Back To Basics: Senior Portrait Ideas

Back To Basics: Senior Portrait Ideas

Photo by Peter Casey

Senior portraits have come a long way since the days of the dreary (and often dreaded) school photos. Compared to the creative environmental shots of today, those images look vintage – and not in the good way. And since the work is improving so drastically, this vertical is also gaining a lot more attention among the pro photography community.

Senior photos can be a lucrative revenue stream for portrait photographers. They’re almost always in demand and the client base continuously replenishes itself. Many teenagers (or their parents) want their story told through photographs before they move on to the next phase in their life. But what basic tips do you need before setting out to shoot this sometimes tricky – and picky – client?

We talked to Virginia Beach-based photographer Peter Casey, who works primarily as a sports photographer for clients like the NCCA, MLB, and Sports Illustrated. But when he’s not covering sports, Peter takes beautiful, natural senior portraits in his beachside community. Here are his 5 “back to basics” senior portrait ideas for fellow portrait photographers:

1. Forget the studio – shoot environmental

By the time they’re seniors, high school students have likely had their portrait taken every year for 12 years in a studio setting. Here’s your opportunity to get them out from under the artificial lighting and into a natural setting where their unique personalities can shine.

“Teenagers are so much more dynamic than what they feel they are forced into at school and with their friends,” says Peter. To get them out of their social shells, Peter takes the time to learn about  his clients before the shoot, and scouts locations where they let loose and be themselves.

Environmental shots add more personality to your portraits (especially when you live somewhere as beautiful as Virginia Beach). That said, Peter advises photographers to find a place that provides an interesting setting and cover if the weather turns bad. “Choose a place that makes it easier to roll with the punches,” he says.

Photo by Peter Casey

2. Ask your senior to smile only 20% of the time

Portrait photographers know that asking your subject to smile is a surefire way to guarantee fake smiles. Peter elicits genuine emotions by being genuine himself. It sounds cliche, but as Peter says, “Teenagers can sniff out the bull crap quicker than anyone else.”

Get your senior involved in the process by building the idea for your shoot and poses together. That way, both of you can genuinely be on board with the photos you want to produce. Ask what they like to do in their spare time. If they’re a surfer, get them on the beach in a bathing suit and holding a surf board. If they play music, get them posing with their instrument.

Photo by Peter Casey

Props can be a good idea, just beware that they can sometimes get in the way of a clean photo. Let your senior play around, and then suggest putting anything distracting to the side, and start shooting before they loose the genuine happiness that it brought on.

3. Avoid working in front of an audience

It’s likely that the people paying you (i.e. parents) will be around, supervising. But as anyone who’s raised a teenager knows, they’re not always themselves around family. Even friends can cause your subjects to have a different vibe.

“At some point during the shoot, I like to try to get away from the parents or friends they brought along. Their involvement can be good, but sometimes it’s nice to get some distance and see how that changes their dynamic.” says Peter.

Peter likes to walk with his seniors to another location, maybe 5-10 minutes away. “That way we can talk a just ‘hang out’ for a bit.” They’ll likely relax and get in a different mindset – one that might bring out their best features and give you the best images.

Photo by Peter Casey

4. Start with headshots, then move to full body images

If your seniors are immediately comfortable in front of the camera (which many aren’t), then start with some simple headshots. Most are already familiar with someone photographing them like this, so they can start to loosen up.

“I like to start out with the generic headshot type of photos, and from there my subjects’ walls start to come down, which makes for a very natural session,” says Peter.

What about poses? “Everyone has a particular way about them,” notes Peter. “My directions are more guiding seniors toward their best natural pose. If there’s a pose that absolutely works, then I’ll ask them for hold it for a minute. If something just isn’t working at all, we move on.”

Photo by Peter Casey

One of the keys to successful senior portraits is to be natural with your subject and let your personality shine. Most people react by being themselves, too, and then as the photographer you need to be observant and ready to capture the right moment.

5. Bring a camera body, lens(es), and nothing more 

You don’t want to be lugging flashes or strobes around on an environmental shoot; plus, the light during sunset is often the best. Peter likes to shoot with a 70-200mm lens, and moves closer and further away from his subject to get the right frame.

Photo by Peter Casey

“I think there is an organic quality to natural light that lends itself well to senior portraits,” says Peter. “So most of the time I go out with just a camera and lenses.”

This minimalist mentality should apply to your shot setup, as well. Keep in mind the golden rule of environmental portraiture: remove as many distractions as possible from the background so the focus can be on your subject. “I am pretty obsessive over clean backgrounds,” says Peter. The environment should add something to your image, but not be the main event.

Learn how PhotoShelter helps portrait photographers run a better business

Today, making a personal connection with your client comes way before the day of the shoot: it starts with an elegant website that’s customized to fit your brand – one that gives potential clients a sense for what it’s like to work with you.

The Portrait Photographer’s Tour of PhotoShelter is an 18-page PDF guide that details how our customizable websites help draw attention to your best work, and add some branded personality to your online presence. With PhotoShelter you also get the best image delivery for your clients, so creating and sharing private galleries is fast and easy. Check out our websites and features in this free guide.


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There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Cramer Imaging at 7:08 pm

    Thanks for the tips. Senior portrait season is winding down for the year here but these are great ideas for next year’s crop of seniors. Some of my best senior portrait work is without the fake smile described. My tip for successful natural setting portraits is to study landscape photography. Learn the ways of setting up a good landscape shot as those skills will play into setting up an outdoor portrait. Then use both skill sets to craft stunning natural setting portraits of people, not just seniors.

  2. Justin Waybright at 2:55 pm

    Nice article, but step #5 throws me. What do you do with: dappled light, harsh sun light, full overcast, blown skies etc? If you simple expose for the subject, you’re gonna run into issues shooting strictly natural light. Adding a pop of flash helps overcome a myriad of problems, while putting catch lights in the subject’s eyes too.

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