, and casting directors want and like conventional mainstream headshots from actors. Some even only want portrait orientated headshots instead of landscape. 

That’s good information to know. So, every actor in town gets their headshots and they submit and some get noticed and called in for auditions, and some get agents and managers, and then some don’t get any attention at all.

The ones that don’t get any attention at all try again… this time with a different headshot photographer… and they submit all over again… and still get no attention.

Hmm… this doesn’t seem to be working.

This is when you need to try something new and perhaps different, and perhaps even swim against the current here.

Why not use a portrait as your headshot?

If anything it will stand out because it just looks and feels different than a headshot. It has a different mood, look, and vibe to it. 

Now I’m not trying to push one over the other because in my business I actually shoot both. I shoot mainstream headshots and then I have my moody and dramatic portrait work.

I’ve learned to appreciate both for what they are… and for what they can be used for by a smart marketer.  

Sometimes you have to take a risk in life and go against the grain. If main stream headshots are working for you, then great, stick with ‘em. If not, though, doesn’t it make sense to try a different tactic? 

Wouldn’t it make sense if you’re auditioning for an edgy independent film that you submit an edgy moody portrait instead of a more mainstream headshot? I personally don’t think it would hurt your chances one bit. In fact, you would probably stand out more from all the other “headshots” because you’re matching the tone and energy of the project. 

Now, if you’re submitting to a sitcom or a big network series, you probably want to go with the mainstream headshot. It tells the people in charge that you know what you’re doing because you have all the traits of a professional actor.

I guess my point here is that knowing the difference between a headshot and a portrait, and knowing how they can both work for you and against you takes your marketing to a level that few actors dare to even think about, let alone actually go to. 

You see, there’s actually very little competition at the top. Most of the competition is right smack dab in the middle, where people don’t have to work too hard — just hard enough to be in the game. 

Here’s an example of what I’m saying. How many actors in Hollywood are auditioning for roles their agent sends them out on? Quite a lot, right? Would you say 99%, something like that? Verses, how many actors are either writing and or producing their own script to make into an independent film? 1%? Less? I’m not talking about the ones who are talking about doing it, I’m talking about the ones who are actually doing it.

Did you know that Vin Diesel made his own short film that he starred in which led to Steven Spielberg casting him in Saving Private Ryan?

Look what Brie Larson did with Room.

Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs (he was originally going to play Mr. Pink, Steve Buscemi’s part, but then later chose a smaller role so he could concentrate on his directing).

My point here is that these actors took a gamble and did what the other 99% of their peers didn’t or wouldn’t do. 

We are no longer in the Information Age, we are in the Attention Age. 

These artists got people’s attention by doing something creatively atypical for actors. 

The purpose of your headshot is to grab the casting director’s attention so they can decide if they want you to audition or not.

If what you’re currently doing is not working then try something atypical for a change and see how much attention you get then.