As I write this, kids all over the world are unable to experience traditional major milestones such as prom and graduations this year. We can spend time being negative about all of this or we can find more constructive ways of spending our energy. What better way than through some awesome senior portraits?
Senior Portraits are among the biggest trends in the photography world today, and with these easy tips, you can capture stunning moments for tomorrow's memories. (I’m all about making memories! In fact, I am always behind a camera.)
Two years ago, I received a very special call from my sister-in-law, Amy. Unfortunately, we don’t see each other much or chat frequently because she lives in Arizona😢. This particular call was special because she asked me to take her son’s senior portraits. Folks, there isn’t anything better than being asked by a family member to help create one of their memories.
Of course, I asked a thousand questions. How was this going to happen? I am always up for a trip but luckily, on this go-around, they came to me. You see, Alex had turned 18 a few days before this call and as a surprise, Amy was flying both of them back to PA. During their stay, she had planned an epic surprise party for him and, of course, senior portraits.
Making plans to capture Alex’s portraits wasn’t just another photo session for me. This was an honor. Every senior portrait session should be treated as an honor and time should be spent getting to know your subject before the session begins. These will be some of the most talked-about images of their lives and we need to set the bar high. With that said, let’s get down to business.
I am writing this as a photographer speaking to other photographers who might be considering reinventing themselves while in quarantine, but I am also speaking to parents. I challenge all of you parents of these amazing seniors to take this opportunity to highlight their lives right here, right now. This is just one small way we can honor our kids and help make them feel special and celebrated for the amazing accomplishments they have made over the past 13 years. In years to come, you will look back at these photographs as a positive reflection of their senior year and remember a gift of time well spent with the children you have raised.
One of the first things you should do when considering senior portraits is to create a list of highlights you want people to know about your child or subject if they are your client. As a photographer, you need to ask a ton of questions about what is important in their life. Here are a few great questions that will help you plan. A parent should know most of the answers, but a photographer should ask these questions for planning purposes:
How tall are you?
What are you into?
Do you play an instrument or a sport?
What do you do in your spare time?
Where are your plans after graduating from high school?
What are your dreams and aspirations?
You can honestly ask whatever questions you like; these are just a few of my standards. It is so helpful to know your subject because it will help you tailor your session to him. You will want to show off all of the student's skills, crafts, sports (and any other things that make him feel whole and amazing) by including instruments, sports equipment, etc. in the photos. In addition, if I know my subject is 6 feet tall, I might need a prop (a step ladder) to stand at the proper height. (I also like to capture cool angles and a ladder will help me shoot from above my subject. See Camera Angle below.)
Aside from knowing your subject/child well, you also want to choose a location that is significant to him or one that is interesting at the very least. You could have the coolest subject and take a decent shot, but if your location is lame, the picture will be too. I have a few go-to locations where I love to shoot, but if I know more about my client I try to pick a location that seems the most fitting for their personality. (Not long ago I had a senior session for a young man that was 100% country. His friend's family owned a farm, so it seemed fitting to capture images there. We used some of the farm equipment in the background, captured cool shots in the barn, and even stepped into the empty corn crib for some awesome light and dramatic shots.)
Since Alex was away from home and this was a surprise, we worked with what we had available. My sister-in-law packed a suit, his cap and gown, and a variety of casual clothes. Parents, you could do the same thing with your son or daughter’s wardrobe. (IMPORTANT: Plan ahead for several changes of clothes to capture different aspects of the student’s personality.) And this isn’t just a girl thing: Always find out ahead of time what the senior plans to wear. Knowing this will help you to determine the specific spot you’ll want to capture the photos within the location and how you might want to pose your subject. For example, if your client is planning to wear a suit, you wouldn’t have them pose sitting on the ground, and they won’t want to either. If you know what they are preparing to wear you can also have them bring accessories that coordinate. With the suit, you might pop in a shot or two that reflects their personality such as tossing the jacket over the shoulder or taking some in the full suit, and some without the jacket. (I used one of Alex’s casual tee shirts under his dress shirt to add a superman quality to this shot. What do you think? His look is so dramatic with the tie tossed over his shoulder, head cocked to the side. I love it!)
Another simple addition would be a pair of sunglasses or using the tassel from the cap. For example, check out the images below. I love how I focused on the tassel in one of the shots, while purposely blurring the rest of the shot. Both images have a completely different feel.
OPTIMUM TIME OF DAY
When planning your session, be mindful about the time of the day and always, always stay away from midday. Midday sun casts the worst light often resulting in squinty eyes and shadows if you are shooting au naturel. I love using natural light so for me midday is off-limits. (There is more to this in regards to the placement of your subject that I am not touching on, but we’ll chat about lighting another time.) I strongly recommend staying away from the hours between 12-2 PM unless you are handy with a flash or shooting on location with a ton of shade. Most of my sessions are before 10 AM or after 3 PM so I can take advantage of God’s beautiful light at it’s purest. These photos of Alex were taken at 10 AM. A few times I wished I had better light, but with my flash, it all worked out.
CLEAR DIRECTION / POSING
Another really great tip is to give clear directions. (Yup, I’m talking to the parents attempting this at home right now, lol. You will need a whole LOT of patience and maybe a glass or two of wine afterward.) When giving directions, you might even want to go one step further and show them exactly what you want the pose to look like by putting yourself in the pose. I always demonstrate by showing them what I want them to do first. Not everyone understands directions, so I find this visual always helps. Also, when you pose your subject, look at the pose before snapping it and make adjustments so they don’t look forced or awkward. At times, I find the most awkward poses for them actually look super cool on camera...which is why I stress looking at the pose. You don’t want to waste their time or yours with weirdness.
Aim for a variety of shots capturing full length, ¾, and close up poses. Never shoot straight on toward the camera; always angle their body so the shot has more edge. (This is easier than it sounds. Spread out the subject’s legs on a diagonal to the camera and have them turn their torso more toward the camera so you see all parts of their body. By angling the body, this gives your image dimension, fullness, and character, while helping to eliminate shadows under the eyes and on the face. More dramatic posing will give your portrait life.)
When posing your subject, think outside the box. Don’t just center your subject, snap, and think boom, I’m done. I challenge you to use the rule of thirds and create a composition for the eye. When you work in thirds you divide up your image into imaginary thirds in both vertical and horizontal directions. Try to place your subject in one of the thirds while considering the overall composition. Arrange the subject in such a way that it adds dimension to your shot. If you just stick your client in one of the thirds and take nothing else into consideration, the shot will look dull or off-center. Photography is a form of art. If you think of every picture as a canvas, try to fill your canvas with interest.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
This brings me to the next piece: detailing. Details are extremely important in photography. A wrinkled shirt or misaligned gig line can trash an entire portrait so be aware of every little detail. This is when OCD is a huge help. I am forever fixing necklaces and misplaced hair. I always say “work smarter not harder” which is why having an assistant or second set of eyes (maybe a sibling or your spouse if trying this at home) is uber important. An assistant can be fixing little things like a mis-cuffed shirt or collar when you are farther away from your client. If you don’t have an assistant, it’s just extra work for you, but you can handle it.
The final element I want to talk about today is camera angle. Don’t be afraid to shoot at varying angles. Angles are what add to the magic. My sister-in-law Amy was laughing when I was lying on the ground shooting up on a few shots but, hey, I was going for a bigger-than-life angle. Being low to the ground was a must to get that illusion captured. If you remember earlier, I mentioned bringing a step ladder on your photoshoots. Don’t be afraid to get above your subject, too, but be sure to raise their chin while shooting from above. This angle is very flattering if done properly. It’s also a very easy technique for thinning out your subject if needed. (Please don’t take that the wrong way. If you don’t tell them that’s why you are above them, they won’t know. Shhh…it will be our little secret.) The thing to remember when shooting from above or below is for your subject to direct their chin toward your camera. So, if you are shooting above them they would tilt their chin upwards toward the lens of your camera but not so far that you see their nostrils. If the nostrils are that high, you are too far above them. If you are on the ground shooting up toward them you may need them to tilt their chin down. Be really careful with that. If they tilt too much you may cause them to have a double chin. Instead, I have my subject lean a little forward, then tilt the head down. (Check out the image in this paragraph for the bigger-than-life pose. I love how he stands out from the background!)
Angles are so important to make your work interesting and dramatic. Horizontal lines are lines of balance, while vertical lines lend themselves to being stable. All this is true, but if you are looking for drama you have to add diagonal lines. Diagonal lines can be created by shifting your subject or using a wide-angle lens shooting off to one side. This will add perspective, but if you cock your camera just a tiny bit while shooting off to the side, you can really increase the dramatic flare. Most clients love seeing the added zest in these dramatic images. Capturing a few dramatic shots alongside the other typical, stable, and clean shots will give you ample choices. (There is something to be said about simple, elegant posing.) Look at the difference between these two shots. Do you have a favorite? They are nearly the same shot taken at the exact same location except one is at eye height and balanced while the other is taken from above with a slight camera tilt. See how a small change can pack a big punch?
BE CONFIDENT, BE DRAMATIC, BE DIFFERENT . . . BUT BE YOU
Collectively all of these tips are meant to help you improve your photography skills. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. Go for the dramatic and different angle or pose. Be confident in yourself; be different, but be you. Try thinking like an artist and imagine the overall canvas of your work inside your mind's eye. What do you have to lose?
As for my nephew, Alex, I am so proud of the man he is becoming. He has worked hard these past two years, endured tons of change to be exactly where he wants to be.
Alex, I may be biased, but I know you will do great things. Shoot for the stars, and reach the moon, Buddy!
*Disclaimer* These tips are just my suggestions. I have been a photographer for 20+ years but even I am constantly growing, learning, and trying different things. These few tips are not the only things necessary to make a photograph better, but all are intended to build you up and to make you stronger. Practice is ultimately what makes you the best you can possibly be. If you try something and it doesn’t work, you’ll learn from it. I hope you find these tips helpful.
*These shots were taken at The Phoenixville Foundry in Phoenixville, PA.