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How to shoot senior portraits

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by David Em
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Seniors are in an exciting time where they’re transitioning from high school to college. Here’s your complete guide to photographing senior portraits.

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Backlit portrait of a person looking down.

The importance of senior portraits

Senior portraits are more than looking nice in a photo. They’re a great memory that a person and family will have.

The purpose of a senior photo is to celebrate what they’ve done and accomplished up to this point and also be excited about what they’ll do in the future.

Related: 11 tips to take the perfect profile picture

It’s the last year of high school and they’re preparing for what they have planned after, whether that’s college, trade school, entrepreneurship, or another path.

Senior portraits are also great for graduation party invitations to family and friends.

Related: 32 creative graduation photoshoot ideas

When to take senior portraits

The summer after junior year of high school is when people begin taking senior portraits. Although it may seem early, it’s actually the perfect time to start.

In most cases, senior portraits need to be completed by spring. Check with your client to see when the yearbook deadline is.

When you start during the summer, you have three different seasons: summer, autumn, and winter.

The ability to shoot in different seasons is important because each season offers a different feel to the photos. For example, a summer sunset feels completely different when compared to a snowy day.

How to photograph senior portraits

When you’re photographing senior portraits, showcase the excitement and express who they are through the photo. Here are tips to help you take the best senior portrait possible.

1. Pick locations that matter

Person in forest with snow.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

A senior portrait is all about the subject. It’s important to tell their story because these photos are unique to them.

Think about what they like to do, clubs or organizations that they’re a part of, places they like to eat, things they love and their aspirations.

Getting to know these things about your subject will help you find a location that’s perfect for them.

For example, if your subject loves the outdoors and hiking. It would make sense to shoot the senior photos in nature instead of the city.

2. Make them feel comfortable

Person smiling with their hands up.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Many of the seniors that you’ll photograph have not been in front of a professional photographer before. Build a positive environment and always use positive language.

Take the time to get to know them and ask them questions about their dreams, goals, and hobbies. This will help you take senior photos that look natural and not awkward.

By telling them that they’re doing a great job, you’ll make them more comfortable and willing to try new poses. Encouragement and positive language is the key to great senior portraits.

3. Check for guidelines

Person in green graduation gown and cap.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Guidelines are important when it comes to senior photos. Be sure to check with their guidelines before the shoot.

Sometimes, there will be guidelines around the size of the image. If this is the case, be sure the portrait has enough room for cropping.

You may also run into guidelines around the type of photo. Are they allowed to submit playful photos or do they need to be headshots? Can they be candid? These are all great things to find out before the shoot.

If there are some obstacles, it doesn’t mean you can’t do the shoot. You’ll just have to keep them in mind and make adjustments to successfully shoot portraits that are acceptable.

Remember, it’s OK to capture playful shots. The subject can use them for social media or have as a memory.

4. What to wear for senior photos

Person in dress looking back.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

This is a question that will be at the top of the list for many. Senior portraits are a big deal and you want to make sure you help them look their best.

As a professional, the students may ask you for your advice. It’s important for you to have a few tips to help your subject choose an outfit. Below is a list of key ideas to remember when it comes to clothing:

  • Stick to neutral colors
  • Stay away from bright colors, unless your subject really wants to use it
  • Show off tradition and culture
  • Ask: Would you be OK with this looking back 5-10 years from now?
  • Make sure clothes are ironed
  • Wear clothes that correlate with the season
  • Clean shoes
  • Try to bring a monochromatic outfit (they look good in pictures)
  • Solid shirts work best, prints are fine as long as they aren’t distracting

These are a few great tips to keep in mind when your subject asks you for outfit ideas. It works best when the outfits are simple.

5. Composition

Person with hand in pocket.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

The composition is just as important for senior photos as it is for any other type of portrait. Your job is to make your subject look their best and a great way to do that is composition.

Use techniques such as the Rule of Thirds, lines, framing, symmetry and learning what angles will make them look their best.

Remember, the composition of a photo is the placement of elements to create an aesthetically pleasing image.

Also, it’s possible for there to be too many elements in a portrait and this would distract the viewer from your subject. The whole point is to guide the viewer so that the main focus is on your subject.

6. Bring a friend instead of a parent

Person laughing.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

If the senior and parents are comfortable with it, ask them to bring a friend to the photoshoot instead of a parent.

It’s common for teens to be more comfortable in front of the camera when they’re with their friends than their parents. Friends also know how to make them laugh and can help make the session more authentic.

7. Have a common vision

Person sitting with balloons around them.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

As a photographer, you have a creative vision but so does your client. This is why it’s important for both, you and your subject to have a common vision on how the photoshoot will go.

Before the session, talk to them about what they want instead of what their parents want. Although you should consult with their parents, it’s more important to focus on the senior that you’ll be photographing.

A great way to have a common vision is to create a mood board.

You can send links that show the type of photos you envision taking and get their input. They can also send you links as well to show you what types of photos they’re hoping to get.

8. Take timeless photos

Person in suit looking to the side.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

During the photoshoot and when you’re editing the photos, make sure you’re not using trendy techniques. This is most important for editing because there are plenty of editing styles that will come and go.

Taking timeless photos is key because these senior portraits are for the teen and parents.

Also, they want to be able to look back at the images years from now and appreciate the timeless look of the photo.

Conclusion

It’s an exciting time for seniors and you get to capture their incredible memories.

From the moment they book you to sending their edited images, create a positive, professional, and unforgettable experience. The portraits you take will be cherished for a lifetime.

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Featured photo by David Em/Portraits Refined.

About David Em

David Em.

David Em is the founder of Portraits Refined. He’s a published portrait photographer dedicated to helping photographers develop skills, capture incredible photos, and build successful businesses.

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About Portraits Refined

Portraits Refined (PR) is a media company that publishes the latest expert-backed portrait photography tips, in-depth camera gear reviews, and helpful advice to grow your photography business.

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