"Does my butt look big in this?" - What Clothes to Wear in Portraits

“Does my butt look big in this?” – What Clothes to Wear in Portraits


This post was submitted by portrait photographer Grant Mayer.

What Should I Wear in my portrait?

This is a question I get asked a lot by clients – so I thought it might be something that was worth some exploration in a tutorial.

The clothes a person wears in a portrait can have a big impact upon the end result of your image. When talking to a subject about what to wear I generally ask them to bring a few different outfits so that we can have a little variety to work with.

A few things to keep in mind:

1. The Comfort of your Subject is Important – Sometimes…

One of the challenges of photographing someone that you might not know very well is helping them to relax. I find that the clothes that they wear and the environment that you’re photographing them can have a big impact upon how relaxed they are and how natural they look. If they are happy with how they look then you’ll have a good chance of capturing them looking themselves.

Having said that – sometimes the best shots are of people when they are slightly ‘on edge’ or out of their comfort zone.

I can’t really explain it – but I’ve had some real luck in choosing outfits for people that they might not necessarily have chosen for themselves.

Sometimes throwing a curve ball at your subject in this way can take them slightly out of their comfort zone and dressing in something that is different to what they usually wear will get you a ‘wow’ shot.

For example – I recently photographed a young entrepreneur who told me that he was most comfortable in fairly casual clothes. I told him to bring a few options and as I suspected he turned up with two pairs of jeans and two hoodies.

I predicted this might be the case so had brought one of my own suit jackets and a white shirt from home and after photographing him in his outfits asked him if he’d mind me taking a few shots in the shirt and suit jacket.

At first he was skeptical but something happened when he put on my outfit – he became someone else and presented to the camera in a more confident manner. He later told me that he was also amazed how the change of clothes made him feel a little more special.

It was the shots in my outfit that he ended up using.


2. Clothes Can Put People into Context

As much as we all like to talk about not judging a book by it’s cover and getting to know the ‘real person’ before summing them up – a person’s outward appearance says a lot about who they are and what we think of them.

The clothes that a subject wears in a shot will convey meaning and tell those viewing the image something about the person. So think carefully about what you’re trying to achieve with the image and let this be communicated through the clothes that you suggest your subject wears.

ie – if you’re after a fun vibe in your shot let them get a little casual and crazy with their clothes. If you’re wanting to portray them in a more formal way dress them that way.

3. Dark and Plain Clothes

While I generally let my subject choose a few outfits for themselves I almost always ask them to include a darker top in their options.

There’s something about a simple, dark top that allows the real focus of an image to be the persons face. An added bonus of dark clothes is that they tend to be slimming also (so your butt might not look big after-all).

As I looked back over my portfolio recently realized that the majority of portraits that I’d selected to show off my work were of people in fairly plain and unobtrusive clothes. No crazy patterns, lines, dots or bright colors – just understated basics that allowed the person to shine.

One exception to the black/dark top rule is that it can depend upon the complexion of the person. A very fair complexion with a very dark top can be too much of a contrast and when shooting someone with dark skin tones dark clothing can mean not enough contrast.

Another exception to this rule can be with kids whose portraits can come alive when you introduce some nice bright colors. The key however is to watch out for when the bright colors include zany patterns.

The last exception is when I’m photographing groups – everyone in black can look a little somber – but groups are a whole other topic.


4. Collars

Another quick tip which I base upon my portfolio – collared shirts can be an effective thing to have your subjects wear.

I’ve not put a lot of thought into why they work – but particularly when photographing men, I find that a collared shirt has a way of framing the face that can be quite flattering.

I wouldn’t say collars are essential for every shot (I’ve taken plenty of good shots of guys in non collared shirts and T-Shirts) – however there’s something about them that just ‘works’ – at least in my mind.

5. Long Sleeves and Pants

Lastly – I also like to avoid short sleeved tops or shorts.

When arms and legs are exposed and there’s lots of skin visible I find that it can be a distraction from the main focal point of the photo – the face. That one is just a personal preference though and I’m not even sure why it is that I like to do it that way.

What do You Think?

That’s my approach – what is your view on what clothes you prefer your subjects to wear?

Is it more important to you for your subject to be comfortable or is your style to put them in an outfit that will add something special to the shot.

I am interested to hear your ideas in comments below!

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Further Reading: What to wear to a family photo shoot

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Fred March 28, 2012 12:13 pm

    I see a few places that tell budding photographers to have people dress in dark clothes, however I'm not noticing much that tells them about there being a time and place for this.
    Here's my scenario, family all gets together for a 50th wedding anniversary party, first time in a while all family is together so we want a picture of all. Photographer requests we all wear black or dark clothing. It looks like we are all at a funeral instead of a party. I'm not saying we should all be in hot pink outfits or anything, but all dark is just wrong for such an occasion.
    What are the opinions of other photographers on this situation?

  • Industrial Photographer December 30, 2011 01:46 pm

    Very good article, maybe some more points should have been added.

  • Dewan Demmer November 9, 2011 01:09 am

    I agree and disagree, Comfortable and in context really matter ... but short sleeves or shorts work for me as well, since a portrait is about the person these features and be sued to emphasis something about the person.
    Now I have an example where the clothes are what the person wanted as part of the portrait set, I was happy with the outcome and so was she.

  • Elsie D. June 1, 2011 03:24 am

    @Sarah Hart: If you want your Army guy to stand out, then have the rest of the family wear blues. If you want him to be just one of the family, then ask everyone else to go green. Personally, I'd prefer green if you will be in a field or in front of trees; your faces will naturally become the focal points, as they should.

  • Sarah Hart May 31, 2011 01:31 pm

    My Son is coming home from the Army for a Family portrait..he will be wearing his dress greens..I don't know if the other 3 adults should wear greens or I thought of blues to match the small blue symbol on his hat....I really need help with this..the pictures will be casual and taken outside...

  • matt April 19, 2011 07:06 pm

    i'm with you darren, collars are great in portraits. personaly i feel more comfortable wearing shirts with collars .

  • debra March 18, 2011 07:44 am

    Very insightful! Looking forward to reading more tips!

  • Mikaela Ingram December 10, 2010 12:14 am

    Me and my sisters are getting our pictures taken last minunte and i was wondering since we are farm girls and are gettinng our pictures taken on our farm if we should be more causal. Also we all have similar plaid shirts.. but they are different colors! Do you think that would be too much for all three of us? What if just one or two of us wore it.

  • Kim March 21, 2010 12:48 pm

    I just recently did a shoot and told the mother to not have a ton of patterns and neutral colors. Well, the boys had stiped shirts and the girls had polka dots!! Yeah, it was very difficult to not have all the distraction. Getting a group shot is no good this way, everyone looks messy! So, I'm all for the simple neutral colors! a pop of color hear or there is fine (as long as the pop isn't out of place and subtle) but patterns that differ from other patterns just does not work. I also want to add that I like formal clothes in informal settings. Obviously, depends on client and what look you are going for. All the suggestions were amazing though!

  • Faller December 19, 2009 01:51 pm

    do you have a twitter account too? if so do you post changes on your blog there? i don't like rss, but would like to get your updates and that live twittering is convinient. just came home so i will check back later. have a nice day and thanks for the well made blog! there is soo many filled with poor content..

  • Jessica September 29, 2009 02:12 am

    For family portraits, I start with keep it simple. However I suggest that they choose a scheme of a few colors that work well together or a monochromatic scheme so they don't look too matchy. I also tell them that if they want to add a little pattern in, such as in a little girl's skirt or something, that it can add interest. That sounds different from the opinions here but I don't usually want the portraits too formal and I think it gives it a fashion magazine kindof look.
    Also when I think of photographing one subject I think of seniors. I think it's okay for them to break the rules and use bright colors, patterns, even logos sometimes because for them it's all about the fashionable clothes and they definitely like that fashion shoot magazine look. However I think they should have something solid as well so I can get some shots that focus on them alone.

  • ElaineM June 8, 2009 01:35 am

    These are my rules:
    Solid colors, no prints. They are way to busy;
    Solid colors in the same family, such as blue or red. when doing a group
    No white--it bleaches out faces especially as people age. it also makes the subject look larger an it is the bright spot in the photo.
    I like the effect when one color for shirt and pants or skirt, as in the first photo in this article. It produces an uncluttered look and lengthens the line of the subject

  • Cyrus Butt April 1, 2009 06:48 pm

    Great work. Very thanks. Btta5200

  • Rinchen February 3, 2009 02:12 am

    Just had my portrait taken with my husband. He wore a batik shirt with a collar and I wore a a plain colored collared sweater, picking up on the colors in his shirt. We had a variety of poses. The one we liked the best had my arms wrapped around him and highlighted the matching buttons on the 3/4 length sleeves of my sweater. It seemed to draw it all together.

  • DDHall December 27, 2008 07:12 am

    All of the comments have helped me. My two children, teen and preteen, are going to have their portraits done and I've struggled over what they are going to wear. I don't want them to matchy-matchy. I would think that would be too distracting since they are very diffent. (Boy-girl / 6'4"-5'4" / brown hair-blonde hair) I want their personalities to shine. I'm glad to hear the comments against the white shirt and jeans. I've seen that so many times. I also appreciate the suggestion to look for dark colors but not necessarily black for paler complextions. (Both are fair and lightly freckled) And the suggestion about collars, who would have thought? I am thinking about having them choose a collared pullover and bring a complementary button-down shirt to add if needed. What do you think?

  • bogart December 4, 2008 02:51 pm

    ya the color of the clothes of the subject plays a major role. Sometimes the dress would potray the occasion or event.

  • Millard December 4, 2008 09:56 am

    I've always trusted this to the individual or ask the model to bring a friend since I can't afford a fashion adviser. Good advice anyway.

  • cole November 25, 2008 12:50 am

    i think that no one should wear any clothes. to show that everyone is different. :)

  • Robert September 19, 2008 02:03 am

    Samantha, Have your photographer utilize depth of field so the flags are there but slighty out of focus. The idea will come across but you'll be the center of attention in the shot. I would try a solid white and solid black shirt, have him shoot you in both and see which is better. The dark shirt should have less shadows in the end and thus hide some of the curves. However, thinking back to my 20 years in the Navy, he probably want's to see as many of your curves as possible. Or like take2 and Colin said, clothing optional is an option, if your quick!

  • Samantha September 13, 2008 01:43 pm

    This was really helpful... but I have a couple questions regarding a specific portrait i'm having done. My boyfriend is deployed in Iraq, and with it being the time of year that is is, my town has this field full of American flags. My friend (an amature photographer) had the idea to take some photos of me in this field of flags to send to him while he's overseas. So my question is, with the bright colors of the flags and the grass as the backround, what should i wear? Also, I'm a curvy girl, what ends up looking better on film when the subject has a chest? Any comments help! Thanks everyone!

  • Matt Haines August 21, 2008 03:15 pm

    Good tips in the article. One thing that I don't think was mentioned was the concept of group shots and clothing. I find it really helps to ask that the group keep their clothes in the same color family. All blues, all earthtones, all pastels etc. That way, no one person stands out because of their clothing. I emphasize that they don't all have to dress identically, but just in the same general area.

    That usually leads to the question: "how about white shirts and jeans?" Urgh. I think I'd rather have zany stripes! I gently tell my client that it can work, however the viewer's eye is automatically guided to the brighest thing in the image. And white shirts tend to draw the eye away from the faces (of their precious children, natch) and toward the shirts. This is usually enough to dissuade them. Otherwise I'm spending way to much time burning shirts down in photoshop afterwards.

    I usually neglect to mention that I've saved them from looking like an family from the 80's. :)

    As for the glasses question above: a tilt of the head can sometimes fix this. Also check to see if the glass will pop in and out of the frame easily (or if the wearer has some old frames that can be sacrifices this way). There's no reason the frames need to have glass in them for the photo…no one will notice.

    As for the band member above: band photos are different. It's not about faces so much as vibe. The lead singer should usually stand out from the rest of the band. So it's entirely reasonable for a female singer to wear bright pink, and the boys wear black (for example). No gray turtlenecks required for that sort of shoot.

  • MarieA May 20, 2008 12:38 am

    Thanks, everyone, for the suggestions. Clothing optional is an interesting choice, but no. I squeezed my brain a little (ow) and looked in my closet and I realized I have a distressed (kind of like my brain) black leather, collared blazer that might do the trick. One band member has a serious leather motorcycle jacket, one always dresses like a 70s nerd (it's a retro look since he's 22) and the other, well, we'll figure out something to cover him up.

    All suggestions gave me a little part of the puzzle and Candace placed the final piece with the idea of texture (great photos, Candace).

    Thinking this through has been a big relief to me because I'm a worrier.

    Much obliged, all!

  • Jeff & Candace Painter May 19, 2008 11:41 am

    Corrie, I would suggest a color pallet from the plaid your son is wearing in his pic. This should allow him to be focus of the pic but also have you all blend. It should balance out the picture and still touch your heart when you look at it. The colors would then also frame the picture. Balance and placement is most important with plaid.

    MariaA: texture is great!!! Especially for a blues band shot! It sets you apart from the guys (who should be in long sleeves also)but still has character. Textures look great in black and white too! The mood lighting will be what gives you the feel you are looking for.

    All of the suggestions were good and we have had fun with them in the studio and out. I prefer to shoot people with long sleeves because the arm looks wider with a horizontal line through it. But I also have great shots with tank tops!! Especially with younger ones who have great skin. You can check out our site to see what I mean. (If you want to) FullSpectrumAntioch.com


  • take2 May 17, 2008 05:42 am

    I prefer to make my photoshoots clothing optional. It makes the outfit choice much simpler.

  • Kat May 16, 2008 02:52 pm

    choose a common colour theme such as reds of different shades through all your shirts?

  • anon May 16, 2008 01:37 pm

    Yup, I agree 100% with no short sleeves and shorts. Human beings are conditioned to look at areas of skin in a photo, so eyes are just drawn away from the focus of the portrait (the face).

  • Colin May 16, 2008 11:36 am

    I find if you wear no clothes that helps too : )

  • Tao May 16, 2008 09:36 am

    Just came back from directing a photoshoot and all the suggestions you covered were given to the models. Turtlenecks were another option instead of collared clothing and mid-tones were generally preferred to reduce contrast/glare. The other thing to avoid would be shiny fabrics.

  • MarieA May 16, 2008 09:33 am

    You make some excellent points but you've put me in a quandry. I'm a woman in a band with 3 guys. What you say about dark colors, collars and long sleeves makes a lot of sense, but I never wear clothes like on stage and I want the photo to convey a sense of the band (a blues/blues rock with some sense of fun). I sometimes wear long sleeves, but usually that's a colorful kimono top or a kind of retro-60s sort of bell sleeve tunic with some pattern. Or I wear a band t-shirt which is a pastel color with short sleeves. The guys in the band generally wear either band t-shirts or colorful camp-style shirts.

    We really need a good, professional photo that conveys the sense of the band and I don't want our clothes to be a distraction from that.

    What to do?

  • Laura May 16, 2008 07:57 am

    Good guidelines - my all-time favorite portrait that I've ever taken was of someone wearing a black, collared buttondown. I don't think the photo would've been the same had he been wearing anything else.

  • Jason Buberel May 16, 2008 07:01 am

    What about the important question of 'Should I wear my glasses?'. Especially with stronger prescriptions glasses can distort a persons face. At the same time, people might be unrecognizable without them.

    Is there a good way to avoid problems when the subject insists on wearing them?


  • Ruprect May 16, 2008 06:12 am

    Great tips, I'm going to my first strobist/portrait meetup next tuesday, and I will certainly keep your words in memory.

  • WDOphoto May 16, 2008 05:54 am

    I agree with the long sleeves and pants. How do you stop people from wearing patterns though? I keep getting family portraits where they show up in zany prints after I tell them to avoid patterns and designs.

    Then I don't get a lot of other print sales out of it because they see how silly they look. I like your idea of having them bring multiple outfits - good call. I'll start to suggest that too!

  • Mamarazzi_2008 May 15, 2008 11:52 pm

    I generally stick to the solid and nuetral colors too, usually I will have them bring along white shirt if possible in case we need to use them to bounce a little light in their faces! It works well for that. But you have to watch it (as I learned recently - thanks DPS) cause sometimes if it gets too bright during your session you can end up with some WAY overexposed shirts!

  • Photo Larry May 15, 2008 02:26 pm

    It usually is best to have your subject wear something that conveys something about them. That way it can be called an "environmental portrait"

  • Mike May 15, 2008 01:47 pm

    I agree with Melinda. Keep the colors simple. I have had bad experiences with patterned clothing.

  • Corrie May 15, 2008 04:28 am

    Great tips!
    I have an unusual question on family portraits that I'm really struggling with because it HAS to be perfect! I have 4 children, young adults now. I lost one son at 16yo(6 yrs. ago). Unfortunately I don't have a recent family picture with all of us before he died, so I purchased one of those 'kits' where you send them the pics and they do an oil painting. I'll be using Reid's last pic his sophomore year where he's wearing a plaid shirt with a dark T-shirt under. I could have the colors changed but don't know what we should all wear. It will be just an upper body pic so no pants showing. We're a casual family so I don't want to go all formal. My color different, and my daughter's? Should we all be in white shirts or navy, or all different or what? It will be just me with my daughter and 3 sons. We can also choose a background. I don't have a clue. I think because it is so important to me, my mind won't function at all! Please, ANY suggestions or ideas would be greatly appreciated!!! Thank you so much!

  • Aaron Snyder May 15, 2008 01:51 am

    "What should I wear?" This question comes up a lot with people. What I usually say is "keep it simple." I agree with every tip you've given in this article. I just try to make sure that the people are wearing solid, matching colors. I'm a big fan of jeans and a long sleeved shirt. Collars are ALWAYS a great addition for males. With females they can provide help to an otherwise not very flattering neckline. Always remember that jewelry can add or subtract from a photo just as much as a shirt. Try to keep the jewelry simple and with intent. Don't have five necklaces and three earrings- pick out the most important necklace and the most effective earrings.

    Oh yeah-- dark collars are great for helping to define a jaw line.

    -Aaron Snyder

  • Melinda May 15, 2008 12:52 am

    I usually tell the people I take portraits of to wear simple neutral toned clothing with no patterns. I like the white shirt dark pants look on most. But I agree sometimes it isn't a good contrast or the white shirt is a little bulky.