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

Deleted Account's picture

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

Nechama Leitner's picture

Thank you Sam!

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 ...

Deleted Account'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.

Daniel Hobebila's picture

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

Mauro Scattolini's picture

that's a bit narrow.

Robert Altman's picture

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.

Jahred W's picture

Alternative title:

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

Deleted Account'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

lololololol

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.

Daniel Hobebila's picture

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?

Thorsten Merz's picture

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..,

Daniel Hobebila's picture

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" ...

Ann Quimby's picture

It seems like you are one of the few commenters that actually knows about headshots. There is a standard, and thinking you can ignore the rules because you are an "artiste" isn't helping your client one bit.

Peter Hurley's picture

Well I built my business from scratch shooting horizontal and I think I’ve done just fine.

Color Thief's picture

This is lovely until the photo needs to fill a horizontal space in a layout. It's telling that the lead image of this article was three photos rather than one. Why? Because none of these photos could be used to fill that space. What do these look like cropped to landscape? You can always crop a decent portrait out of a landscape photo, but these are significant less flexible in that respect.

Don Risi's picture

Any photographer worth her or his salt will shoot both . . .

michaeljin's picture

Do you mean be ABLE to shoot both, or to shoot both in a single session? I don't understand why you would shoot both portrait and landscape in a single headshot session... Wouldn't you go into it knowing what the client's needs are and just shoot for that?

Thorsten Merz's picture

Actor headshots serve a particular purpose; filling a horizontal space in a layout is rarely of any concern as that's not what a headshot is for. But in cases where it becomes necessary to shoot for a horizontal layout, I'm pretty sure it can be incorporated into the shoot without too much difficulty.

Nechama Leitner's picture

Most people when they use their headshot it is either for a profile pic online, for a website, or if they are an actor to submit to casting calls. In all those cases they are square. The fact is they both work when they are cropped if you know how to crop, and they could both look bad if you don't know how to crop. As for the image on this article, it is not being used for the standard headshot purpose so it was actually a bonus for me that I wasn't posting a landscape image because I was able to use 3 images instead of one :) I usually have one to two landscape images tho if clients want to use an image for a header.

Color Thief's picture

"so it was actually a bonus for me"

Indeed…spoken like a true millennial.

My point is that any of the verticals you are showing could have been cropped from a horizontal capture and no (usable) horizontals can be cropped from these verticals. Whatever goal you are trying to accomplish by shooting verticals can be met with a horizontal capture.

Dana Goldstein's picture

It can. It's also an enormous waste of mpx's, which could come in handy when retouching. But of course that's only if you're thinking ahead, which Nechama clearly is.

Nechama Leitner's picture

That argument can go both ways. There are many times magazines will want a portrait orientation image and they and will cut the landscape image and mess with the image.

Ann Quimby's picture

Wow. When I read the headline, I thought it was going to be a spoof article but it appears that you are serious. You started out shooting headshots in landscape? Just demonstrates that you didn't have the knowledge and didn't do the research. Doesn't seem like much has changed. Unlike what you posted here, It's absolutely NOT true that photos for casting calls are square. They're called an 8X10 glossy for a reason. Your "artistic vision" may prefer landscape, but your job is to best present the product, which is the actor. Inconveniencing them and making them look stupid is not helping them. Portrait has always been the standard and what is expected from Actors. You would have a real problem getting work in Hollywood.

Ronald Witherspoon's picture

i love the soft lighting but the concept of portrait as in portraiture is stated as such... landscape for people head shots suggests something other then the person, perhaps the environs, but its a no brainer, shooting both would be the best but vertical always preferred. eyes should be in the upper 3rd of the frame. IMHO

Deleted Account's picture

I think there's an unfortunate tendency to conflate portrait orientation with portraits and landscape orientation with landscapes. Agree with shooting both unless the purpose makes one or the other useless. I try to be mindful of my subjects time and attention span. :-) Having a high pixel count camera, I tend to shoot rather loose to allow cropping to best advantage in post.

Nechama Leitner's picture

People have actually suggested to me to shoot further back and than crop. I have tried that and it never actually worked for me. Mostly because when I photograph a person a lot of what I am looking at in my viewfinder is the composition--I shoot for that. Of course I am coaching the person and talking and seeing if everything is all good. But composition is just as important to me. When I look at it after the fact I don't get the same results than when I am with it in the moment.

Deleted Account's picture

My tendency is to shoot for the final frame but I consciously fight it. Occasionally, I'll submit a wonderful headshot, the best of a few dozen (doing corporate photography sucks!!), only to be asked for a wider shot. It doesn't happen often but when I've traveled almost 2000 miles to photograph everyone in an office, to be asked that after I get home, it creates a burning sensation deep in the pit of my stomach. :-(

Nechama Leitner's picture

Thank you! Yea, as an artist we all have our preferences.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Nicely done! I like the two strip light look in their eyes.

Nechama Leitner's picture

Thank you so much Motti!

Ryan Cooper's picture

I think portrait orientation is pretty standard and is what most agents expect. (Though I think it is more because that is just how it was always "done' than any other reason) That said, I do prefer landscape for an acting headshot and portrait orientation for a corporate headshot.

The reason being that a landscape orientation does a better job of conveying the framing that the actor will be framed in when doing a close-up shot when actually filming. This better empowers casting directors to visualize the actor how they would be in the actual film.

As for corporate headshots, they are mostly used in social media profiles or on a website about pages. In this case square or vertical crop tends to work better in almost all cases.

Nechama Leitner's picture

I hear that. That makes sense.

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