What is the Difference Between a Portrait and a Headshot?


Are all headshots portraits? 

Why are portraits not headshots? 

It’s sort of like one of those high school English quizzes! If you’re not sure what makes a headshot and what makes a portrait, you aren’t alone! In this article we are going explain the differences between the two!

What is the Difference Between a Portrait and a Headshot?

The main differences between a headshot an a portrait are: Cropping & how the image(s) will be used!

Traditionally headshots are taken for official business use, while a portrait is more of a descriptive image used to tell a story about the subject. Headshots are used for purposes such as business cards, advertisements, auditions, identification badges, website profiles, social media profiles & more. The popularity of headshots have grown over the years.

Classic headshot by Mike Jackson Photography

Portraiture or Portraits are about the subject! In lifestyle advertisements, on book jackets, in blog posts, as social media posts, or as framed art on the wall. 

Basically, a headshot identifies the subject, where a portrait tells the viewer something more about the subject. For example, the photo used on a school identification badge of a student is a headshot identifying the subject. A photo of a high school athlete in his lacrosse uniform surrounded by all the trophies he has won over the years accompanying a newspaper article is a portrait. An actress has a headshot she sends before auditioning for a job so the casting agency knows what she looks like. But that same actress also has a portrait of her in her home showing her on set of her first major television gig, in full makeup and dress.

Portraits and headshots also differ in a few more ways:

  • Number of Subjects
  • Cropping
  • Mood
  • Environment
  • Creativity

Let’s look at these differences below.

Classic portrait by Mike Jackson Photography

Number of Subjects

Headshots are generally just of a single subject. A portrait could include multiple subjects.  


Headshots, as the name implies, focus on the head and face. Most of the time, headshots are a tight shot of the head and shoulders of your subject. Portraits, on the other hand, can be frame more loosely. Portraits can be just the head and shoulders OR include more of the upper torso or even the entire body.


Headshots and portraits also differ when it comes to mood. Headshots are typically well-lit, bright, and convey a professional feel. They don’t typically evoke a lot of emotion from the viewer. But emotion is an important part of a portrait! They can convey happiness, melancholy, contentment, sadness, or excitement. Emotion is used to tell the viewer something about the subject.


Environment is another difference in portraits and headshots. Many headshots are taken on a generic background, or cropped in a way that the environment isn’t a factor in the image. When it comes to portraits, however, the environment may play a critical role in the image if the photographer believes it contributes to the story she is trying to tell about her subject.  


The final difference between headshots and portraits is the flexibility to be creative. 

Portraits give the photographer more opportunity for creativity and artistic expression. A portrait photographer may experiment with lighting, posing, color, props, clothing, angles, backgrounds, and subjects.  

Headshots, though, are pretty straight forward. Think of the difference between a typical yearbook photo (headshot) and the senior photo mom hangs on the wall for perpetuity (portrait).


The most important difference between headshots and portraits is how they will be used. That answer alone will be the main driving force of how you light, compose, and crop the image for a client. Always clarify the intent of the client by asking questions so you can be sure you are delivering what they need and expect, not just by the word they use!  

If you have questions, concerns or would like to book a session. Please use our CONTACT page to reach us!