Recently, a fellow photographer commented on some headshots I took stating that I'd done "nice work apart from some flat heads" as I'd cropped through the top of each of the subjects hair. The images I took were 'headshots' for a website and it occurred to me how much misunderstanding there is about what a 'headshot' is, even amongst photographers. If the images had been intended to be portraits, I'd have totally agreed that they shouldn't have been cropped that way, but as a headshot, that's slightly different. So I thought I'd write a little about what, I feel, are the key differences between portraits and headshots.
So let's make a distinction first, portraits and headshots are not the same. Although fundamentally both types of image are primarily concerned with capturing the subject's face, their end use is quite different. Portraits are to be looked at and appreciated artistically in so much as the portrayal of a person serves no other purpose beyond the image itself. Headshots on the other hand should not be artistic, they are working documents designed to sell the subject to an image reviewer. This is most common amongst actors where an effective headshot can gain casting invites and job interviews, it's also more and more common for business professionals to have high quality headshots done for their business website or online profiles on networking sites such as linkedIn.
Why is this difference important? Having a strong and appropriate headshot can be the key to gaining work for many professionals, conversely, a poor headshot can be a barrier to getting that much needed new opportunity. A good photographer should always consider what the end use of their images will be and tailor it effectively to that need. In the case of headshots, whether we as photographers like it or not, there are industry standards that we need to conform to if our images are to best serve our clients.
Colour. Black & White images used to be the standard for headshots back in the 90's, this was arguably due to the high printing costs of having hundreds of colour images printed. These days with most portfolios and profiles being digital there's no excuse for colourless images, if you're sending black & white images to casting directors, you'll be in danger of appearing a bit behind the times.
The Crop. The current trend is to crop through the top of the hair and just below the shoulders. This style has mainly been pioneered by Peter Hurley and is now considered by many to be the most popular and effective way of composing headshots. It draws focus onto the face and with the eyes always being in the upper half of the image, really helps engage viewers with the subject while still giving enough information about hair style and body.
Focus. It's not 1986 and nobody digs soft focus headshots anymore. Casting directors and business associates want to see what you look like, so having images where your photographer has used a very shallow depth of field and blurred out half your face will most likely not get you that job.
So when you're choosing your next photographer remember that your headshots are an investment, they need to help you get work and to do that you need to make sure you choose a photographer capable of supplying you with the right type of images. For quick reference I highly recommend Googling "Peter Hurley", he's a NY based headshot photographer and widely accepted as the best in the business, if your local photographer can produce images in a similar style then you're on the right tracks.