Tips for Great “On Location” Senior Portraits

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It is common practice for high school graduates to celebrate the milestone of graduation by way of senior photographs. These photographs eventually find their way into frames in the homes of parents and grandparents. In addition, wallet sized photos are traded with friends and are often also mailed out with graduation invitations. Follow along with my tips for creating a great looking senior portfolio.

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The Graduate

Senior Portrait Tips - Image 02I think it is paramount that you know something about your senior before you attempt to photograph them. Does he play football? Soccer? Is she a cheerleader? A band member? What activities are they involved in away from school? Hunting? Fishing? Rodeo? Is he/she quiet and shy, or really outgoing? Knowing these things will enable you to better capture the essence of your subject. I fully expect that when faced with photographing someone who I am meeting for the first time that the first ten or fifteen minutes of shooting will be a loss. It usually takes this much time for my subjects to relax and settle in with the camera. It is important to remember that most of us are uncomfortable being photographed. This is why it is important to try to integrate hobbies and activities that are important to your subject. If they are in their element, they will be more comfortable.

I have noticed that males and females have different expectations of their senior portraits. The guys are usually totally reliant on you, the photographer, to get the job done. Most would rather not have their portrait taken, but feel obligated to do so for their parents. They want it to be over, and soon. On the flip side, they are usually super compliant and open to suggestions for posing.

The young ladies, on the other hand, often arrive to the location with a complete portfolio already dreamt up in their heads. This can be helpful, but you should not let it over-ride your common sense and eye for what is acceptable in portraiture. Yes, rules can be broken, but the rules for portraiture will always provide a firm foundation for that type of work.

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Clothing

I prefer my senior clients to wear casual clothing. I recommend a classic look rather than trendy. Avoid loud colors and busy prints or stripes. Bold text or logos are also distractions in portraits. Neutral tones work best. Most guys will bring a couple changes of clothes. The girls will usually bring at least three. If you plan on covering a lot of ground during the shoot, and I do, be sure to tell the girls to bring a pair of flat shoes to walk in from location to location. For the guys, I tell them that I am sure that their mother will choose what she wants them to wear for the photographs, but to also bring something they would wear if just hanging out with friends. Casual. The girls usually bring one dress, and a couple other changes that are casual in nature. Denim or khaki work well. Did I mention casual?

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Location

The location chosen to shoot your senior photographs can make them or break them. I have a few simple rules that I follow for this.
  • Avoid having anything man-made in the background, or
  • Fill the background with interesting architecture, or
  • Use a shallow depth of field to blur the background
  • If there is a location that actually holds some importance to your subject, then by all means use it, and make it work. A family farm, a grandparent’s home, a park where they played as a child. Be open and flexible on this.

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I like shooting against brick walls that are full of texture. Granite structures also work well and can give you a nice softbox effect with all the reflected light. Rows of columns are nice as well, and look great with all their receding lines. All this is great, if the light is right.

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Lighting

Avoid direct sunlight! Be sure that the time of day that you choose to shoot will provide open shade at your chosen location. Overcast skies also provide sweet light for portraiture. There is no dSLR available to my knowledge that can handle the dynamic range of a portrait lit in full harsh sunlight. The shadows will be too hard, and the highlights too harsh. Make it easy on yourself and avoid direct sunlight. Also, dappled light filtering through trees can be tempting, but rarely works well.

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Fill Flash

Senior Portrait Tips - Image 08I use fill flash in 99.9% of my outdoor portraits. I do not use modifiers other than what is needed to balance the color temperature of the flash with the ambient light. For this, since I am in shade, I use a CTB (color temperature blue) gel to add blue to my flash. I currently am using Phoxle Flash Match Filters for flash gels. Their light blue gel works flawlessly in shady outdoor portraits. When doing this, I set my custom white balance on the “cloudy” setting. I shoot RAW and adjust white balance in post production, but using the “cloudy” white balance provides a close approximation to what I will be looking at as a finished product. There is an added bonus that can be gained by adding blue to the flash. I sometimes use a LEE ½ CTB gel to “over blue” the flash unit. By adding extra blue to the fill flash, then correcting white balance for my subject in post, I get the backgrounds to go super warm. A nice touch for late afternoon portraits.

Senior Portrait Tips - Image 09You must have control over your flash. I typically use high speed synch on my Canon flash. This allows me to use the wide apertures I like to use (and the high shutter speeds that go along with those apertures) along with fill flash. Aside from that, knowing how to use flash exposure compensation to dial back the amount of light from the flash will lead to better portraits. Remember that the natural light already provides excellent shaping shadows. Fill is used only to slightly lift the shadows, brighten the eyes, and to slightly lift your subject from the background. If the light from the flash is creating new shadows, then it is too much power. Too much power will always look worse than too little. Minus 1 ½ stops is a good place to start with the flash exposure compensation.

Reflectors work well for fill also, but are cumbersome (if not impossible) if you are working without an assistant.



Framing

The package that I offer, and I only offer one, includes 4×6, wallet, 5×7, and 8×10 sizes. It is always important when framing portraits to leave room for different crop ratios. My approach for seniors is to maximize my framing for a 5×7 crop. The majority of the prints in the package are wallet sized, and a wallet sized photo shares a ratio identical to a 5×7 print. For great looking wallet photos I tend to shoot mostly ¾ length poses or tighter. A wallet sized photo is too small in my opinion on which to view a full length portrait. Be sure to avoid cropping fingers and toes. Avoid centering your subject. Try to place your subject, or his or her eyes, or head according to the rule of thirds. Vary your shooting angles. Shooting from above will be flattering to most anyone. My rules of thumb for portrait composition are:
  • Frame filling headshots
  • Head and shoulders
  • ½ length
  • ¾ length(crop at mid-thigh)
  • full length

I won’t go into the particulars of posing here, but in general there are some things to avoid. Crossed arms are considered defensive in nature and should be avoided. Hands stuffed into pockets look terrible, while on the other hand hooking thumbs into pockets or belt loops is acceptable. The bottom of feet or shoes is also a no-no. It is okay for the posing to be edgy and contemporary, but that also needs to be balanced with age appropriateness. In a pose where a guys shoulders fall at differing heights, avoid tilting the head toward the higher shoulder. This is considered to be a feminine tilt. The gals can get away with tilting their head to either shoulder. Be ready for fake looking pasted on smiles. This can be combated by encouraging some serious looks, and closed mouth grins to mix things up. Polite teasing and joking will get you the real smiles.

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Equipment

I use a variety of lenses along with my dSLR. These include 50mm and 85mm prime lenses, and 28-75mm and 17-55mm zooms. They are all constant aperture zooms with a maximum aperture in the F1.8 to F2.8 range. I often shoot at wide open apertures, and almost never smaller than F4. I carry the speed light and color correcting gels already mentioned, a monopod, a reflector, and a small 3 step ladder. I typically shoot an average of 300 frames for a senior portrait session, and since I shoot RAW I have plenty of memory cards on hand. I also carry a small towel, and a piece of cardboard that is large enough for someone to sit on, but not so large it will show in my photographs. This makes people who are worried about getting dirty a bit more comfortable about being seated in grass.

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Processing

This, of course, is subjective and can vary by tastes. I tend to be fairly conservative with post processing. I avoid gimmicky actions and plug-ins like the plague. I also avoid selective coloring and fancy edges. My opinion is that these treatments cheapen the photograph and distract from the subject. A portrait should always be about the subject and never about the processing. Aside from my straight color photos, I do some monotone conversions, and now and then mix in some cross processed or lomographic type treatments. I typically use multiple subtle vignettes to draw the eyes of the viewer to the eyes of the subject. My goal here is to create a photograph that will be as much in style 20 years from now as it is today.

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My Final Tip

Last year I allowed one of the senior girls I photographed to download some of the photos from my website. These were watermarked photographs approximately 300×450 pixels in size. She asked for them to post on her Myspace and Facebook pages. I allowed her to do this at no extra charge. The result was akin to handing out 100 business cards, and my phone did not stop ringing with prospective clients until the week before graduation. This is an excellent way to market yourself to everyone that each of your clients knows. Web sized watermarked downloads are now included as part of my senior portrait package.

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