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How to Take Top-Notch Senior Portrait Photos

How to take better senior portrait photos

Have you ever tried to photograph a high-school senior, only to come home and discover that all your photos look awkward and stuffy? Whether you’re a professional portrait photographer who’s being paid or a friend snapping photos in the backyard, senior portraits can be a huge challenge for photographers of all types – not just due to technical difficulty, but because you have multiple clients to please.

High-school seniors need to have fun and look like themselves in their photos. It’s also important to capture images that will please their parents and fit their school’s requirements for the yearbook photo. Having many cooks in the kitchen can make things challenging, but not impossible! Here are a few tips for before, during, and after the session that will help you take senior portraits that are loved by both kids and parents!

Before the session

Senior portrait photography begins long before the day of the photoshoot. If you want to satisfy your clients, you should always:

1. Ask questions in advance

senior portrait black and white

When it comes to senior portraits, every high school does things a bit differently. Some high schools have very specific requirements for the senior portrait used in the yearbook. For instance, I once encountered a school that specified all girls were to be photographed wearing a black crew neck shirt with pearls while standing against a gray backdrop and turning slightly to their left. Other schools are much more relaxed and may specify only the orientation and whether the image should be color or black and white.

Also, some schools require that seniors use their in-house photographer for the yearbook photo, but they can use images from independent photographers for graduation announcements and other things. So as the photographer, you must be aware of how your images will be used, and if they are for the yearbook, the photo requirements that you’ll be dealing with.

When I consult with my clients ahead of a senior portrait session, I always ask about each school’s deadline to submit photos to the yearbook. Some schools require that photos be submitted before Christmas, and other schools don’t cut off submissions until late spring. This is another situation that varies from school to school, and it’s a really important question to ask. You’d be surprised how often I get calls for senior portraits two or three days before a school’s deadline, asking if I could squeeze in a session, where the parents assume that the images will be edited and ready to go the very next day.

Sometimes it may work for me to squeeze in a session, with the agreement that I’ll provide 3-5 images by the yearbook deadline and the rest will be delivered within my standard time frame. Other times, I just can’t swing it. Asking the question allows me to be transparent with prospective clients and also helps me set reasonable expectations for the session well in advance.

senior portraits

2. Discuss wardrobe choices

Every photographer approaches wardrobe selection a little differently. Some ask their client to model prospective outfits in advance, and then help them choose. Other photographers create little handouts that include examples of what to wear (and what not to wear). And there are also photographers who ignore wardrobe entirely and like to capture the senior in the clothes they show up in.

Your approach will likely be influenced by whether you tend to capture styled sessions or lifestyle sessions. I find myself somewhere in the middle. I want my clients to be comfortable and to look like themselves, but I also find that most people benefit from some gentle direction about what to wear for a session.

When it comes to senior portraits, the direction that I usually give is to bring three outfits:

  1. One casual outfit; something like jeans and a solid-colored top
  2. A dressy outfit; slacks and a button-down shirt for the guys, a dress or slacks and a nice shirt for the girls
  3. One outfit that describes their senior year in a nutshell. This might be a sports jersey, a t-shirt with their favorite band, their prom dress, or it even a really trendy outfit that they absolutely love.

For the first two outfits, I usually tell both the seniors and their parents to select medium- to dark-wash jeans with no holes, and either a solid-colored shirt or very classic patterns (like plaid). I also tell them to feel free to be creative and think outside the box when it comes to the third outfit. I’ve found that the parents typically prefer the images of their kids in the first two outfits, while the seniors typically prefer the images of themselves in the third outfit. In my experience, offering this simple guidance in terms of wardrobe has been the most important factor in ensuring that both the parents and the kids love their senior portraits.

Two examples of “outfit three” images!

3. Think about posing

High-school seniors are in a bit of a tricky spot. At 17 or 18 years old, they’re young, but they want to look and be treated like adults. I really try to be conscientious of that dual dynamic.

This may be my own personal soapbox, but I also try to be mindful to guide these kids through poses that make them feel like confident and strong young adults, without being overly risqué or mature. DPS has great posing guides. Take some time to scroll through and identify the types of poses that you think are age-appropriate for high school seniors prior to the session!

senior portaits posing

During the session

Well, it’s the day of the senior portrait photoshoot, and you’ve hopefully asked plenty of questions, guided your clients through wardrobe selection, and considered poses to use. Now it’s time to ensure you’re at the top of your game when you arrive with your camera. Here’s what I recommend:

1. Build rapport

As you begin your session, ask the senior about themselves. If they play a sport, ask how their season is going so far. Ask about their plans for next year, or what they think they’d like to major in. Find out what they usually do on a Friday night. Get them to tell you about their favorite part of high school.

Really listen, pay attention to their answers, and when they share something awesome, tell them so! Hearing praise from someone other than their parents will help build their confidence in front of the camera. More importantly, when you’re genuine with your feedback, it helps build relationships and trust, which in turn will lead to more genuine photos.

high school senior portraits

2. Mind your aperture

I love seeing the images that families choose for the graduation announcements. More often than not, that image is a head and shoulders portrait of the senior looking at the camera and smiling with a nicely blurred background. There’s something about that sort of image that’s timeless and classic.

To achieve that look for senior portraits, I almost always have my aperture set somewhere between f/1.8 and f/2.5, depending on the lens. Basically, you want to use a relatively wide aperture, and you want to ensure that the senior is a good distance from the background. Take a look at this next example, where the background elements are blurred through a combination of aperture choice and subject-background distance:

photographing senior portraits

3. Acknowledge the awkward

Portrait sessions are odd for most people. When you add hormones, acne, insecurity, and that not-quite-adult dynamic we mentioned earlier to the mix, senior portrait sessions can feel downright embarrassing. One of the most effective techniques I’ve found has been to simply acknowledge the awkward.

I’ve been known to say things like, “I know it feels weird to be the center of everyone’s attention and to be posed like a doll, but you’re doing a really good job and everything looks great so far!” Or maybe something like, “I know this is going to feel absolutely awkward and ridiculous, but I want you to give me your biggest, loudest Santa laugh. Like this [insert ridiculous Santa laugh here]!” I know it’s a weird request. They know it’s a weird request. Acknowledge the weirdness, and be willing to be an active participant in the craziness. It’s really not about the Santa laugh itself. But if you can get them to participate, it’ll often make them smile or laugh, which is the moment you’re really waiting for.

Just acknowledging that senior photos are not a comfortable everyday experience for most kids can go a long way toward putting them at ease and capturing images that really show their personalities.

photographing seniors

After the session

So you’ve completed a successful senior portrait photoshoot. Congratulations are in order (both for you and your client!) but your work isn’t quite done. You still need to edit the images, share them with the client, and keep the momentum going.

1. Post on social media

Shortly after the session, I post a preview image to my Facebook page. I try to select one that I think will please both the kid and the parents, which is often those head-and-shoulders portraits I mentioned earlier. Many of the images in this article were the preview images I posted to Facebook after the sessions.

I also make an effort to post a caption for the image that touches on one of the cool things that the senior shared with me during the rapport-building part of our session. My goal in doing so is to affirm and acknowledge these kids. I’ve photographed a lot of different kids from a lot of different backgrounds, and each one has blown me away talking about their passions and hopes for the future. I want them to see and hear that they matter and that they were heard during our session, as well as to encourage each of them and build them up, if only in some small way.

You’ll have to find your own groove in terms of how exactly you share images on social media, but for high-school seniors especially, don’t skip this step! I’ve had more referrals for senior portraits come from Facebook than any other avenue.

high school senior portraits Facebook social media

2. Use a classic editing style

When it comes to editing senior portrait sessions, I try to keep my editing style clean and classic. Every photographer has their own style, and I’m not suggesting that you change yours. I am suggesting, however, that you be mindful of creating images that will stand the test of time.

For me, this often means offering more black-and-white images than I might from other sessions and fewer images with a matte treatment. (Glance once more at the photos displayed throughout this article, and consider how many are in monochrome!)

For you, this might mean dialing back the color grading, avoiding ultra-heavy vignettes, or sticking to subtle tonal adjustments instead of intense HDR edits. Basically, when in doubt, keep it natural!


Go take some amazing senior portraits!

Capturing senior portraits that both parents and kids love is one part preparation before the session and one part rapport-building during the session – with a drop of thoughtful post-processing thrown into the mix.

It’s not difficult, but it does take some advance preparation. It also requires a willingness to engage with your clients and focus on their needs rather than your own photographic interests.

Now over to you:

Do you have any other tips for capturing senior photos that parents and kids both love? Please share them in the comments below!

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Meredith Clark
Meredith Clark

is a wife, mother, native Oregonian, complete bookworm, Top Chef lover, and new quilting addict. She believes that photography is for everyone – it is a gift that allows us to capture and document both ordinary and extraordinary moments in our lives. You can see more of her work at Meredith Clark Photography or connect with her on Facebook.

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