Shooting High School Senior Portraits

9 tips for a worry-free senior portrait session

Seniors and their parents are scrambling to get their photo sessions in before the beginning of the new year, booking during the autumn to capture the warm colors of the season. Although this is a very popular time of year to book photo sessions, these tips will be useful for your senior portrait shoots throughout the year, whether in the fall, summer, spring, or even winter.

It’s easy to get lost in the idea of traditional senior shots; it’s what customers expect. I’ve seen my fair share of overly sexy, glamorized, dramatized, and heavily Photoshopped senior portraits. I don’t know exactly what started these trends, but you as a photographer have a choice in breaking trends, developing a style, and creating new trends. Of course, there are tried and true methods of posing, styling, and using light, so I will go over those to help you along if you’re not used to shooting seniors.


1. Meet or chat with your customer before the shoot

Offer to meet with your customer and their parent(s) after you make contact so that you can plan the shoot in person and get to know the senior. If you’re too busy to meet or you’d rather have a phone conversation, that also works, but talking with the client beforehand makes it easier to really get to know them. Seniors are entering a period of their lives where they’re figuring out the adult they want to become, and with so much digital communication, it’s easy to forget that actual conversation is the best way to piece together a personality and style.

Go over rates and have the parents make a deposit or sign a contract that protects you from cancellation or rescheduling. Make sure there is an established understanding of how long the shoot will take, travel time and expenses if it applies, outfit changes, and package deals. Ask questions and encourage the client to ask questions now so that everyone is on the same page of expectation. You won’t have this flexibility after the shoot.

This is your chance to establish a relationship with the client, make them feel comfortable that they chose you and talk about how excited you are to get to photograph them! This gets them excited too since most of them have probably never had an exclusive shoot before. And remember…you’re shooting for the parents just as much as you’re shooting for the senior! The parents will have their own ideas about what they want to see in the photos, and you should make note of these comments.

2. Book for a morning or evening shoot when possible

These are prime times for booking and it’s for good reason. About an hour and a half after sunrise and before sunset are perfect for that beautiful angled lighting that allows for backlight. If you’re able, take advantage of those times and book the shoot around those hours. Before settling on an exact shoot time, look up sunrise or sunset times for the dates that you are planning to shoot and pick a good hour to start based on that. I like to find out how much time we expect to shoot, whether there will be after dark shots or indoor shots, and then plan the call time accordingly. Arrive to the shoot 15 minutes early to set everything up and pick out a good spot to start shooting. You will find that some spots are ideal in certain light and so you may find yourself moving about throughout the shoot to capture that light.


3. Prepare for the weather

Always schedule a backup date for the shoot in case of bad weather. Autumn is especially notorious for its precipitous nature, so plan at least 2 dates. I actually had to reschedule twice on my last shoot due to weather, but this is rare. It’s important to keep the client abreast of weather reports and to make a decision about rescheduling with at least 24 hours notice.

Another option is to brave the chance of rain and prepare for the worst. Bring a blanket if it has been raining recently to protect them from mud, just in case. As long as it’s not thunder storming, one way you can make the best of gloomier weather is to bring an umbrella and have your senior wear boots to shoot in. I’ve also withstood intermittent rain by shooting indoors near windows, employing the methods of indoor portrait lighting. Either way, this depends on what the senior wants to have as their final product.

 4. Style the shoot

This is the fun part! Styling depends heavily on shooting location, so establish where you will be shooting with them if you haven’t already. Do they want an edgy, urban backdrop? Are they outdoorsy and want to shoot in a field or wooded area? Guide them if they are unsure about how much makeup they should wear, how they should do their hair, or what types of clothing will work best.

I like to use Pinterest to keep track of visual ideas such as poses, coloration, accessories and framing/compositional ideas that correspond with certain environments. Share these ideas with your senior and invite them to provide visual input on shot ideas. I like to have a board of example images ready on my phone in case there’s a shot that I want to get that I may forget about. Your senior will appreciate this effort and it will get them further excited and involved in the shoot.

Ask them if there is a specific style that they love, such as black and white photography, pastel colors, rugged backgrounds, or clean modern imagery that attracts them. Remember, this shoot is about being true to their personality foremost, with a touch of your own photographic style.

 5. Prepare to pose and adjust

Due to most seniors’ lack of one-on-one photo session experience, they probably will not know how to pose their body in the most flattering way. That being said, there are neither truly bad poses nor perfect cookie-cutter poses that will flatter everyone equally, so be prepared to adjust as necessary. Going back to styling, make sure you have a few poses ready to try out on your customer so that you don’t look clueless when they ask you what they should do. If all else fails, just tell them to take a breath and relax their body. When they’re comfortable, it shows, but when they’re uncomfortable, it definitely shows. Ask them if they feel awkward posing a certain way, but most likely, you won’t even need to ask. Change their pose often so that you get a decent variety to choose from.

My photographer eye often overlooks the minute details that my “assistant” eye usually catches during commercial shoots. In other words, pay close attention to what’s happening with the subtleties of their positioning, clothing, hair, or anything such as leaves or dirt that have made their way on the client. It’s easy to get wrapped up in doing what you love, but catching these details will make a huge difference after the shoot when you can see these images at full resolution. There’s only so much Photoshopping that one can do.

6. Mix up focal length and angles

Bring different lenses on the shoot so that you will have variation in your images and ultimately, choices for the client. If you only have one lens, at least be aware of changing the composition with your zoom or your position and framing. Make sure you get up close, mid-range/torso, and full body shots for the client to choose from.

Play with the angles you shoot your senior from. It doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, try shots from above, below, and at eye level to them to see what you can capture, what will flatter, and what fits their personality best.


7. Bring in objects

Ask them before the shoot if there are any objects or accessories that they would like to be photographed with in order to highlight an element of their personality. This could be books, an instrument, sporting equipment, an old locket, or anything valuable to them that showcases their identity. Think of creative ways you can photograph them interacting with the objects and step outside the box of the expected.


8. Give them a sneak peek

Immediately after the shoot, let them know how long they should expect to wait before receiving the finished product. I usually bring my laptop with me during these longer shoots, so I like to upload them right away and show them some of the images immediately. If you don’t have the time for this, I would recommend sending them a few “sneak peek” photos the day after just to give them a taste of how their photos turned out, and also allow them a way to share a few photos immediately on social media. This will be good exposure for you and get customer pumped to see more.

9. Follow up

Once all is edited and delivered, make sure you don’t forget what you’ve promised them in their package deal, including prints they should expect or other products. If the shoot ran smoothly and you feel proud of the product, always invite them to give you feedback, whether in the form of a review on your profile or website. If not, don’t worry! It’s more often worse in your mind than in reality, so still invite their feedback for your own growth purposes, even if it won’t be displayed online.

High school seniors are one of my favorite things to shoot because of the room for flexibility and creativity, so make it fun! Both the senior and their parents will want to have these beautiful photos to cherish for years to come, as a memory of a blooming young adult, so take advantage of this opportunity to practice accommodating multiple requests as well as developing your own portfolio and photographic style. More importantly, these shoots are about fostering relationships with your clients that will make them feel special, ultimately boosting your credibility and growing your skill set and career as a photographer.

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