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.
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.
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.