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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 photographer that’s being paid or a friend snapping photos in the backyard, senior portraits can be a huge challenge for photographers of all types because you have multiple clients to please.
It’s important for the high school seniors 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 lots of 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.
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 to be used in the yearbook. I’ve even encountered one school that specified that all girls were to wear a black crew neck shirt with pearls, photographed with a gray backdrop, with the subject turned 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.
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, it is so important that you are aware of the school’s yearbook photo requirements for seniors before you even begin shooting.
Also, I always ask about each school’s deadline to submit photos to the yearbook. Some schools require that photos be submitted before Christmas, 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 and them assuming 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 to help set reasonable expectations for the session well in advance.
Every photographer approaches wardrobe selection a little differently. Some ask their client to model prospective outfits in advance and help them choose. Other photographers create little handouts that include examples of what to wear (and also what not to wear). Still, other photographers prefer to capture whatever their clients show up wearing.
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:
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.
High school seniors are in a bit of a tricky spot. At 17 or 18 years old, 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 for men and women. 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!
As you begin your session, ask the senior more questions. 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 relationship and trust, which in turn will lead to more genuine photos.
I love seeing the images that families choose for the graduation announcements. More often than not, in my experience, 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 this for senior portraits, I almost always have my aperture set somewhere between f/1.8 and f/2.5 depending on the lens.
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 simplest 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 towards putting them at ease and capturing images that really show their personalities.
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 portrait I mentioned earlier. Many of the images you see in this article were the preview images posted to Facebook after the sessions.
I also make an effort to post a caption for the image that captures one of the cool things that the senior shared with me during the rapport-building part of our session. My heart 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.
When it comes to editing senior portrait sessions, I try to keep my editing style clean and classic. Again, every photographer has their own niche and style, and I’m not suggesting that you change yours. I am suggesting that when it comes to senior portraits, that you be mindful of creating images that will stand the test of time. For me personally, this often means offering more black and white images than I might from other sessions and fewer images with a matte treatment.
In all, 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. Do you have any other tips for capturing senior photos that parents and kids both love? Please share them in the comments below.