Headshots and portraits – is there a difference?

I’m sometimes asked what the difference is between a headshot and a portrait.

In my opinion there is a difference but it’s subtle. It’s more a question of headshots being a subset of the portrait genre…sort of like all squares being rectangles but not all rectangles being squares!

My aim in any portrait session is to capture the character of the person or people I’m photographing. This is equally as important for headshots as it is for any other type of portrait.

Headshots are primarily shots of the face and maybe a little of the upper body. They are generally taken with the purpose of being used on a website or in a company brochure. As such they have a very specific target audience – potential clients.

So the headshot not only has to capture a likeness, it also has to communicate trustworthiness, integrity, reliabilty and likeability. That’s quite a tall order.

In addition, headshots tend to be well-lit, and face-toward-camera. Portraits can be whole body, half body, moody, serious, playful, even jokey. They can be about relationships between people, or the relationship of a person with an object (a musical instrument for example), they can include props (books, balloons etc.) and may simply be about a particular moment in time. As a gross generalisation portraits are created with the client in mind, headshots are created with the client’s customers in mind.


This is a classic headshot. The subject is instantly recognisable to his clients. He looks relaxed and approachable. It was taken for the owner of a web design business.

Bob Finished FB

This is also a headshot. This client’s business is all about the fun of music workshops.

2 truff OL web


This, on the other hand is a classic portrait of a my own elderly father. You can see it’s shot in a very different way. More of his body is visible, as well as his much-loved rocking chair. There is more use of shadow and more is made of the contrast between light and dark.


This is also a portrait. Bethany is a dancer. We were having fun in a photo session and she suddenly twirled. I thought it looked beautiful in the sunlight so asked her to repeat it a few times and we captured this lovely airy shot.


The style of the last two shots would probably not suit a business website, whereas the first two were taken specifically for that purpose. Yet either of the first two is a nice portrait in its own right and could be framed and used at such.

I hope that helps clear up the difference.