Many people have asked me over time why most of my headshots are taken in portrait orientation and so tight? I used to joke around, saying I shot that way because I am a Virgo and my style of shooting is very much “in the box”. I then realized I could simply sum up three main reasons for why I shoot in portrait.
Here are the three reasons:
Connecting with the eyes
When I began my headshot career, I would photograph my clients in landscape. However, I kept feeling like something was missing. I loved my images, but I wanted something more. I wanted to feel more of a connection to the subject, I wanted my viewer to see a story when they looked at my images. During one headshot session, I turned my camera to portrait, and boom. The eyes were in my face, talking right to me. I was drawn into the picture, and for the first time, I felt confident that my viewers would want to know more. As they say: “eyes are the windows to the soul.”
Why is it when taking pictures, you always make sure the eyes are in focus? If the eyes are not sharp, the whole picture is trash. When shooting portrait, the eyes are that much closer, that much bigger, and that much brighter. You have three seconds to make an impression, and with the eyes being so up close and personal, one is looking at turning those three seconds into a lasting career.
With actors, it is all the more important that the image portrays them as they look on a daily basis. It is important not just for when they walk into an audition, but also after the audition. When casting directors discuss who to cast for a role, they will look over the images as a frame of reference. If they don't recognize the person in a photo, that image is going to be facing the leftover meatballs in the trash. That is one of the main reasons I shoot portrait. Facing forward shots look best in portrait, and that is how people see you when they are talking to you. That is the angle that is most recognizable; there is no distraction.
Another reason is style and composition. I just love chopping off a bit of the shoulder pulling the viewer in even more to the face. At times, I will direct my client to stand on one foot. In doing so, they automatically lean on the foot they are standing on, and their body tilts to one side. At the same time, their head will tilt to the opposite side of their body to balance, giving the composition a nice lead towards the face and eyes. Standing on one foot takes some amount of focus, which distracts them from the fact that they are getting their picture taken, making them less self-conscious.
Now, you may ask why would I ever shoot in landscape if I love portrait so much. Good question. Mostly, that has to do with space. When shooting in portrait, I shoot tight — very tight, and with all that, it needs to look breathable. You don't want the picture to look claustrophobic, like you squished someone's face into a box, shipped it through the UPS, and forgot to get the tracking number. You want the image to look open and breathable. When a client has big hair, I shoot landscape. This gives more space for the hair, at the same time, showcasing all that beauty. If the person has a rounder face, portrait can sometimes make the persons face even rounder, then too l will shoot landscape.
If shooting straight on is unflattering for a person and I need to turn them a bit to the side to get a better angle, I will shoot landscape. Once a person is not facing the camera straight on, the image is too tight, and shooting portrait is out the window. I always test each person both ways, and I always give both options. Some people look great in both, so for each look, I will shoot in both just to give options in case they need a cover landscape image for their website. However, most of my clients say: "eh, let's go back to portrait; it is so much stronger." Yep, I am right there with you. At the end of the day, I am an artist, and I use my style to help walk me through the composition. This is not a science; it is art and your art is what will make your pictures stand out.
For all my in-studio shoots headshots and fashion, I use the DigiBees 400 Flash Unit and Paul C. Buff 14” X 60” Foldable Stripbox Together with the Sony a7 III.
My job as a photographer is to make each person shine, to take something that has the potential of looking like a mug shot and turning it into a work of art something that pulls one in, something that tells a story. Learning something as simple as why to shoot in portrait made a huge difference to my style. I hope experimenting with this can help yours too.