Are the terms ‘headshot’ and ‘portrait’ interchangeable?

When considering which photographer may be best-suited to take your acting headshots, you may have also come across the term ‘portrait’ and wondered what the difference really is between a headshot and a portrait – if there is any at all. 

In theory, ‘headshot’ and ‘portrait’ are alternative terms for what is generally the same thing. A headshot is supposed to be a picture of someone – often just their head and shoulders – and a portrait is also supposed to be a picture of someone, also often just their head and shoulders.

But the two things are not the same...

In reality, there does often tend to be a different ‘vibe’ to a portrait, compared to a headshot. Even the respective terms seem to imply something slightly different – a headshot, for instance, is usually taken to mean a formal representation of a person for use in a professional context.

You will probably be familiar with headshots from such settings as Spotlight’s book of black and white photographs of actors, as well as the LinkedIn and Facebook profiles of actors, models and businesspeople alike. As an actor, you will certainly need an up-to-date headshot for your portfolio.

The term ‘portrait’, meanwhile, does imply something a little more... artistic. A portrait is typically less formal, placing more emphasis on providing an insight into the sitter’s character, or telling an enlightening story about them.

This is not to suggest that an actor’s headshot is meant to appear characterless or soulless – quite the opposite – but a headshot is nonetheless typically created for a specific promotional purpose, so there is a little less scope for artistic licence.

A portrait, for example, may show not only the subject’s head and shoulders, but also the entire figure, or perhaps from the waist up. Light and shade may also be used more dramatically in a portrait than in a headshot, for the purposes of contrast or creating a sense of mystery. Props may also be used to help to tell a certain story about the sitter.

What are the implications of this for my acting headshots?

Headshots, with their aim of creating a true life representation of the subject, do tend to comply with certain ‘rules’. These include the use of softer lighting on the face that does not create harsh shadows or make prominent features even more so. Nor should headshots generally use props, with a neutral background typically being favoured.

One of the other aims of a headshot session is to ensure that the sitter looks as relaxed as possible. They will typically wear their normal work attire with the aim of reproducing a ‘natural’ appearance, avoiding heavy makeup or fresh haircuts.

Acting headshots also need to be consistent in how they are shot – shots from distance or at unusual angles are very much the preserve of the portrait photographer, rather than the headshot photographer.

Versatility is vital in headshots, too – they should not suggest just one ‘type’, which is why attendees of a headshot session are often advised to keep clothing neutral. The casting director needs to be able to clearly see the person’s face, and will be aware that they can easily change the actor’s look if required, simply by altering their wardrobe and makeup.

As the favoured actor’s headshot photographer for many of the UK’s most established drama schools and talent agents, I – Steve Lawton – would be delighted to take your own next set of acting headshots.

Contact me today, by emailing or calling +44 (0) 7973 307 487, about how we can produce beautiful and unique images together that truly capture your best qualities.