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.

Nechama Leitner's picture

I am a portrait and headshot photographer based in Brooklyn. I knew from the moment I picked up a camera that I wanted to photograph the human face. Capturing emotion in a still image is something that brings me immense joy.

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Also, btw most of my clients are auditioning for Broadway. So I guess for every situation it's​ different.

One of the better articles posted here. I know a lot of us really enjoy discussing gear which some find tedious at times. However, with this article in mind, we know that close in shots can really test a lens' ability to keep distortion to a minimum. Even at 85mm, a tight shot can cause minor facial distortions that can make a client look less than their best.

With that, what focal length do you typically use? Most of my portrait work is done with my 70-200 f2.8. But, I've been seriously considering a 135mm lens as my portrait workhorse.

Anyway, thanks for a nice article.

Thank you, David! I​ am actually using a Zeiss 85 1.8.

Vert or Horiz? Shoot square, crop later!

After moving to LA I figured the headshot racket would be a logical thing to do while we were getting settled. The more I learned about the rules, regulations, whims and desires of the skittish actors and the loony casting directors I decided to work in a rental house for a while. LoL
Some of the rules that I heard were only black and white, only color, only portrait, only landscape,only studio shots, no studio shots, no natural light, only natural light, no smile, slight smile, look to the left, look to the right, straight on look, "WB closeup", not a "WB Closeup, white bg, grey bg, no black BG.
The trick is to do what is "in" at the moment.

Add in the fragile actors who wonder if wearing a turtleneck will or will not land them a part on "Lawn and Order" and the "symbiotic" relationship between casting agents and their favorite photographers, it was not for me.

But for those who break thru that wall it's like printing money.

I hear that. That's why I just stick with what feels right to me. At the end of the day, it is going to be your own artistic flare that speaks​.

I really appreciate the way you entitled your article. There are so many useless clickbait type of titles here on Fstoppers .... I laud you for using a to-the-point title that is a direct summation of the article's content.
Thank you!

Thank you so much!

Great post - thank you for sharing
And for noting that you use 2 strip boxes - which explains the catchlights
Can you tell us the background you use ?

Happy Holidays To All

Thank you, ​Jay! I use Seamless backgrounds. I have a few different colors.

A copy of the Martin Schoeller style. But a very good copy...

Sweet!! Thank you!!!!

I've never heard of him so I just checked him out and WOW! Thank you for that

I have to ask the question, why are actor headshots often shot in landscape orientation?

Headshots were all in portrait orientation for many years before some people started doing them in landscape to be different.

True. Didn't think of that.

The portraits look amazing. Would love to see a behind the scenes set up :)

Thank you!! Gotta look for one

First off, being Italian, there are NEVER "leftover meatballs in the trash" Blasphemy! ..Second, I do agree with the Portrait mode bringing the eyes to the forefront, yet I still believe a properly lineup landscape headshot (Rule of Thirds) or even (shame on my for loving the creative) a slightly wide-angled headshot (ala' Platon Antoniou) still have a place in my heart for making a statement.
That being said, I very much understand the business of first impressions, especially for actors and getting that clean BOOM shot right off the bat, and not to get too crazy when my clients seek me out for a straight up "I need to get the job, no fluff" headshot.

lolol. At the end of the day, it is about what speaks to you artistically​.

Honestly I like what you're doing and how you present the images on your website too. Beautifully done!

Thank you so much Aaron!

Have hard time to focus on the face!

What f-stop are you shooting on?

Some really good points, really found this article useful, thank you.

You may need to update your instagram link it doesn't go to your profile, I managed to find it from your website.

Thank you so much! I tried copying the link a few times and it won't​ work:/

Just tried it and it worked :). Following now, your work is awesome.

Sweet! Thanx!!

I'm wondering about the tight framing. Does that cause an issue with cropping to different formats? Like Instagram, 8x10 magazine prints and so on.

Sometimes I crop a bit more of the head to fit a print. But it works. They also look great square.

I see that it works out. That example above looks good square. In the image above "Headshots with Gjermund in Brooklyn" I was not able to get a great square crop when trying to show some neck.

Why I mainly photograph in portrait orientation for actors and celebrities Headshots?
The reason is very simple: great part of the images are then used in magazines, and magazines prefer vertical images…

I don't do actor headshots, but I do a lot of corporate and business portraits. 70% I shoot landscape, in order to get all of the shoulders in frame so that a background can be stripped in if necessary, or some text can run over the background space. I also shoot upright and go in tight and off centre, cropping into the hair also - just for the sake of making it more interesting and perhaps more of an intense study. Either way is fine - just depends on your client's needs. Nice work.

Yea with corporate headshots I
Shoot landscape too. I feel like what they use it for it’s better landscape. Also the lighting is brighter and flatter so to my eye it doesn’t look good in portrait not sure why 😆

Superb ! I love your style. What backdrop do you use ? A grey backdrop and you change color in Photoshop or do you use different backdrop ? Regards.

I sometimes prefer to shoot landscape and crop after so the client gets two options. also find the landscape more cinematic.