What is the difference between a headshot and a portrait?

Headshot Photography, Headshot Photography FAQ
Relaxed headshot of interior designer Vanessa Sayce by Nick Cole Photography

The terms headshot and portrait photography are often mixed up and frequently used in the wrong context. The difference is subtle, but there are important differences. So let’s take a look. 

In the article “what does a headshot photo look like” we explored the DNA of a headshot. 

A couple of decades ago, very few of us had a headshot. They were mainly reserved for company directors and the acting profession. But with the advent of social media, online dating sites and social networking sites such as LinkedIn, they’ve become increasingly important. 

I’d go as far as saying, they’re an essential part of your marketing toolkit. 

A headshot is still predominantly used as a business tool, whereas a portrait doesn’t have the same constraints. A portrait isn’t restricted, so stylistically there’s more creative freedom.  

Let’s take a look at a few more differences between a headshot and a portrait. 

What’s included in the photo

A headshot photo is typically cropped to show the head and shoulders only. There’s often little space allocated for a headshot, so keeping the focus on the face is important.  

A quick LinkedIn tip. At the time of writing the LinkedIn profile picture is top left in the banner, so it’s important to photograph your client looking forwards or left to right (as you look at them), so they’re looking into the page. A headshot looking off the page can feel a little dismissive. 

A portrait on the other hand doesn’t have any constraints, so we can show the head and shoulders, half, three quarter or full body shots. The choice is yours! 


When I’m photographing a headshot I’m always looking to capture a confident and approachable expression. A headshot is a business photo that’s designed to help you connect with a new or existing audience, so capturing a warm expression is a great way to start building a relationship. 

Again, a portrait doesn’t have any constraints. Depending on the reason for taking the portrait the subject could be elated, sad, angry, neutral or thoughtful. The style and mood of the portrait is only limited by your creative vision. This can also be enhanced by body language and how you pose your client. 


There’s a pattern developing here, in that the styles are more restrictive for a headshot. 

A business headshot is typically photographed with soft light that wraps around the face. This results in an image where the face is evenly lit on both sides. We’re not trying to create a mysterious image, we want to see the whole face, evenly lit.

There is however a slight difference when it comes to acting headshots and these can be stylistically different depending on the genre. In the article “what are headshots and who uses them” I explore some of the different acting headshot styles in more depth.    

As before with portraits, there aren’t any specific rules to light a portrait. If you’re looking to create a moody powerful image you might create a low-key image. This will be predominantly dark with a pop of light to draw your eye to the main subject. 

Alternatively you may create a brighter image or even a high key image which feels light, bright and fresh. The lighting style is a powerful tool and has a huge impact on the mood of the image.  

Environment and location

Finally the environment and location has a huge impact on the mood of an image. 

As I mentioned in the first section, with a headshot we tend to crop tightly on the head and shoulders, so the image connects well. Two thirds of the image should be taken up by the face, so that doesn’t leave much room for the location to contribute. In fact, it’s best to choose neutral backgrounds that don’t distract. Our focus should be on the face and eyes, so it’s best to avoid busy backgrounds if you can.    

Again, a portrait offers more options. We could crop in tightly like a headshot, but we also have the option to photograph wider. We can include the background and create a sense of place. By revealing the background we’re adding more depth to the story which makes the image far more interesting.   

I use this technique in my personal branding photography and business storytelling photography sessions.  Part of the planning process includes helping my clients develop a story that captures who they are, what they do and choosing locations that help bring the story to life. 

And one important caveat…

As we become more accustomed to social media, we’re exposed to more candid and lifestyle photography. This is starting to filter through to headshots as well and stylistically headshots are becoming more relaxed. It’s still important to get the basics right though. So keeping an image tightly cropped on the head and shoulders and capturing a confident and engaging expression is as important as it ever has been. 

If you’d like to find out more about what the is difference between a headshot and a portrait, I’ve written a series of headshot photography FAQs. Clients often ask me these questions, so I hope you find them helpful.    

If you prefer a chat instead, or you’d like to plan a headshot session you can book a complimentary consultation call here. 

Learn more about headshot photography and the other services I offer including business storytelling photography, personal branding photography and corporate event photography.