A client calls saying she needs some new headshots.  You agree and book a session for her.  The only problem?  You’re not entirely sure what defines a headshot!  Is it just a head and shoulders shot?  Head with some torso?  Argh!  

What Qualifies as a Headshot

An image qualifies as a “headshot” if its primary use will be to represent the individual in a business or professional setting.

Most headshots focus on the upper third of the body, hence the name.  But the test of an image being a headshot vs. a portrait is really how it will be used, not what body parts make it into the picture.

Headshots are used for business

Why Are They Called Headshots If You Can Shoot Part of the Body, Too?

The term and practice of using headshots started with actors and models.  They were required to submit a print, usually an 8×10, of their face (with a hint of shoulder) prior to auditions.  THese images became known as “headshots.”

Today, headshots are used by professionals in all different kinds of industries, from modeling and acting to speaking and architecture.  Business professionals who have photos taken of themselves to market their businesses or services are using headshots.

There Are No Official Rules or Standards for Headshots

There aren’t any rules on how headshots should be posed, cropped, lit or printed, or where they should be shot.  In fact, the only rules come from the agency or company requesting the headshot.  Otherwise, the structure of a headshot is left up to the photographer or client.

standard headshot...or is it?

Ask Your Client for Guidance

Because there are no hard and fast rules, you’ll need to discuss what your clients’ needs and wants are regarding headshots.  Those are what will guide the headshot session, from background and lighting to posing and cropping.

For example, both an insurance agent and drummer might want a headshot taken for their professional use.  But the feel or astetic each wants from those headshots could be very different.  The insurance agent may want a more traditional set…head shoulder images taken with a neutral background.  The drummer, however, may want his headshots taken in his recording studio and wants less traditional crops, including some horizontal images to use on his website.

Both will be headshots, but the lighting, environment, posing, and editing will be very different.

Headshots Can Be More Than Just Heads

Depending on the needs of your client, headshots don’t have to be only the head and shoulders.  Headshots can include the chest, upper torso or even full body.  Again, the primary determining factor is USE not cropping.

Headshots Can Be Horizontal

Traditional modeling and acting headshots were vertical 8x10s (or images shot in portrait orientation).  Today, headshots are regularly shot vertically and horizontally in a variety of aspect ratios.  Those choices depend on what the client wants and needs.  For more explanation on why you might actually prefer a horizontal headshot, click here.

Headshots Can Be Shot on Any Background

Today, headshot sessions occur indoors and out, against all different kinds of backgrounds.  Don’t hold pigeon hole yourself by thinking these need to be taken on a corporate gray backdrop.  Visit with your client about the mood and feeling they want their headshots to convey, then suggest some backdrops that fit those needs.  

Headshots vs Portraits

You might wonder, then, if headshot is really just another term for portrait.  The answer is no, at least ot in the strictest sense of the word.  Headshots are for business use, where portraits are for more story-telling purposes.  A headshot would be used on a business card, where a portrait might accompany a story about that attorney and his fight for justice in a news article.

But don’t get so hung up on the word.  Lots of people and photographers use them interchangeably.  The key is to ask your client what they need and want so you are both operating on the same page, regardless of the terms you use.

Check out Peter Hurley, one of the country’s leading “headshot and portrait photographers to see what he qualifies as a headshot.


The litmus test for what qualifies as a headshot isn’t what body parts appear in the image, where it’s taken or how you pose the client.  A headshot is simply an image used to represent the subject for business purposes.  What are truly important are your clients goals and needs with regards to the images they seek!

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