Creating Lifetime Memories for High School Seniors.
Do you remember when you were in high school? Whether you actually remember your high school days or not, chances are you remember at least something good or bad from that time in your life; and it's very likely one of those things could be your senior portraits.
Today's seniors remember their portraits, too. But – much has changed in photography since many years ago, and what was one a huge event, always done by a professional is no longer. Now, it is not at all uncommon for today's high school seniors to have their portraits shot on an iPhone (cringe!) in their backyard! (Double cringe!)
For today's senior portrait photographer, this means a lot of things have changed. Not only does a photographer now have to compete with other local photographers, they have to compete with mom, too. Photographers have to prove to families why they should go with a professional instead of Uncle Bob who has a really nice camera, and to do that is simple: You must make your images more than a step above the rest. You must make your photographs so mind-bogglingly wondrous that seniors – and parents, too – stand there, jaw agape, wondering just how you did it. Soon, they'll be the ones telling Mom that they just have to get their senior photos done by Photographer X (that's you!)
However, this presents the real question: Well, how am I supposed to do that?
(Note: Before we begin, I want to note that I'm using just a few senior sessions as example photos for a reason. Lots of times, like with portfolios, I think that it misrepresents a photographers work to show the two "best" example pictures for a given situation, and that doesn't really accurately reflect what the photographer is talking about. Y'know, kind of like your math textbook, the one where the given example says "2 + 2 = 4" and you think "Yeah, I can do this!" Then, you get to your actual problem and there's a calculus formula and they say let g(x) be an antiderivative of f(x) then if G = ... -- yeah, that's what I'm talking about. So we'll stick with the 2+2 here. Anyway, moving along...)
Keep reading below for some tips on shooting senior portraits. Even though this blog focuses on seniors, it really could apply to any sort of portraiture. In any case, from overcoming bad outdoor light to bringing things in the studio, I hope that everyone, amateur to seasoned veteran, can glean at least something useful for their own business.
1. You're Looking for Light, Not Location!
This can be a really big challenge, because certainly, not all locations are pretty. Adding to this is Mom and Senior (mostly the girls) who "just found this absolutely beautiful location and were wondering if they could do their portraits there." Well, probably, yes, you can, but you as the photographer really ought to scout that first. Either way, you can absolutely make a "bad" location look beautiful with beautiful light; however, you cannot make a "good" location look beautiful with bad light. It's just not going to happen.
As photographers in general, I think that we can get so caught up in the moment, especially with seniors, because it's a really exciting time for the senior, and they've chosen you as a photographer to trust and confide in, that they might have these memories for a lifetime to show children and grandchildren. No pressure, now!
Deep breath. You're at your location, and Mom is bothering you about outfits. Relax, and look for your light. It's there. Promise.
I never go anywhere on a shoot -- especially Seniors -- without at least one circular reflector. I usually use my giant oval one. You can find that one (it's my favorite) at your favorite online photo retailer for usually about $50. Super cheap and makes all the difference. A quick tip for using your reflector. So often I see people "underlight" with reflectors. Don't do that! Stop it now! You're creating monster light. Tell your assistant (or whomever is helping you on a shoot, and that should always be someone) to stop being a wuss and get it in the air! Go do some weight lifting! You must use your reflector properly. Think of it like a softbox -- would you ever put a softbox directly underneath someone? Probably not, so don't do it with a reflector, either. Many times, Mom or Sibling (especially if a little younger) will love to hold and help you with a reflector. Feel free to ask if either would like to help, and give gentle direction too.
Take a look -- the two photos below were in a less-than-ideal location (trust me - there are a few times on sessions where the family and senior are looking at me like... are you sure?), but the light was really nice. I was able to augment what was already there with my reflector, and I got a superb result.
In front of some an "old wall"
And again, we found some red plants hanging over a wire fence. This time, I asked (always ask!) Mom and Senior if they were willing to try something different! (Never do this at the beginning of your session!) I told them I wasn't sure how it would turn out, but if it worked it would look very nice. And work, it did! We came out with a beautiful photograph. Again, in front of some "gross red plants" - but it's the color and light I looked for. I knew that with my lens' aperture, I would be able to blur out the background so only the color would be prominent. This is something that works much, much better on a lens with a fast aperture (2.8 or wider).
In fact, some of the best photos I've taken with seniors were in locations I originally thought would unusable, but then, the light was great there, and I thought "Awe, what the heck, let's give it a shot!"
I encourage you to give it a shot, too.
2. Be conscious of how you're posing and directing your senior.
If you're a commercial photographer, or often do commercial portraits, you MUST remember that your seniors are NOT professional models. You may very well need to give Seniors "Do this, Do that" sort of direction, which is OK. Just don't make it sound too commanding!
There's a high chance that your photo session is the very first time in a senior's entire life that there's been a photoshoot that revolved only around them. They probably have a parent/sibling/other family hovering around, fixing hair, brushing this, doing that. They've got you as the photographer saying pose like this, move like that, look at me like this. And they've got themselves, hoping that they look good, hoping that they're posing OK, and other things.
The photographer's job is very stressful, but the senior's is much more so. Please, be considerate of how you are treating them. You may be on a tight schedule, but don't make them feel rushed or you really won't get the results you're hoping for. I, myself, got my own senior photos taken just a year ago, and I'm a professional photographer, who was being shot by a friend, but I was STILL nervous!
The nerves are there. You are trying to cram a very important event in the space of just one or two hours. That said, there are some things that you can take advantage of that will make everything go much more smoothly.
Firstly, please, PLEASE, for the love of all things holy, never tell your senior to "Smile!" Just don't do it. Seriously. There's nothing more counterproductive in the world. Instead, say something funny and MAKE a smile happen! Act foolish, say something silly, ask for them to tell you something they find funny. Ask Mom if there are any embarrassing stories she can tell you about Senior. Nearly 100% of the time, Senior will be mortified, but she/he will be smiling! - and it'll be natural, because you captured a REAL moment, and not a "smile! Say cheese!" :-) You can still use "poses!" that are stylish but still timeless.
And, when you DO get a fantastic shot, turn your camera around, say "Wow! That was great!" and show your Senior and the family member the wonderful moment they just helped to create. Do NOT be so interested in making it through your shoot that you don't show your subjects any progress being made. Show a beautiful shot, and it will bolster the Senior's confidence not only during but after the shoot as well, and it will prove to Mom that you do actually know what you're talking about, because she wasn't so sure after Tip #1. If you aren't getting fantastic shots straight out of your camera good enough to show your customer then and there, you may want to consider how much you're actually doing in photoshop.
Be creative, but most importantly, be natural!
3. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) & Have FUN
OK, so it's not the most specific tip in the world, but it rings true. Senior photography is very, very similar to wedding photography. This is one of the happiest days of your Senior's lives! You have a person who has gone through a whole lot of work to get where they are, and now they are celebrating how far they've come. They want memories to commemorate their accomplishments. School is not easy. But getting your photos taken can be very fun. It SHOULD be very fun. I will admit, this is much harder to accomplish when you're shooting guy Seniors, because guys just want to be "One and Done" and girl Seniors have brought their whole closet in the car along with them.
But you should have fun shooting, too. If you aren't having fun, Senior isn't having fun, Mom isn't having fun (and Mom has to have fun or Photographer doesn't get to eat).
There are many things you can do to keep things moving and simple while also having a great time. Use a location to its very maximum potential before moving on to the next. Get in tight for headshots and closeups and full body shots on poses that work for both. Your senior doesn't have to move. Tell them how great they're doing (even if they aren't).
If something isn't working, CHANGE it! Do not, however, ever imply or tell your Senior that it isn't working because of them (even if that's why). Saying something like "Hm, let's try XYZ instead, just to mix things up for a minute!" and change from there. Or, say that you have to adjust something on your camera. Use the time to double check all of your settings, and before you look down at your camera, tell your senior to take a minute to relax and grab a drink of water (or something. You can tell him or her to bring something along with them before the session). Then, when you go back to things, change your pose completely. They won't remember how they were posing in the beginning anyway, and you get the chance to fix whatever mistakes were happening.
In the studio, keeping things simply means using less lights than you think you need. Check out the below photos. All of these were shot using just a single light (there may be one that had two lights, but was very doable with just one.)
So, really. Remember that you should be having just as much fun as your Senior. Remember that Senior and Mom are very stressed. Do anything you can to alleviate that. Promise you can deliver beautiful images. Then, deliver beautiful images. Keep calm, and you'll do great. Fix any issues that come up; answer any questions you can. Don't dismiss your customer's opinions. Even though you're a professional photographer, the average person still knows when a photograph looks or doesn't look good. You won't be fooling anyone with bad photos. They'll still know, though they may not know exactly just why like you do.
Lastly, listen to your senior. If he or she asks for a particular idea, follow through with it. Be honest. Tell them "I don't know, but we can definitely try it out after this pose if you like! Be attentive.
And most importantly, have fun. After all, you're doing photography.
Please, DO feel free to e-mail me with ANY questions whatsoever that you may have. You can get in touch by sending mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Enjoy Senior portrait season.
You've got this.
Best of luck,
-- Andrew Moline.