Headshot, Portrait or Lifestyle Photography?

A middle age women working out at Valley Forge National Park.



Headshot, Portrait or Lifestyle Photography. What is the difference?

This seems like a very simple straightforward question that usually requires a bit of clarification. What is my client really asking for? A headshot, portrait or a business lifestyle shoot?

There are simple but important differences between these three types of commercial photography and that difference is the intent.



The reason that people value a headshot enough to pay for one, is that they need to look good.  A headshot is created to attract business. Clients requesting head shots want to look good and display an air of confidence.  My goal when shooting a headshot is not only to find the angle and lighting that flatters my subject but to help them relax, be themselves and most importantly, feel confident in front of the camera.

To help my subjects look both good and confident I have learned to actively listen, to be curious and open my heart to my subject’s stories.  While the pace of a headshot shoot only gives me a moment or two with each subject I can still engage my subjects and allow them to feel a sense of their own accomplishments which gives them confidence and the glow of success. With the very shy I might have to give them a few pointers on how to stand and look at a camera, but I tend to keep this to a minimum.

I also find that most people look their best when they are moving. I don’t require my subjects to stand in one spot. I give them space to move around so they can express themselves. Still photography does not mean someone can’t be moving. Do you know somebody who is in a grumpy mood?  Ask them to do three jumping jacks. I assure you that they will be smiling when they are done.



Ricardo Rivera of Klip


Portraits are about revelation.  A good portrait allows the viewer in to learn, discover and feel like that they have met my subject.  While my approach and methods have a lot in common with headshots, the pace is much slower. The shoot is more introspective. The background stops being just a background and takes on a strong supporting role carrying the viewer’s eyes to where I want them to go. The lighting creates a mood that helps reveal the subject’s personality. The background is personal and gives clues about whom we are meeting in this photograph.  Good portraits feel intimate and are an interesting interplay between the viewer and the subject.



A middle age women working out at Valley Forge National Park.

With lifestyle photography, the subject is the action. The goal of creating lifestyle photography is to show people, looking like they are having a good time, doing something cool. When we think of the word “cool” we don’t usually picture an accountant sitting at a desk, yet, often that is the job we are being hired to do, make that office worker look cool.   When shooting lifestyle photography, we like to show clean and clutter free spaces. The lighting feels open, and a  strong graphic composition can turn the person at a desk into a cover story.  The best lifestyle shots have elements of portraiture mixed in.  When a sense of humanity and personality is added to our lifestyle photographs, the scenes become more relatable and authentic.  A good lifestyle photograph makes you think this is an exciting place to be.

Like all art, all these ideas and rules are meant to, and often, are broken.  Like how a poet uses grammar, it is nice to have a starting foundation to build our visual poems.

Headshot, portrait or lifestyle? The difference is intent.  Are we tasked with flattering somebody, revealing our subject or giving a sense of what life is like at that company or institution?  Once we know what the intent is, a photographic plan can easily follow.


Zave Smith



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An Evening Of Sofa Size Portraits


We were tucked into a small corner, next to a bar with 200 people milling about. The Art Directors Club of Philadelphia had asked us to create portraits of all the attendees of this year’s Louix’s Awards. This was not a step and repeat or goofy photo booth. Our mission, in the middle of this chaos, was to build a portrait studio and create images that were both visually compelling and revealed something about our subjects. We would have a minute or two per person.

This was fifth time I had set up a full studio in the middle of a chaotic event. On the previous occasions I shot in B&W on white seamless paper, a set up that allows for easy control of exposure and shadows. I did not want to repeat myself. Inspired by the Vanity Fair Oscar Party Portraits, I wanted to move away from a high key look to do something more glamorous.

My business and design partner, Michael McDonald and I wanted to create a set that felt regal and afforded opportunity for visual variety. We also wanted a set that inspired our sitters to let their guard down. We knew that we would have to fit this set into an area not my bigger than a walk in closet. We found a nice divan sofa on Overstock.com, we then headed down to fabric row and bought 40 yards of a rich purple fabric for the background.

Hanging the fabric and arranging the lighting was challenging in a space that measured twelve foot wide and maybe fifteen foot long. We needed enough space between the divan sofa and the background that shadows would not be a problem. We needed enough width to cover group shots and not have our light stands poking into the frame. We wanted enough length that we could shoot with a longer portrait lens. None of this happened.

I like a bit of chaos on my shoots. It helps focus the mind and induces creativity. Here I had all the chaos I needed. My subjects often could not hear my directions above the noise of the band and the chatter. If I tried to use a lens longer than a 50mm, I ended up in the middle of the bar’s drink line. When suddenly I had a group instead of a single subject and wanted to move the key light to cover them I would have to ask people waiting in line for a drink to move. I had no time to check my histograms so I spent the evening guessing my exposures when I had to adjust the lights.

Ninety minutes and 84 unique portraits later the awards show began. It was time to pack it up. Within a week we posted the portraits on our Xhilarate website. Over a hundred unique viewers stopped to look during the first 3 days with 63% of them being first time visitors to our website. About half the those viewers spent time looking at the rest of work. This year Louix’s Awards Show had about 200 guests. I am sure that at more than half of them will remember us by name as crazy guys in the corner who create interesting portraits.


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Stone Harbor Love

A young women on the beach at Stone Harbor, NJ

Xhilarate Never Stops….from a shoot this weekend in Stone Harbor…

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Music Makers

Vesper-The Music Makers Jazz

Vesper-The Music Makers Jazz

Thomas Camarda. A man with a passion for Jazz. A new portrait from our Music Makers series.

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In The Green Room

11Rory Cloud

From our latest project: http://www.zavesmith.com/PERSONAL-PROJECTS:/Philly’s-Music-Makers/1   #photography   #music   #portrait#philadelphia   #connies

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The Louix’s Portraits

Front Title

You asked for it, now you have it. The Louix’s Portraits: http://www.zavesmith.com/MOTION:/At-The-Louix’s-2016/1
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Last Chapter

Winter Love

May The Last Chapter Never Be Written….www.zavesmith.com

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