Deal 10: A hot topic, at a hot price!
The clothes your clients or portrait subjects are wearing in their photo can be a touchy subject to discuss with them, especially if you are just doing a portrait for them as “a friend with a good camera”. Even as pros we have a hard time getting people to listen and they show up in clothes that make us cringe and even hurt our eyes.
This article will help you understand what to suggest your subjects wear for their portrait. You’ll also learn how to help them understand why your suggestions really are in their best interest so they actually listen to get it right.
What the subjects are wearing in a portrait is just as important as all the other details such as: lighting, location, and posing. Poorly selected clothing can really take away from an otherwise really great portrait. The goals in helping your portrait subjects or clients select clothing are:
Poorly chosen clothing, or having no discussion about it at all, can result in just the opposite of all those things. NOT what you want to have happen!
I get asked for tips on this a lot in my portraiture classes. People “hear” funny things about what they should or shouldn’t wear for their portraits and show up in the damnedest things that sometimes make you shake your head and say “what were they thinking?” But they don’t know what is right, or what is better unless you tell them and help them understand why.
This is what I recommend for what to wear to a portrait session
Okay so I added a few bonus pointers on hair and make-up but they go right along with the clothing.
Notice I consciously did NOT use the word “don’t” anywhere in the list above? There’s a reason for that. People’s brains actually don’t register the words: don’t, not, or no. So when you say them the brain just disregards and registers what comes after. For example, if I say, “do NOT think of a lemon” what did you just do? Of course, thought of a lemon. So when you are explaining clothing (or anything for that matter) and giving suggestions on what to wear, take great care to always say what you DO want.
If you tell people, “okay don’t wear stripes, flowers or bright colours.” What will they remember? “I think my photographer said something about stripes and bright colours, so that’s what I’ll wear.”
And they probably heard somewhere that for photography you need to put your make-up on extra dark and heavy, so even ladies that normally wear none or very little can show up with black eye liner and raccoon eyes. I know, because it’s happened to me when I didn’t discuss it. She will HATE her photos because it doesn’t look like her. She likely won’t say anything, she just won’t pick any and you’ll think she didn’t like your work.
It is YOUR job as the photographer, even if you are just doing it for fun and for friends, to help people look their best in the portrait you take. So let’s look at the points above and how you explain it to them so they get on board!
I actually had a hard time coming up with “bad” examples of what not to wear. I’ve been doing this for so long I don’t have any portraits that don’t come fully prepared. So I’ve found a couple group images just so you can see the difference the clothing makes.
The image below is from a wedding so they weren’t all planning on having this group portrait done. But it shows what happens when the clothes have not been planned. There’s multiple colours, some dark and some light. We have a few bright patterns and a short skirt. We have a lot of short sleeves (it was a hot day) and some white shoes. Can you see how all those things make an impact? Overall it’s actually not that bad, I’ve seen a lot worse but let’s see what a little refinement can do to help.
This family chose all black and denim and for the most part it is working really well. Only thing I suggest as a change would be Mom in longer sleeves. Notice how much attention her arms get? For her that’s fine, but for someone self conscious about their arms or their weight, this will make their arms look larger.
In the image below everyone is in black except the baby. Babies are always tough because finding plain colours or black for a baby is almost impossible. Notice two things here. #1 the baby stands out the most, and in this case that’s fine because she’s the smallest and you want to see her. #2 if that had been an adult in the light outfit do you think it would work as well? Doubt it, the result will be that person will stand out and look larger. No one likes to look bigger! Trust me.
This is my sister’s family so they’ve been well trained on what to wear (I even got in this phone). Once again dark tones have been selected: greys, deep purple, and navy. Those all work well with jeans. Can you see the difference between me wearing long sleeves (left) and my sister wearing short sleeves (upper right)? What does it do to the bare arms? How do they look compared to mine?
The key to explaining all this and getting people to agree and go along with your suggestions is in HOW you tell them. If you just list off all this stuff it can seem a bit pushy and like you’re telling them what to do. Most assume they know how to dress themselves and giving them a list could make them feel a tad insulted so they get defensive rather than listen to your suggestions.
Photography is part technical stuff, part artistic stuff and part psychology!
Let’s look at my recommended list again but this time adding in the WHY. By stressing the benefit to the subjects, or why they would want to do this, they will “get” it in a big way. Like I said, I have very few portraits that I’ve done in the last ten years that show up in poor clothing because I’ve prepped them so well and they know that if they want to look their best they will follow these guidelines.
See a common thread in my notes above? Most people have the same fears about being photographed – yes fears! Being photographed is right up there on the fear list next to public speaking and going to the dentist, I kid you not! Their fears are about looking stupid, not knowing how to stand or pose, and looking fat or old. So if you can help them see that these clothing tips will allow them to eliminate at least one of their fears before you even start, then you just have to deal with all the rest later! Most of clothing suggestions has to do with helping them look slimmer and not stand out. How to stand and pose to minimize weight issues is another article, stay tuned!
You may notice most of the “good” examples here are wearing dark colours. That’s pretty common as most people have heard that dark or black makes you look slimmer. To some degree that’s true. But light colors can work too if everyone in the group does similar, then the one person in dark clothes would stand out. Little kids in denim and white tops with bare feet is super cute, as is little girls in white sun dresses. Don’t be afraid of other colours or tones, just keep them similar. Some of my largest extended family groups over the years that have done the best even went as far as to put each family unit in their own colour scheme (one in browns, one in greens, etc) and mom and dad in another – all with dark jeans. I’ve also had some ladies go as far as to buy everyone a matching shirt.
The thing is once you get them on board and understanding the logic behind it – the WHY – they will go to great lengths to make it work because they know it’s for their benefit!
If this all sounds like a lot and is overwhelming, feel free to copy my list and make a little sheet to hand out to people. Just make sure you add the benefits, like in my second list.
Show me your successes or ones that didn’t work out so good. I’m happy to give suggestions on how to improve it for next time.
October 2, 2013 10:53 pm
What colors would you suggest for a large family studio portrait that will have a white, black, or grey background. It will be hung in a living room with browns, golds, and burgundy. It will have a black frame with gold accent.
There will be 27 people in the photo, nine of which will be children ranging in age from newborn to six years old. In Our old photo, when there were only 18-20 of us , the men wore long sleeve light blue shirts, the women wore black turtlenecks and the little girls wore pink. I thought it was beautiful but want something different. Based on the info I have given you what three main colors would you recommend I ask my children to wear.
Thank you so much for any help you are able to give me.
May 5, 2013 12:15 pm
See, telling people what to wear is exactly what I avoid. I don't want all my shoots looking like they are carbon copies of each other. Black shirts with jeans is just so over done. Unless they ask, I don't say anything except to match your seasons (don't have one dressed for winter and another for summer), and when they do, I address specific concerns such as a woman who is afraid of looking larger. I've done lots of shoots where women were wearing big bright patterns and they have been marvelous. My clients are individuals, they should be allowed to dress as such. Who am I to tell them how to be them?
April 19, 2013 01:35 am
Best advice I can give you is to let your daughter have her way. She is the bride and if she is at the point of telling you what you can and cannot where, then she is already on the edge. Wear charcoal grey with a pleasant light grey/blue scarf, light wrap, or something similar. The blue will help frame your face and shoulders in a way that will make you look and feel better, and, more importantly, the dress will fit in with your daughter's color scheme so as not to drive her to distraction and frustration.
April 18, 2013 05:48 am
My daughter is getting married in August.. a beach wedding .. her colors are black and white with red shoes.. bridesmaids are wearing white with black sash.. She wants me in a charcoal grey or silver or even red.. I told her I dont do red.. I am light skinned and have red tones in my face.. she doesnt want me to wear any blues which is my color and color of my eyes.. She says I will clash in the picture.. I keep telling her that it really wont.. I need some suggestions.. NO I am not her photographer.. Hopefully you can make some suggestions on colors..
Thank you God Bless
April 17, 2013 07:17 am
I have told customers that come to the studio to wear solids and avoid strips. I then explain that because of our backgrounds ( black, white, red - blue and black/white damask) - it will limit how their pictures will turn out. When ladies have come in wearing stripes, or they want to wear stripes - i suggest top/down strips as side/side stripse may 'expand them.
No day is ever the same!
April 16, 2013 10:25 pm
Great tips. I usually have a dos and don'ts list for portraits and headshots.
After reading this, I'm going to have to amend it!
April 15, 2013 03:59 pm
@bill it would depend on the background and style. If dark background then maybe light clothes. I'd say clothes and colors that flatter that skin tone. Dark blue and denim could work because warm colors project (skin) and cool ones recede.
@rebecca - I think I found her site. I looked at the family section - some work for me and some really don't. There's a few with larger people that could have been a lot more flattered and slimmed with a better clothing choice. So while the portraits may look "cool" to us I think it could be better for the people in them. If you look through there are also several more formal ones in all dark clothes and a couple in all light (no bright colors).
@Dennis thanks, glad that helps
@carlos, that's personal opinion. Also could be cultural. I don't know where you are from but in North America people that feel they look fat wear a lot of black. i also didn't tell those people to wear black that is their choice, I just give guidelines and suggestions
@emerald well the fad has been going on as long as I've been doing this then (since 1990) LOL
Your portrait is quite nicely done, nice lighting. I do feel her arm and stripes draws the eye away from her face though. If I look at it cropped just above her arm I instantly go to her face first.
April 14, 2013 06:11 pm
Good advice although I feel that the denim and black has become somewhat of a fad.
At the same time, I can understand why it works.
As for children, I think colour is very important.
Here's one I took. It's a little dark overall but I think the colour works well.
April 13, 2013 06:46 pm
I think that they look awful dressed all in black. You should try working for a funeral home!
April 13, 2013 05:15 pm
Thanks Darlene for this post. As someone in the early stages of building a portrait business, I sometimes focus too much on the technical elements (exposure, location, composition etc), that I've been guilty of not guiding/advising my clients of what to wear to make the shoot more successful. This post gives me a lot of information to develop my own FAQ / Client Tear Sheet, which I can send to clients both at the time of booking and a few days before the shoot. Thank again.
April 13, 2013 02:15 pm
I'd normally agree with this. Especially for all adults and larger or shy individuals. However Maggie Holmes gets the BEST family photos and encourages bright saturated solid colours and they look AMAZING! So there are exceptions to these rules. She mostly photographs children so that makes a difference but she uses turquoise, yellow, lime and fuchsia all the time with amazing effects.
April 13, 2013 01:27 pm
I have read all the responses, but I wonder about portraits of people with darker brown skin color. What color schemes should you shoot for? I'm thinking of dark tan, emerald green, muted yellow, off white, and light red.
I am also sensitive to background colors. I usually use a 100mm f2.8 shot almost wide open to get most of the background blurred out. I usually use a garden for my shots.
April 13, 2013 11:53 am
I took a girl scout troop once to get their photos taken at a professional studio. I insisted that all the girls wear the same t-shirt and jeans. The photo turned out soooo cute. They were young girls so I could get away with yellow t-shirts.
April 13, 2013 06:38 am
Thank you for an insightful article. One of the things that we sometimes need to remember is that the photos are not all about us, they are about the subjects. More especially if we want to get the subjects to pay us for the photos. If the subject looks even slightly off, then they may not buy.
As for black shirts and jeans, I think that may be a location thing. Not so hot in some area, and yet really great in others. Clothing, like many other things, is regional. :)
April 13, 2013 05:01 am
Great article. You laid out some nice clothing guidelines that a photographer can adapt to their own style. I haven't done much on "formal" people photography and appreciate you spelling out the obvious. Love your quote photography is part technical, part artistic, and part pyschology. I totally agree. And will borrow that for my office. THANKS
April 13, 2013 02:50 am
@sara good additions thanks!
@Ali - yes absolutely!
@dougs - yes thanks for seeing my points! You're spot on
April 13, 2013 02:42 am
@Marcy - many "contemporary" photographers are part time photographers with a "good camera" and so many people buy and SLR, take one class and think they're gonna be a professional. Just because you get paid (even a small amount) doesn't mean you're good. I'd say that there are many people doing portraits and weddings now that without the advent of digital, would not be doing so. Digital has made it easy for the masses and in some cases that's not great for the industry and the pros trying to make a living (don't get me started LOL)
@ghent good suggestion, however if they did wear light blue you can easily correct the skin tones in post processing if need be.
@shar your critique of the first image makes me smile a bit actually. "Rapport" this is my sister in laws family, I'm the aunt of the groom of this wedding. I'd just met most of these people for the first time this weekend but they are still relatives. We also did this photo in about 2 minutes as the dinner bell had rung and it was an after thought. So posing - there wasn't any really - it was a matter of "quick everyone get in there". Not sure what you mean about composition, crooked and camera angle. You want a higher or lower angle here? How would you crop it? Just outside the frame it's bright sun, that's why it's so tight. Also this is a clothing example not an example of the best lighting or posing. I mentioned I had a hard time finding "bad" examples.
The second photo is a photo walk group photo. See note above re: had hard time finding "bad" examples. This is the best I could do. Plus how do I pick out one of my clients family portraits and ask them to use it in an article on "what not to wear"? First that's not very polite and second I would never do that to a client.
Re: all "white" people in my photos, just happened to be what I had from recent sessions. I've done lots of photos of all types of skin tones but I still think the basic principals will apply, apart from looking too pasty.
@kyla - yes good point! I usually do say that to my actual clients, I just missed it in here so that you for that reminder.
April 13, 2013 12:15 am
Awesome article Darlene. My wife is very particular about dressing our kids appropriately when we go on vacation and do beach photos. I understand now why she makes such a big deal about it.
I think trialex was talking about the photo walk picture, with the statue in the background. I think that one looks like a group of random people, while others look like a family that wants to look like a group that belongs together.
If you have pictures that are just random groups of people wearing random things, you get bland pictures or distracting compositions. By having everyone dress similarly, you get a cohesive group that looks like they belong together.
@Kyla, I don't think this article is meant to be restrictive, I think it is a way to encourage people to think about their clothing choices and choose clothing that will make their pictures (and them) look good. Isn't that the goal of paying someone to take your picture? If you could do just as well with candid shots at Christmas and birthdays, why would you ever hire someone to do a portrait session for you?
April 12, 2013 11:42 pm
Fantastic article! I love how you've made it measurable -- here is what I suggest and here is why. I think there will always be exceptions to every list of rules BUT I think this logic is a great "rule of thumb" to use as a baseline. Thanks for sharing.
April 12, 2013 10:45 pm
Sounds like a "classic" suggestion.
And like all the classic rules, one must be aware of it before being able to "break" it successfully. Thank you.
April 12, 2013 10:38 pm
All works for me. Being new to the whole field, I will try all till I find my sweet spot. Thanks for all the suggestions.
April 12, 2013 10:15 pm
Great tips! I want to add two more...for ladies to consider. Nail color and examine clothes standing and sitting.
We had a family portrait of 4 made on a boulder at a lake so it was fairly close up. My nails were painted in a muted dark reddish tone but when I saw the proofs I felt my nails really popped as we were all in khaki pants and white tops and in a natural summer setting. My nails were all I saw. The way some people color their nails with patterns and wild colors would be much worse. Fortunately we wanted to reshoot for other reasons (hubby wanted me repositioned more in front of him to cover belly) and the photographer agreed that a slight shift in family positions would make a huge difference. My nails never came up in discussion, but for the next shoot, clear polish was worn AND my capri pants were traded with a little longer cropped leg as I had not considered how much they rose (almost to knee level) when I sat down. Final result was perfect!
April 12, 2013 10:03 pm
In my opinion, the list is a little to restrictive. You should give some guidelines about avoiding crazy colors and patterns, but you still want them to like what they're wearing. You still want it to be an accurate reflection of who they are as individuals, and a family.
April 12, 2013 08:40 pm
Not a big fan of everyone wearing black tops with jeans sorry :(
I feel the issue with the first photo is more a problem with posing, rapport with subjects, composition, camera angle (it's not straight!) and height.
With the second it's excess dodging and the composition itself. It looks like a travel group so they couldn't have been colour coordinated... In fact I am more distracted by the sculpture than anything else. This isn't a portrait shot, more a travel / group activity snapshot.
I like the shot of your sister's family. Posing, colour, composition, rapport - all working together. They are colour coordinated but not overtly so and they could conceivably have spent the rest of the day dressed like that. The purple clothes and the yellow flowers complement each other really well. Vivid colour combinations that work are all around us in nature - look at the lavender amongst the yellow flowers :) That works, and so also do the purple clothes against the warm tones of the building.
I come from a country full of riotous colour so I tend to be drawn to rich, vibrant colours working alongside solid dark colours - rather than using only dark / solid / muted colours.
I like your point on not having "DON'Ts" on the list. At a recent shoot I was wondering why everyone was wearing precisely what I said they shouldn't!
One final note - maybe all your subjects tend to be white, but these rules would need to be adapted for darker skin tones :)
April 12, 2013 01:57 pm
Also, avoid light blue tops.
Blue reflects against the lower face and neutralizes warm skin tones.
The same principle applies when using natural light. A blue sky can reflect poorly and give a sickly cast to a subject.
In other words...
Don't just think shadow and light... think color!
April 12, 2013 01:29 pm
I completed a pregnacy shoot for my son and partner. It was spur of the moment and It wasnt till after that I thought about the clothes. They turned out very well, for a first try. And although Mum wore a verticle patterned dress, all it did was emphasize the bunp. I did turn these to black and white and did have a black sheet up behind them. My son had a tone in her dress on and i thought it turned out fine as did also all her friends and family. So some of your tips just happened by mistake and although the patterned dress isn't the best choice, it did work.
April 12, 2013 01:27 pm
Very invaluable suggestions. Enjoyed looking at the photos where clothes are mathed. It stands out so much more than others where there are different coloured dresses/ clothes. Many thanks.
April 12, 2013 01:20 pm
Interesting article. We are planning on getting a family pic done soon and we just bought "outfits." We got the same color times, but bought my 2 yr old this super sweet striped hoodie. I'll do some test shots and bring another option for him. Thanks or sharing.
April 12, 2013 11:33 am
You must go crazy looking through family portraits by many contemporary photographers these days... ; ) The trend right now is almost the exact opposite of all this (well, not exact opposite, still somewhat coordinated and trying to stick within a color palette but much more into bright colors, mixing and matching patterns and textures, etc). Which can look really great, in my opinion, as long as the group is small (a family vs a large group where it can get more distracting).
April 12, 2013 11:21 am
@trialex - it's not about a formula it's about making people look good, and feel good. MOST people put getting their photo taken up there with death and public speaking for things they'd rather not do. If you can help them by giving suggestions that will make them look better, but still look like themselves they will have a better experience and thank you for it. They will become your lifetime fan.
As for group in front of the fountain I'm not sure which one you mean because there aren't any with a fountain in the examples.
@scottc - I'm all about the different! ;-)
April 12, 2013 09:52 am
Obviously this stuff is subjective, but I think the "good" example photos are too formulaic - we've all seen family portraits where everyone is wearing jeans and black shirts a million times before.
I kind of like the group shot in front of the fountain - there is a good mix of colours. Of course it doesn't help that the photo is not as well exposed as the "good" examples - the background is over exposed and distracting. With some post processing to make the colours of the clothes stand out even more compared to the background, it would be a more interesting shot. More interesting in fact than the parents with baby shot.
In regards to the wedding shot I would say that the short skirt makes it more appealing :-)
April 12, 2013 09:03 am
Interesting tips, in years of reading on DPS this is the first article I recall reading about clothing (and a few other unusual tips) for protraits.
April 12, 2013 05:46 am
The clothing guide is superb. I've had this problem a lot of time, And thanks to you now I have few tips as how to get my clients to wear and choose their cloths for the shoot
April 12, 2013 05:20 am
Fortunately, all of my photoshoots have included people who were versed in dressing complimentary to each other. I am big on natural expressions and natural environments. I really dislike most staged portraits. In reality, this is what you must work with when photographing young kids. Most of my photos are of my young kids.
April 12, 2013 04:45 am
Cramer, yes it's all in how you explain it. It has to have meaning and value to them for do it, otherwise you could come off as bossy and controlling and they'll do exactly the opposite.
April 12, 2013 04:23 am
Thanks for this post. I did a portrait shoot for some 8 to 11 year old girls once and asked that they come in certain colored outfits. Not only did most of the mothers ignore my instructions but one mother actually got angry and refused to let her daughter participate in the shoot because "my daughter looks beautiful in anything." She did not understand that I was going for optimal results. She later regretted not letting her daughter participate when she saw the finished products of the other girls. This gives me some instructions on how to prevent that from happening in the future.
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