8 Tips For Creating Senior Portrait Photography

Sarah Grace Sharp

Senior portrait photography is a creative way to mark a memorable moment in the lives of teenagers and budding adults. Senior portraits are often captured to signify an ending and new beginning of a pivotal point in an individual’s education, whether this is graduating from high school to head to university or from college, ready to head out into the real world.

As a photographer, photographing seniors can be a unique way to capture the true personality of your subject – as most sessions include an expression of their interests, achievements, and plans for the future. When photographing a senior portrait session, you will need to instill several techniques to create your client’s ideal images. Here are ten tips for shooting a successful senior portrait photography session:

Tip 1: Get To Know Your Client

In portrait sessions that mark significant moments of your client’s life, it is always recommended that you set an introductory meeting before the shooting. This can be done in several ways, in person, over the phone or even via video chat, anyway that allows you to have a personal discussion with your subject about their ideas and expectations for their session.

With senior photography, your client will most likely have several ideas for what kind of images they would like you to capture. Senior sessions are often done in two ways; through creating traditional, graduation focused images or more casual, personal lifestyle imagery. In either scenario, you will want to consult your subject on which they prefer as well as inquire about location preference and wardrobe choices.

An effective way to get to know your client is to ask them personal questions that shape their personalities, preferences and their plans for the future.

For example, let’s say your potential client is a college senior graduating with a degree in art or design. As an artist throughout their time at university, they have worked on several projects and plan to continue to pursue this creative path. In this case, you may suggest that their senior portraits showcase their talent and passion rather than a typical display of them in their cap and gown. You could recommend photographing them in their artist studio or creative atelier where their projects have been made. Develop portraits of their personality and even show them at work – creating and concocting their next masterpiece.

Or you may have a client who is traditionally academically focused – involved in several university programs, the leader of membership boards and holds an array of awards for their achievements. In this situation, they may prefer to be photographed in their cap and gown, with their medals and ribbons showcasing their successes and in a location that has played an essential role in their educational development.

In these various situations, you will always want to focus your sites on capturing the true and authentic nature of your subject. Being a senior at both high school and college level are significant milestones that will want to be photographed in a manner that emphasizes the gravity and importance of this achievement.

Tip 2: Choose a Suitable Time of Day for Your Session

Selecting the time of day for your portrait session is an important element to consider during planning. Not only does this apply to the amount of available light for your images, but is an interdependent factor that affects the location that you choose.

If you are choosing a location that is more lifestyle-focused such as on the beach or in a nature scene, your best time of day will be either in the early morning or the evening. This is due to the soft lighting that will be complementary to your subject. Yet, if you are choosing a location that is more specific and special to your subject such as somewhere on their campus, you will want to plan for a time where the setting is calm and less crowded.

Considering that there is a season for senior portraits, usually during the few months before graduation, you will always run the risk of a popular location being full of other photographers and their clients. Due to this, you will want to make sure you plan and book your session during a time of day that will be void of background distractions and elemental noise in your images. Suggest a day where the campus may be closed, such as a Sunday, or during the morning before all classes begin.

Ensuring that you set the scene and establish an environment for your session is vital to creating quality senior photography.

Tip 3: Give Recommendations for Wardrobe

Photo by Grace Sharper

A majority of your responsibilities for senior portrait photography is being involved in every step of the planning and creation process. Aside from shooting, this also includes components such as curating, styling and recommending wardrobe for your subject.

In some cases, your client will have specific ideas for clothing and will need little to no guidance in this area. Yet, on the other hand – you will find that many people will want your expert opinion and insight into what types of clothing will photograph best.

As a photographer in this sector, it would be beneficial to slowly develop your eye and have an understanding of the relationship between fashion and photography. Some key components to consider could be what color palettes and patterns are flattering on a man versus a woman, how a location affects the choice of wardrobe and the style and tailoring of a piece in relation to your subject’s height and body shape.

Additionally, if you are creating a shoot that has a specific theme or style – you will want to guide your client to bring clothing that fits with the setup you hope to capture for them. Even in the shoots where your senior is simply photographed in their cap and gown, you can suggest options for shoes, jewelry or even the way in which they can style their hair.

In all, you will want to make sure that you are showing your client that this session is important to you and you are dedicated to capturing their best senior portraits.  

Tip 4: Make Your Client Feel Comfortable

Photographing seniors can be a bit different than capturing children or adults. More often than not, creating senior photography can be a more seamless process due to the nature and personalities of young adults. These types of subjects can tend to have a better understanding of who they are, how they want to be perceived and the level of confidence they wish to exude. This type and manner of self-awareness can be a useful aid in expressing comfortability in front of the camera.

Now, as with every subset of individuals – you will have young adults who are more reserved and contain less outwardly confident personalities. WIth these specific seniors, it is best to remember that your job is to make them feel calm and comfortable in front of your camera. During the time you spend getting to know your client, is the best opportunity to discover whether or not they are used to being photographed and their personal feelings about acting as a “model.”

If your client gives off the impression of discomfort, you can use several ways to help them loosen up and feel better in the spotlight. This can include giving them alternate poses that aren’t directly focused on smiling or posing for the camera, keeping up the casual conversation and asking them questions about their life or even their future plans – people will feel calmer when they can discuss a topic they are interested in and enjoy sharing.

Tip 5: Infuse Creativity and Aim to be Different

It’s no secret that senior photography sessions often contain similar themes and elements. In order to avoid creating images that feel trite and replicas of other senior portraits you usually see, you will need to infuse creativity and aim to be different during your session.

This can include integrating the use of props, design elements or even seeking out unique location options that may have yet to be discovered in your town. You can do this by using pieces to help tell your subject’s story, setting up an interesting or cool backdrop or even using varying styles of posing that veer off the traditional concept of senior photography.

Another way to be different in your approach to senior photography is to use alternate mediums of photography equipment and change up the editing of your images. For example, the majority of senior photography is shot on digital and edited to be bright, airy and happy-esque images. Although this may be a preferred style among potential clients, there is always room to carve out a new and innovative approach to your style of senior photography.

Let’s say that in order for you to develop your own niche within the senior photography industry, you choose to shoot your images on film or even create fun, Polaroid prints for your clients. With this twist, you will attract a different set of potential seniors who may prefer a photographer with imagery that deviates from the rest. In a world of promoted individuality and strong voices, your move toward ingenuity and away from the sameness of typical portraits will bring you a set of clients that value images that stand alone and away from the crowd of their peers.

Being creative with your senior photography can also be done with the tools you already use while shooting digitally. Instead of changing your format, consider creating a specific editing style that will be unique to you. Too often, we can fall into the trap of using presets and editing styles that are popular within our niche. Instead of following along the same path of senior photographers in your area, attempt to create a different experience for your clients. In a saturated market of photography, the best way to be seen is to go against the grain and develop a style that is truly specific and speaks to the work you create.

Tip 6: Use Natural Light

With the boom and influx of portraiture now being shot on location and outside, the standard idea of traditional studio portrait sessions is one of the past. Considering that more clients will prefer a lifestyle approach to their session, including various locations and backdrops for their pictures, you will need to use natural light to craft your photographs.

Natural lighting is a vital tool in any photographer’s arsenal as it is flattering, complementary and forgiving in almost all situations. In order to use natural light for your portraits, you will want to determine which location will offer the best lighting conditions during which time of day.

In order to manipulate and use natural lighting to your advantage, you should consider integrating the use of a reflector in your portrait sessions. A reflector is used to bounce light and pull shadows that may otherwise cause and cast unflattering elements onto your subject’s facial features. A reflector often has multiple colored sides: gold, silver, black or white and each creates different compositions and visual textures for your portraiture.

Another way to use natural light to its fullest capacity is to use an external flash either on or off camera to fill in the pockets of darkness on your subject’s face. An external flash is a useful tool used by many photographers even in situations where the lighting appears to be perfect. A flash is less about adding light, but more an attempt to change and alter imperfections that can occur when photographing people. You can choose to have the flash set up on your camera body or even create a bounce scenario where it can be triggered as an off-camera component.

Whichever way you choose to illuminate your subject will be a personal and stylistic preference for you as the photographer. Yet, keeping in mind that natural light is the preferred light source in order to create portraits that feel soft and visually appealing for your subject.

Tip 7: Capture Candid Shots

Photo by Svyatoslav Romanov

The final tip to remember when creating senior photography is to plan to capture candid shots. While posed images have always been the traditional set up for photographing people, you don’t want to focus too heavily on production that doesn’t always feel natural or organic.

As we previously discussed, not every single senior you work with will feel at ease and comfortable in front of the camera. With this in mind, you may find yourself having to find unconventional and different methods of posing that allows for more flexibility with your client. Candid images are a guaranteed way for you to capture the personality and to feel with your images, all while making your subject feel far more confident about their manner in front of the camera.

Candid shots can be achieved in various ways such as having your subject physically engage in an activity, allowing them to laugh or even guiding them to pretend as if the camera is not there. Whichever way you decide to establish comfort for your client, remember to focus on creating photographs that feel real, natural and are an authentic representation of your subject.

Tip 8: Offer the Option for Physical Packages and Prints

In order to be a successful senior photographer, you need to remember that just because the shooting is finished, doesn’t mean your job is over. After creating a great experience for your client, you need to maintain this level of professionalism and attentiveness in the post-production process. Once you are finished shooting, you will be tasked with the process of delivering the images to your client.

For some portrait sessions, photographers send the digital files to their client for them to do with them as they wish. It is usually a personal preference of the client of whether or not they choose to create physical prints of their images. Therefore, a photographer may deliver a set number of photos, upload them to an online gallery and send off to their client as the final product.

Yet, in this niche of portraiture, as with other memorable moment focused sessions, your client will most likely be using these images specifically in a printed manner. Senior photography is used most often to announce the milestone of graduation, where a senior may send out prints and cards to families and friends to inform them of their special day.

Considering that your client will want to have their images printed, it is best that you can offer your insight and recommendations for printing options rather than having them seek a third party. For this, you can select one of two options: you can do the print production yourself and deliver them ready for your client, or you can accumulate a list of vendors with whom you often work as an option for your client to choose from.

If you choose to produce yourself, you will want to obtain your client’s selects, their favorite images, as well as the number and preferred size of each print. Once you have the final prints, you can add a personal touch by mailing them out or hand delivering them in a decorated box with a thank you note for their business. If you offer this as an option for your sessions, you will want to consider building this process into your photography fee or advise the client of the pricing that will be owed after developing the prints.

As for the other option, you can also give a list of one of two printing services you recommend for your client to use. These vendors should be people you work with often, whose quality of work you endorse and someone who has created a special deal for your customers because of your steady flow of business using their services. This is a viable option when your client is unaware of how many photos or which ones they want to have physically printed. In this case, you can give them the necessary amount of time to decide as well as the flexibility to print at their leisure by directly contacting the printing company. When recommending third-party vendors to your clients, you will want to make sure they are of high quality and that you fully trust the work they produce – as it is now a reflection of your business.

In senior photography, having the option to print their portraits is a true selling point for many clients. If you currently do not offer this option for your seniors, you may consider altering your services. Many times, a photographer that offers pre-planning, a client will prefer the physical shooting and post-printing production for their full-service offerings.

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The niche of senior photography is a type of portrait work that requires a true client connection, intricate planning and a professional follow up with high quality deliverables. Running a photography business is a two part process of building and maintaining a strong base of clientele. If you are already a senior photographer or looking to transition into this area of the industry, you will need to use these 8 tips to guide your future sessions.

Remember that a successful senior photographer builds a positive repertoire with their clients, is involved in all aspects of planning the shoot, helps their clients feel comfortable and candid, creates an effective technical setup and delivers high quality digitals and prints. Yet, even with this basis – it is key that for senior photography, you always aim to be creative and think outside the box. Senior photography can give the illusion of having a general sameness and aesthetic to these types of portraits. Instead of following the trend, develop your own and show your client that their experience with you is truly one of a kind.

Are you involved in the senior photography industry? Do you have any tips or insight on creating quality, unforgettable images? Share with us your thoughts in our comments below.

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