Senior portraits can be a highly lucrative source of income for the established photographer. This results in market saturation, with people shooting young girls against brick walls, slapping on some Photoshop filters, and then calling it a day. Fortunately, you’re better than that. In this article, I’m going to share 4 senior portrait ideas that will make your work stand out among the sea of competitors.
Table of Contents
Match Location With Your Senior’s Interests
On my recent trip to Miami, I stumbled across my own senior portraits, taken back when I knew nothing about photography. I still remember the day I was forced to show up at some dark studio, waiting in a line full of 18-year-olds for my turn to take generic photos that looked no different than the next person’s.
Since these studios are fairly well known in their communities, they still manage to secure a regular stream of clients despite producing boring pictures. But as the new kid on the block, you should not try to beat them at their own game.
The easiest way to stand out is to do an on-location shoot. Some of my favorite spots are beaches, rooftops, downtown/city centers, country roads, and swimming pools. Even when shooting fashion work, I’ve never really liked using studios. I find that the outdoors provide increased options when it comes to creating visual interest.
One cool thing you can do is match location with your senior’s personal interests. If they’re into horseback riding, take photos of them on a horse in the middle of a field. If they enjoy rocking out, photograph them with their guitar in a grungy warehouse. In other words, aim to create environmental portraits.
Select Wardrobes That Complement and Flatter
Clothing can often make or break an entire shoot. Before giving wardrobe suggestions, keep in mind the subject’s complexion, personality, and the overall tone of the shoot location. Some people generally look good in brighter-colored outfits, while darker ones make them look awkward, and vice versa. Here is an article to help you better understand contrast and personal coloring.
Since portrait photography is about the person, not the clothing, the goal is to draw attention to the subject while minimizing distractions. The general rule of thumb is solid colors rather than patterns. This also means no crazy graphics, logos, texts, etc. I say general because sometimes rules can be broken. Obviously, if your senior is a star athlete, a sports jersey or letterman jacket would be a great choice.
For me personally, I love bright colors on girls. I usually ask them to bring outfits in pink, red, yellow, green, purple, light blue, etc. Some of my favorite pieces are fancy dresses, one-shoulder tops, tanks and jeans with boots, denim jackets, blazers, and skirts.
On guys, I prefer more muted or monochromatic colors (perhaps because I wear those myself). I prefer to stick to navy, charcoal, black, white, gray, etc. Pieces that work well are leather jackets, blazers, V-neck/Henley t-shirts, dress shirts, jeans, chinos, and boots.
For a standard 2-hour shoot, you’ll likely be able to get 3-4 different looks. For best results, ask your seniors to bring one or two extra outfits. From there, you can help mix and match clothing articles while having a much wider variety to choose from.
Become a Master at Lighting
Most experienced photographers will tell you that lighting is probably the most important aspect of photography. I fully agree with this. The fastest path from amateur to professional is through learning how to use light (natural and/or artificial). To prove this point, I used my iPhone on several shoots — and some people couldn’t tell the smartphone and DSLR photos apart (I probably can’t fool the pros though).
Have you ever seen engagement photographers take these ethereal, hazy-looking photos with sun flare going across the frame? You can achieve this by backlighting your subject and placing the sun somewhere in the frame (typically at the corner). Make sure that there is either a bright open sky or reflective surface in front of your subject to bounce light back into their face/eyes. To learn more, check out our Ultimate Guide to Beautiful Backlit Portraits.
If you’re forced to shoot in harsh lighting conditions, you have a few options. The first one is the most important because you can use this technique almost anywhere and anytime (and it’s saved me countless times).
Find an open shade — a spot where overhead light is obstructed (by a building/overhang) or diffused (through some trees). Now, face your subject out towards the brighter areas. In this setup, they will be lit almost entirely by soft, directional light that is pleasing and minimizes unwanted bags under the eyes.
If you want to go for a striking, yet polished look, considering using artificial light. If you’re new, start with just a small flash and a shoot-through umbrella. One effective way to use flash is to balance/crosslight with the sun. For example, let’s say that the sun is sitting at camera-right, behind the subject (2 o’clock). You would place your flash in front of them, just a little to the left (8 o’clock) — exactly opposite to the sun’s position.
Want to learn more about flash photography? Check out the Strobist blog; that’s where I first started.
Invest in High Quality Equipment
There’s a popular saying that goes something like, “the photographer creates the photo, not the gear.” While I stand by that 100%, there are some shots you cannot get without the proper equipment. In this section, I’m going to discuss the ones that take you where skills alone cannot.
I’m a big fan of creative lenses. The 35L, 85L, and 135L (Canon’s Holy Trinity) get me striking photos that kit lenses or even mid/high-end zooms cannot. How often do you see full body portraits shot at 35mm with really shallow depth-of-field? Probably not that often.
I don’t bother much with camera bodies, as they tend to get updated frequently, and lenses are much more important anyways. Lighting equipment, on the other hand, is well worth my cash. A good lighting gear should be reliable and never misfire. It should have enough power to, at the very least, balance against the mid-afternoon sunlight. Portability is also something to consider, depending on what’s more important to you.
Since we’re talking about getting unique photos, I went with the Alien Bees B1600 and a 22-inch beauty dish. This strobe has enough juice to overpower the sunlight at noon, even while shooting through a diffuser.
When using artificial lights, however, your camera will limit your shutter speed to 1/200 or so, forcing you to shoot at f/11 and up. This defeats the purpose of using an f/1.2 lens. You can pick up ND filters (Hoya is the brand I use) to cut down some light so you can shoot with wide apertures again. Razor-thin DOF photos taken with strobes have a very unique look.
I model a lot of my fashion work after sports photographers like Joel Grimes. Bringing this edgy style to my senior portraits has done wonders when it comes to setting my work apart.
Additional Senior Portrait Ideas For Your Next Shoot
- White Balance: Modern DSLRs are generally good at setting correct white balance, so I usually just use auto (or cloudy if it’s an overcast day). If you find yourself in a situation that gives your camera trouble, take a photo of a gray card with your subject holding it. In your camera, select custom white balance, using the photo you just took as a reference point.
- Posing: I’ll do a whole post on this soon, but for starters, never shoot your seniors head on. Try to angle their bodies slightly for a slimming effect. For headshots, check out Peter Hurley’s videos on accentuating the jawline, and the squinch. The best way to direct your subject is to show rather than tell (make sure to practice your poses!)
- Composition: One technique of composition often overlooked by portrait photographers is leading lines. The goal is to create depth while directing the viewer’s attention to the photo’s main focal point. If you’re posing someone on a bench or against a brick wall, try shooting him or her from an angle so that lines emerge from the corners of the frame. Place your subject right at the intersection.
- Focusing: There is a saying, “the eyes are the windows to the soul.” When shooting portraits, the eyes are the main focal points, and at least one of them needs to be in perfect focus. If you just bought a new lens that shoots at f/1.2, you won’t be able to do the focus-recompose dance. Simply step back a little, use your camera’s nearest cross type focus point, then crop later in post.
- Background Choice: When shooting portraits, you generally want to avoid a background that is too distracting to the viewer. However, when shooting with fast primes, that same busy, problematic background can be turned into your biggest ally. At wider apertures, greenery and foliage make for beautiful backdrops.
I know that these senior portrait ideas originate from my personal photographic taste, and that not all of them will necessarily be applicable to your style. However, the goal for this post is to paint a picture to help you better understand my thought process behind each shoot. The way I’ve been able to set my work apart from competitors is to treat my senior portrait sessions like fashion photoshoots.
To be successful in this business, you need to develop a style that is distinct from other photographers. You do so by carefully choosing locations that your subjects identify with, and by learning how to locate or create flattering light.
Pay attention to wardrobe choice, making sure to select colors and styles that best complement your subjects’ features. Additionally, don’t be afraid to spend money on gear that allows you to produce a creative and unique body of work.
I hope that these senior portrait ideas can help give you a head start on developing the type of photographs that you can truly be proud of. At some point in time, you’ll have that “aha” moment where everything begins to click. If you have any questions, comments, or tips that you’d like to share, definitely let us know in the comments section below. Till next time!