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

by David Em
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The main difference between a portrait and a headshot is the purpose. Headshots are a professional representation while a portrait is more creative.

Headshot of a bald person.

What’s a portrait?

Portrait photography, also known as portraiture, is an image of a person or group of people. There are many types of portraits, full-body, half-body, or close-up. They can be photographed in a studio or on location.

The goal of a portrait is to express the personality of a subject and create images that can evoke emotions. Your subject’s expressions, body language, lighting, and backgrounds are how you’ll be able to capture great portraits.

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As a photographer, you get to be more creative with portraits and experiment with different lighting to create artistic photos.

What’s a headshot?

A headshot is a type of portrait. It’s a close-up photo of a person showing their shoulders and head, hence the name headshot.

They’re most commonly used for professional purposes such as professional profile images, about pages or to promote their personal brand.

In this type of portrait photography, the main focus is the subject’s face. A viewer can see the details and get a sense of what the subject looks like up close.

There are two common types of headshots: the theatrical headshot and the commercial headshot.

Theatrical headshot

Theatrical headshots are specifically for actors in plays, TV shows, and movies. This headshot style is very powerful and portrays the subject’s personality.

The key to a great theatrical headshot is to show genuine emotions which also makes these headshots more dramatic.

Commercial headshot

Commercial headshots are geared towards professional and advertising (commercial) purposes. It focuses on attracting the viewer to look at what you have to offer.

This means that the subject needs to catch the viewer’s attention. You can do this by showing authentic feelings and happiness. This will make the headshot look lively and bright. Remember, people are drawn to warm and friendly people so make sure you portray that in your commercial headshots.

The goal of a headshot

Headshots should express confidence while making the subject look approachable. By showing the subject’s personality, you can portray the right image and leave a great first impression.

Portrait vs. headshot

When you’re deciding between a portrait vs. headshot, consider the purpose of the image before going into the photoshoot.

If your client needs photos for work or a profile image, professional headshots with a simple background are perfect. If someone needs fashion photos for a magazine ad or personal branding, a full-body portrait is great.

Frequently asked questions

Should headshots be in color or black and white?

Headshots in color are the standard for modern times. Black and white headshots may look more dramatic and artistic but it can also come off as old or dated. Feel free to give your client headshots in both color and black and white.

What aperture should I use?

A low aperture, meaning a shallow depth of field is great for portraits and headshots because it isolates the subject from the background. However, if the background is an important part of the photo, use a higher f-stop number so that the background is in focus.

How can I make a portrait more interesting?

Allow your creativity to flow. Think about different perspectives, play around with different lighting, and make sure your subject has light in their eyes.

What should my subject wear for a headshot?

Plain colors work best for headshots because the main focus is your subject’s face. Make sure you tell them to avoid busy prints and patterns.


Deciding between a headshot and a portrait comes down to the purpose. If your client needs a professional photo for work, a headshot is perfect. If your client wants photos of themselves for personal use, any type of portrait will do.

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Featured photo by Unsplash.

About David Em

David Em.

David Em is the founder of Portraits Refined. He’s a published portrait photographer dedicated to helping photographers develop skills, capture incredible photos, and build successful businesses.

About Portraits Refined

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