Why I Mainly Photograph in Portrait Orientation for Actors' Headshots

Why I Mainly Photograph in Portrait Orientation for Actors' Headshots

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:

  1. Connecting with the eyes

  2. Face recognition

  3. Composition

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.”

Actors Headshot with Maura in Brooklyn

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.

Headshots with Gjermund in Brooklyn

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.

Headshots with Jason in Brooklyn

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. 

Headshots with Paulina in Brooklyn

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.

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85 Comments

user-156929's picture

Excellent reasoning and headshots, portrait or landscape! :-)

Evan Guttman's picture

Great and informative article. The eyes on everyone are fantastic!

Nechama Leitner's picture

Thank you so much Evan!

Walt Polley's picture

It is called "portrait" for a reason ...

user-156929's picture

Headshots are a specific kind of portrait and shot landscape as often as not. :-/

Nechama Leitner's picture

Many Headshot photographers for Actors photograph in Landscape orientation. So I was bringing out points about why I like portrait better.

Just because they do, doesn't mean it is correct. Portrait for portraits. The name says it all.

1 stripbox- or 2?? It looks like 2 vertical strip boxes on either side of the camera based on the catchlights in the eyes...though it could be 1 larger horizontal with you standing in the middle breaking up the light.

Nechama Leitner's picture

I use 2 and yep I am in the middle.

Alternative title:

"Why I mainly shoot portraits in portrait orientation, and water is STILL wet."

user-156929's picture

Except she's talking about headshots and not all portraits. :-/

Jeff Walsh's picture

Alternative comment:

"I didn't read shit, but wanted to say something that makes me sound snarky."

Nechama Leitner's picture

Thats funny! However, many Headshot photographers for Actors photograph in Landscape orientation. So I was bringing out points about why I like portrait better.

Just because they do, doesn't mean it is correct. Portrait for portraits. The name says it all.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Gorgeous work! @Fstoppers thanks for featuring a woman photographer btw!

Nechama Leitner's picture

Thank you so much Dana!

Don Risi's picture

After 40 years behind the scenes in that business, I can tell you that an actor's headshot is supposed to be printed out, and stapled to the back of their resume. Since their resume is printed in portrait mode, the headshot needs to be printed in portrait mode so the casting people can simply flip it over from one side to the other without having to rotate it. The need to rotate the whole thing to either see the headshot or read the resume can be detrimental to the actor's chances of getting the part they are auditioning for because it shows a lack of respect for the casting people.

The fact that in portrait orientation, the image of the face is bigger and therefore a more commanding presence has a lot to do with catching the casting people's eye. Most casting people spend no more than 3 or 4o seconds looking at a each of the thousands of resumes and headshots in front of them. A large, commanding image is necessary to catch their attention.

For anyone who thinks I'm crazy, I suggest you drag yourself to either Broadway or Hollywood and talk to some real casting directors. They want portrait orientation headshots.

michaeljin's picture

Peter Hurley would say otherwise... at least he does in his book.

Then again, we've since gone from the majority of screen time being on our landscape oriented computer monitors to portrait oriented smartphones and tablets so who the hell knows anymore?

On another note, people are still printing out their resumes on pieces of paper?

On another note, have you ever gone through a casting process?

michaeljin's picture

Nope. If I did, do you think I'd be asking such a question?

Nechama Leitner's picture

Actually I read his book and I remember him mentioning that he is too lazy to turn his camera so he just shoots landscape. He also said the composition can get messy so he doesn't recommend it. However, I love the way I shoot portrait so I do it. And yes many clients tell me they print for when they go to an audition. They need to submit a headshot with their resume.

Peter Hurley's picture

Well your work is gorgeous and the composition is fantastic. I actually find it so much easier to shoot the camera in landscape but keep enough room to crop it however I like lately. My shots on my website are a little wider than a square so I pretty much could’ve shot them either way. Just not a fan of wasting too much space in the frame on the body. I think it’s the photographer’s eye for composition during the capture and then their interpretation of the crop more than anything else. That’s difficult to teach. All your points are valid and the work stands for itself. Enjoyed the read.

Nechama Leitner's picture

Thank you so much!! That’s awesome. Yea I agree at the end of the day it’s all about your eye and what you see in your cam will shine in your images. When I shoot landscape I feel like I can leave room to crop later because the position of the subject doesn’t impact as much if the image is tighter. But with portrait I feel like I need to get the composition in camera because a lot of my coaching has to do with getting the composition for the crop.... I’m so puffed atm that you read my article 😂

Sean Shannon's picture

Beautiful images Nechama! I've been thinking about my own headshot photography lately, doing lot of research into crop, composition and orientation, trying to find what works for me. I shoot a lot of actors and models (often they're both) and there are different requirements for each. Model portfolios are printed 9" x 12" and always in portrait and agency websites also crop 4 x 3. Actor headshot are printed 8" x 10". Peter Hurley is one of the best headshot photographer in the world and I studied his work, with his landscape orientation, cropping into the hairline. And during my headshot sessions I would try it, and a few images I like, but in general shooting in portrait just felt more natural to me. I also found that trying to switch between portrait and landscape during a session that it disrupted the flow. So for now I'm just sticking to portrait when I shoot but not shooting too tight so I can crop 4 x 5 or 4 x 3 or even square for any image.

Nechama Leitner's picture

Yep Don thank you!

Mark Stutzel's picture

If being too lazy to turn a paper 90 degrees is what keeps you from casting the right person..,

So, you are not aware of the fact, that print outs can have any size that's needed? Even a portrait can be that sized to fit into a landscape format. Should fix any imaginary "issues" ...

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