Seniors are probably some of the most fun models to photograph. Typically seniors WANT their photos taken, or at the very least, they want their photos to be good. They love to try new things and want to help you—and themselves—get an Insta-worthy, post-able picture. Here in Portland, Oregon there are one million beautiful locations for senior portraits, which makes taking senior pictures even more fun!
Here are 55 Tips for getting the most out of any portrait session, but specifically your senior photography sessions:
Look for structural elements in nature or in architecture to draw the viewer’s eye to your subject. Beams, staircases, walkways, paths, the lines of a window or building all frame or lead your eye to your subject.
Use caution with your focal length when doing close ups so you don’t get a distorted image. Big noses, thighs, heads and hips are pretty big no no’s for almost any photo session! The longer the length of your lens, the more compressed your background will be, which creates that soft, creamy background that everyone loves in a good portrait.
If the sun isn’t helping your cause, find shade. The golden hour of sunlight can be your best friend, but harsh shadows can be difficult to work with and if you are struggling to get the perfect, crisp image, head over to the shade or the other side of a building where the sun isn’t directly on your client’s face.
Wind can also be a distraction, but just turn your subject towards the wind to encourage the hair to blow away from the face rather than straight in the eyes. Or have your model hold their hair back from their face with their hand to get a more authentic and casual candid shot.
Posing is pretty critical for getting the most flattering images. Avoid stiff and awkward poses. Lindsay Adler teaches some excellent posing classes on Creative Live, and she also has a fantastic book on Amazon with 5 star reviews. The next few tips involve posing suggestions I have learned from Lindsay, other classes and my own experience:
Avoid shooting straight on, it is almost always more flattering if the body is angled and arms, legs, hips, etc. are bent, turned or arched. The more movement and soft curves you can create, the more flattering the pose will be.
Cross feet and legs, this will usually adjust the height of the hips and give you more curves and angles and is very flattering for girls and helps boys look less stiff and awkward.
Similarly, be mindful of limbs…a slight bend at the elbows and knees in every pose will always make the image look more natural. Also…in standing positions, direct your subjects to balance their weight more on one side that the other since that is the way that we naturally stand. The whole concept of “pop a knee” for posing came from this idea of bent limbs and balance shifting.
Give model something to do with their arms and hands. Don’t leave arms right next to the body, bend arms by putting them up on railings, the back of a chair, in a pocket, at a hip or in their hair. Stiff arms look awkward and unflattering. Your model will always be flustered about where to put their arms. Consistently double check where they have put their arms and make sure it is natural looking. Always avoid arms falling straight down at their sides. This makes arms appear larger and it also creates that static appearance. Position arms on hips, up against a wall or fence, overhead, in pockets…front or back…anything that shows movement.
Be sure to pay attention to posture. Most people tend to slouch when they are comfortable…and while you want your senior to look comfortable you don’t want them to look slouched as it is usually not as flattering, especially on girls.
If you like a particular pose, try to change it up a bit by having your subject look a different direction…off to the side, down, up…all can give very different looks to the same pose. Smiling or not smiling, etc. Also, adjust your position to the subject. Move to different sides, adjust your position so you are shooting down or up to get the most out of every pose.
When posing girls in a sitting position, make sure to show movement in their legs. You want to avoid having their legs appear stuck together…especially at a side angle. Have one or both legs bent at the knees, at differing heights to show more fluidity in the pose.
Shooting at a slight downward angle, particularly for close-ups, helps to slim your subjects face. It helps to reduce or hide double chins and is a very flattering angle for most everyone. Just make sure you watch for distortion from your lens length and also remember to shake things up a little, so the angle isn’t identical in all of your poses.
Avoid shooting heavier people straight on…in fact, it’s typically not flattering even for thin people. Even a very slight turn of the hips creates a much more natural look.
For guys you want to help position them in order to make them look strong and confident in their images. Folding arms across chest, squatting in some variation of the catcher’s position, leaning forward with elbows on thighs in a sitting position, and hands in one or both pockets or belt loops are all standard ways of positioning a male senior in order to give that appearance. For more tips on posing senior boys, see these posts here, and here, and here.
Watch the fingers! Everyone tends to ball their hands into fists, or have super straight, stiff and uncomfortable looking fingers. Remind them to relax, and then remind them again and again and again. You don’t want your images to look like the senior is ready to punch someone (maybe you as the photographer) in the face!
One of the most helpful things you can do to improve your posing ideas is to create a posing journal for yourself. It will take time to build up a library of posing that appeals to you, but it can be an invaluable tool to you as you prepare for your sessions. I use Pinterest, my own portfolio favorites, or I print and cut out any poses that I am drawn to in magazines, etc and put them in a 3 ring binder I have.
Talk to the teens like they are real human beings. This age is really fun and they can be very great to talk to if you give them some time to open up. Try and keep them from doing stiff posed smiles, catch some images of them looking and talking to a parent or without the full “cheese” grin.
Sun flare. Who doesn’t love a little sun flare? It creates an ethereal look to images and seniors love a few unique images for their social media feed.
Reflectors. A nice soft look with minimal shadows under the eyes looks great on everyone. I often will get mom to help or even have model hold the reflector under their face to get that soft glow. I usually use the silver side of my reflector for best results.
Great light is simply looking for the best spot to photograph within your location. You usually don’t want full sun glaring in their eyes, or into your lens, but you don’t want a super dark pocket, either. Look for the light in their eyes and move yourself or your subject until you get the look you want. I like to try and get to new locations a half hour early so I can find the best spots and meter for the image so I am well prepared and know what I want to do and where before the session even starts.
Pay attention to the direction of light and find a background in your scene that is darker in tonality than your subjects, you will instantly create an environment where your subject is the brightest part of the image. This rule, like any rule in the creative world, can be broken; but try and make sure your subject is at least as bright as the brightest part of your image. All natural light, even open shade, has a direction to it. Once you find that direction, you can use it to light the face of your subject, specifically the eyes. To determine the direction of light, put your hand in front of your face. Pay attention to the grooves between your fingers. As you turn your hand left and right, watch how the light changes.
Wardrobe is a pretty big deal for senior portraits. Direct your clients on the best color choices for an ideal photoshoot ahead of time. And while a million wardrobe changes can make things take longer and be more complicated, it gives clients more options to choose from and you some flexibility if the senior’s outfit choices are less than ideal. Here are some general tips for wardrobe:
Avoid where possible, the color red, orange or bright yellow. Choose natural, solid colors such as blues, greens, grays, white, cream, etc. Solid colors are recommended for most outfits. Colors that go well with a medium or dark background for close-ups include medium or dark tones of green, brown, rust, wine or blue. Darker shades tend to make people look slimmer. Try not to wear flesh-tone or neutral colors such as stark white, beige, tan, pale peach or light pink, as these can dominate the picture and make you look washed out.
Keep the majority of your outfit fairly neutral, but add an accessory or two that stands out. That can be a scarf, a piece of jewelry, or the color of your shoes. Be careful with this as balance is key. If you wear bright shoes, balance them with bright earrings or matching nail polish. Don’t overdo or overthink this.
Wear flattering clothes. This should go without saying, but experience lends me to mention it anyway, unfortunately. Girls may want to forego short sleeves or spaghetti straps if their arms are heavy, since these styles will only accentuate that feature. In fact, even slender arms look heavier if that is the focus of an image. Too much “arm” in the picture isn’t flattering on any size arm! Be cautious with turtle neck sweaters or shirts. Round and square faces look good in a square-neck top, while thin faces or pointed chins are attractive with rounded-neck tops.
As mentioned briefly previously, plan more than one outfit. It gives everyone more options both you as the photographer and the client. Also, it is nice to have something more casual along with something a little more formal.
Keep clothing visually simple. Don’t bring outfits with words or designs, stripes or pictures, except possibly your school logo for one series of images only. You want your face, eyes and expression to command attention, not the words on your shirt. Here are some tips on Family Photo clothing tips that may also be helpful in clothing selection.
Glasses can be worn if the senior wears them all of the time, however remember that glare is very challenging if you are wanting an image in a specific angle of light. Some options are to remove the lenses, or take off your glasses for that particular pose. If neither of those are an option, re locate so that the sun is not causing a glare on the lens b/c these are extremely difficult to remove in photoshop.
Show off your culture, traditions, hobbies, and interests. These will be a treasure for the family and for the senior some day. Just make sure these props don’t dominate your session, but only accessorize your session.
Make sure to advise seniors to check that their outfit looks good whether they are sitting or standing or kneeling. Too tight, too short, too revealing, etc.
Warn them about their underwear! Any underwear lines or see through dresses, will be triple obvious in pictures and can be complicated to correct later in photoshop.
Nails and polish: Nails will be seen, please file them and girls be sure and have them freshly painted or all of the polish removed. Worn polish will stand out like a sore thumb. ;)
Aside from wardrobe and lighting, your location is a critical decision as well. Make sure it suits the personality of your senior by having an on-boarding questionnaire. I use Sprout studio to create my questionnaire templates. This link gives you 10% off Sprout Studio Software Program for the first three months.
Fun locations are about keeping your eyes out for COLOR and/or TEXTURE. Texture can be anything from a brick pattern, stone arrangement, pipes, tiles, anything interesting…even a dumpster can be an awesome backdrop if used correctly. Dumpsters are often blue or green, with great texture! If you get close enough, no one will ever know it was a dumpster, either.
Get out of your comfort zone. This may sound a little cliche but it’s an important aspect for growing in your business. Surround yourself with people who are better than you, who can challenge who you are and motivate you to take things to the next level in your art and in your business.
Communication is critical. Some photographers will tell you the that only way to effectively communicate with clients is to meet with them for in-person pre-session consults; and if that is working for them, great. I do not do in-person consults. 98% of the time, I have not met my senior clients in-person until the day of the shoot. This is what works for me and has worked for me from day one. Why? Because I am excellent at email and texting, but not as available for the other stuff.
As you are emailing with clients, be helpful and informative with each email and try to anticipate their needs. Create templates (I use Sprout Studio to manage all of my clients and prospective clients emails) for communicating as often as possible - everything from the first initial inquiry email to the follow up, and to the how to prep for your session email. Templates save you HOURS of time in the long run as your business and the number of inquiries and follow up questions grow.
Find a mentor or coach and attend workshops when you can. If you are serious about your business and this is more than a hobby for you then you must invest in it.
Make eyes the focal point of your image. Not only are the eyes the most important part of the image, they are also the sharpest part of your face. Shoot with a wide aperture to get even more focus on the eyes.
Watch your backgrounds. Do not make the mistake of getting a great image that has a tree or a pole or a stop sign coming out of someone’s head or arm pit or whatever. Some of those distractions can be removed later in photoshop, but that just adds hours to your workflow. Fix it in camera and save yourself the headache.
Recommend to your clients to wear normal levels of makeup, don’t overdo this as that is extremely difficult to correct later and it doesn’t accurately depict how you normally look. A little extra is fine, too much is clown like. Let’s stay away from the clown look where possible!
No spray tanning just prior to session. I am a HUGE fan of spray tanning. I am fair haired and fair skinned. I love me a good spray tan. However, just prior to a photoshoot is pretty much the worst time ever to spray tan. It will stand out like umpa lumpa on camera and the time and effort required in correcting the skin tone can alter the overall look of your final image.
Getting senior portraits done is not the time to leave hair uncombed for that “natural” look. Also, encourage seniors to avoid experimental hairstyles.
In general, friends and family prefer to remember you as you looked most of your senior year, not the whimsical “maybe I should try bangs or a faux hawk” phase you experimented with for a few months prior to senior pictures.
Photographer Randy Santee suggests working with your desired hairstyles a few days before the photo shoot to get the look you want in advance.
Boys especially, get a haircut at least a week in advance to give your hair a chance to adjust and look natural. Girls having their hair styled for a formal picture can, of course, wait until the photo session day to get their hair done, but they should practice with their hair stylist beforehand so there are no surprises on picture day.
Encourage guys to get a fresh shave. Even peach fuzz can show up on the camera and let’s face it, you might be proud of those seven hairs right now, but some day you will wonder why on earth you didn’t shave them off for the photo. Peach fuzz, IMO is no bueno. Beards, sideburns, and mustaches should be neatly trimmed as well.
Let your seniors know ahead of time not to worry about blemishes or bruises. Include in your questionnaire any concerns they might have so you can be sure and address those in your post production editing.
Encourage parents or a friend to come along to the shoot. It takes the awkward edge off, and helps the senior to relax. This can be great for helping double check clothing, accessories etc. while you are taking the pictures as moms in particular often notice things you may have overlooked. Friends can help tease or at least give you a third person to talk to to take the awkward edge off.
Zoom in tight. Almost always, the photos my clients choose from their gallery are the ones that have minimal backgrounds. Even if the sky or the landscape is stunning, their favorites tend to be up close of the senior.
Learn how to use your cameras settings (sorry to be so obvious, but this is critical). To take great pictures, you need to be in control of your camera. Don’t just leave it in automatic mode. Learn how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO will affect your images. When you’re next shooting portraits, try using aperture priority mode with the aperture set to the widest value possible. It will give you a nice blurry background. If it’s a sunny day, try ISO 100. If it’s cloudy, try ISO 400. Shutter speed will take care of itself.
Shooting in RAW gives you the most options in post production.
Be creative, but don’t forget expression. If you’re getting really creative and have the girl pose in a funky way and her expression is gone because she’s uncomfortable then it was a failed shot.
The bottom line: Don’t let your desire to get creative get in the way of that expression.
Angles of the camera. Remember to try as many different angles as possible to get the most options for each pose. Try both the vertical and horizontal orientation of your camera. Zoom out and Zoom in on your camera to get different options. Have your subject oriented to the left or the right of the screen. Get a bird’s eye view and a worm’s eye view. Include some profile shots, some shots from behind, and head on. Variety is key!
Close ups and Landscape, even more than zooming in or zooming out, it can be fun to get some up close images of the subjects eyes or hands or instrument, etc. as well as a distant view of an interesting landscape with the subject being a minimal part of the image. Client’s tastes vary so give them a lot of options.
Color and Black and White. I am a sucker for a black and white image, when giving your client a gallery, experiment with offering some of the images as black and white to give variety and to push your artistic edge. Don’t just drain the saturation either, add some interest by playing with the contrast, light, highlights, shadow slider, etc.
To get authentic expressions, ask questions…”Who is a better driver, you or your mom (or whoever is with you taking pictures)?” “Who in your family sings in the shower?” “Who will you miss the most when you graduate?”
Make them think for contemplative expressions: Would you rather…”Skip your birthday or Christmas?” “Live in space or in the ocean?”, “Have the power to fly or be invisible?”, “Be hairy all over or no hair at all?”, “Have a nosey neighbor, or BE nosey neighbor?”
What are some of your favorite tips for posing seniors or getting authentic expressions? I would love to hear what you have to say in the comments below.
Here are some more articles on the blog with additional Senior Photo Tips!