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.
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