The head shot, business portrait, or the action portrait; which is best for you!?

Business portraits are an important tool for anyone who needs to be recognized. Customers, shareholders, organization members, and the general public all benefit by being able to put a face to a name. When a business owner or executive needs a photograph of themselves, the first thing that comes to mind is, they need a head shot.  They might need a photo for a press release, marketing material, or a  portrait to hang on the wall so customers can see who’s in charge. Some people will go to a professional photographer and sit in a studio. Others will have a staff member bring in their camera and stand in front of a wall and click. Oh, and then there are those who take the ubiquitous selfie.

The purpose of this article is to help you understand the difference between head shots and portraits. It will give you some ideas of when each is appropriate, and maybe introduce a few new ideas you might want to have in your next photo session.

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Head Shots

Corporate headshot

A corporate head shot is perfect for identifying “who”. It’s ideal for some situations but not all.

Both the head shot and the portrait are important business tools to have at the ready, but what is the difference? Most people believe they are one and the same. They are not. When you go to a professional photographer and you are placed in front of a background, they are usually taking a head shot. Some call it a portrait but it’s not and I’ll tell you why. You’ll know this it’s just a head shot because you will feel like you’re back in high school posing for a yearbook photo. These photos are terrific for press releases and other media where you just need to show someone what you look like. You might even deem them worthy for a LinkedIn profile image. It’s all about the basics after-all; this is what this person looks like and I’ll know them when I see them.

Do you think that is the proper way to portray yourself on your website, social media or printed material? Are you waiting for the silver bullet answer? Well, maybe this is it; it depends (sorry, all out of silver bullets). The way I look at head shots is they are for identification purposes only. It’s OK for press releases and a record of staff and maybe social media profiles but wait, there’s more!

The Business Portrait

Environmental portrait of an attorney

Environmental business portraits allow the subject to project confidence, attitude, and authority. Try to imagine a head and shoulders “head shot” of this subject on a plain background.

Many years ago in photography school, I learned how to light for a portrait. It was always done on a plain background or even a muted patterned background like a painted muslin or the like. Most every professional photographer in business who shoots portraits does this same thing. I do this as well, but is that really a business portrait or just a likeness (head shot) of that person?

Now let’s say you take someone into an environment. Take them outdoors or put them somewhere they enjoy in their office. Have them stand or sit somewhere they feel comfortable at home, anywhere but in the studio and now you are creating  business portraiture or as it is also known; environmental portraiture. Place a person in the environment they work in and you kick it up a notch. Now, the person is at ease, they are looking proud and it shows. Now, the viewer can see the real person, someone they might like to know, someone they might like to do business with.

Portraits make statements.

Head shots identify.


Action Portrait

Corporate action shot, action portraiture.

When the subject is taken out of the portrait setting and left to work in his element, you can really see them in a relaxed and I might even say, a more professional mode because they are doing what they love doing.

I thought I would add one more style to this tri-fecta of ways to capture your smiling visage. Is there a way to take it up another notch still? Yes, with action portraits (or action business portrait if you prefer). Let’s look at all three approaches and you decide which you would prefer.

  • Picture a few attorneys getting head shots taken for their website. Each person posed the same way, with a nice smile; recognizable, informative, and identifiable
  • Now imagine a photo of each attorney standing in a hallway or conference room in their office; relaxed and comfortable. Each just taking in the office architecture, the artwork they surround them selves with and culture they work in every day. They have less stress and more of their personality comes through because of their body and facial language.
  • Last, let’s sit an attorney down with a potential client.  He or she is getting information, they are in heavy discussion, helping, listening and involved. The are doing what they love to do.

Which would attract your next client?

Head shots, business portraits (also called executive environmental portraits), and action portraits; each have a purpose in the way you market yourself and your business. Decide for yourself, see my corporate portraiture portfolio.

Portraits make statements.

Head shots identify.

Action portraits excite,
convince, and persuade!

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Mark Gilvey is a professional commercial product, real estate, and corporate event photographer in Woodbridge, VA.

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