If you’ve considered diving into the world of senior portrait photography or want to level up your current operation, you’re in the right place!
Photographing seniors is a lot of fun—they exude enthusiasm as they step into a new chapter of life, and their personalities and interests have truly blossomed. While this photography market is enjoyable on its own, it’s also great for business.
Let’s start by defining the two different senior portrait types. The first is contract senior portraits in a volume setting. The second is individual senior portrait sessions not done in a volume setting. In this blog, we’ll discuss how volume photographers can cross into the world of individual senior portrait sessions.
In our quest to provide you with valuable insights, we've enlisted the wisdom of seasoned professionals who have mastered the art of volume photography and honed their skills specifically in the realm of individual senior portraits. Consider this as your backstage pass to the behind-the-lens world, where we ask the burning questions you've been dying to know.
We asked two talented volume photographers (who are also part of the PhotoDay Team) tons of questions about the art and business of taking great senior portraits. Meet Dan Burgess—photographer and co-founder of D&B Forever Photography and Ohana Sports Photography—and Brian Derenski—owner, photographer, and graphic designer at Brian Derenski Photography.
Keep reading to hear their terrific perspectives on everything from effective communication to ideas for making seniors comfortable during their sessions.
Their shared knowledge reads like a cheat sheet for senior portrait photographers of all skill levels. Here are their answers (some answers have been edited for length and clarity):
Q: How soon before picture day do you send out communications like what props to bring?
Brian: I consult and book senior portraits at the same time, either over the phone or in a Google Meeting. That allows me to discuss my pricing and process. I let people book up to a year in advance, then send wardrobe and prop reminders and a model release about 30 days prior. My CRM, 17Hats, automates a lot of this for me, which keeps things simple.
Dan: I cover as much information as possible during the consultation, then send reminder emails leading up to the shoot. Email is best for sending contracts and reminders about senior portraits, but on the day of the session, I communicate via text.
Q: How do you get to know the seniors to prepare you and them for their senior portrait day?
Dan: I do as much as I can over the phone. I really like to get to know who I am photographing, so I ask the right questions and really listen to how they answer. A lot of people send questionnaires, and it works well for them. I’ve always found that conversations are a lot more personal for me, and I get more out of them.
Brian: I love conversations, too, but I have a questionnaire I send out for the senior (not the parent) to fill out. It covers things like favorite snack foods, favorite cartoons from when they were a kid, and favorite high school memory. I also like to ask where they would want their session if money were no object. I bring their chosen snacks to the shoot to help them relax. Then, I draw on their other favorites to keep them loose throughout the session.
Q: What are the benefits of shooting indoors versus outdoors for senior portraits? Do you leave it up to the parents to decide?
Brian: It really depends on what the senior and their family wants. We determine what will work best during the consultation meeting. I need to know if they need access to a special location like a court or field at school. I’m comfortable indoors or outdoors, so I just make sure we can go where they want to.
Dan: I feel the same way. I am equally comfortable photographing indoors or outdoors, so it 100% depends on the style of the session and what the student wants their senior portraits to look and feel like.
Q: If you photograph outdoors, what is the best time of day?
Dan: Any time can be the best time. We, as photographers, need to know how to control the light. We don’t have to shoot at the golden hour or in the shade. We just have to have the expertise and equipment to work with the light we have.
Brian: That is true. A strobe will help in any lighting conditions, but a bounce card can also do wonders. My only additional suggestion would be to consider the weather. If your senior portrait session is in the middle of the day on a hot summer afternoon, you probably won’t get the results you hope for.
Q: When is the best time to market senior portraits?
Brian: October through January of a student’s junior year makes the most sense. Send a rep team to the school, if possible, and target any paid ads towards juniors and parents of juniors. Use discounted session fees as an incentive.
Dan: I market senior portraits all year long. There are always early and late people, so I constantly have some kind of marketing going on.
Q: What month is the best for taking senior portraits?
Dan: I like mid-fall for the seasonal colors and spring because everything looks vibrant and photographs nicely.
Brian: I prefer late May to early June. Due to yearbook deadlines, you can’t go later than the end of September.
Senior Portrait Lighting Setups
Q: What lighting do you need to take great senior portraits?
Brian: It’s a mixed bag, depending on the look, wardrobe, location, and time of day. You’ll be able to create a checklist during the consultation, and you may need anything from multiple lights with gels and modifiers to a simple reflector. I like to use an AD300 for portability and a Glow Para Snap 36” softbox for a main light. I also carry 3 AD200s with MagMod Sphere and a gel kit, just in case.
Dan: This question is loaded. It depends on what you have, and you may need to purchase additional lights, modifiers, and scrims to control light and achieve the senior’s want for the session. A traditional three-point lighting setup will work for most indoor shoots, but if your senior wants special effects or something extra, you may need 6-8 lights. Make sure you are clear on the expectations of the student and their parents, then ensure you have the equipment to execute it.
Senior Portrait Poses and Props
Q: What are the most common senior portrait poses?
Brian: There are no “standard” senior portrait poses. You can use triangles to create motion and symmetry. For ladies, the S-curve with a bent knee and toe pointed to the side is flattering for all body types. Expressions are usually much more important than poses, so always keep that in mind.
Dan: I always say to pose to the subject. Try to understand their body language, attitude, limitations, and expectations. This will ensure they are comfortable and look natural. If a pose doesn’t look or feel right, don’t force it. Just throw it away and move to something else.
Q: How many senior portrait poses do you recommend per person?
Dan: As many as you can work into your allotted time slot. You never know when you will get “the one,” so it's best to try as many things as you are physically able to.
Brian: There’s no specific answer. It depends on many factors, including wardrobe and location. As a photographer, your goal is to provide more images than they can buy. You can use different poses to sell while photographing by planting seeds like, “Oh wow! This location and that look would make a perfect canvas print.”
Q: Do you provide props or ask the students to bring their own?
Brian: They should definitely bring their own. The experience has to resonate with them. Uniforms, sports equipment, and instruments are all very personal items, and I like to be able to ask them questions about each prop to capture their emotions during their senior portrait session.
Dan: I have an inventory of props that I will be happy to bring if they want me to, but I definitely encourage them to bring their own because the pictures will mean more to them.
Senior Portrait Outfits
Q: What do you recommend students to wear for their session?
Dan: The two most important things are that they are comfortable and that their outfit represents what they want from their senior pictures. If they are uncomfortable, it will reflect in the photos.
Brian: Their senior portrait outfits should reflect who they are fashion-wise and as a person. It can be as simple as a nice suit or a pretty dress, but I like trying interesting things like adding sports equipment to dress clothes to show the subject's complexities.
Q: What senior portrait outfits should they avoid?
Brian: If the outfits make sense for the session, there are no real rules. I tell everyone to stay off Pinterest and plan their senior portrait outfits based on their story, not someone else’s.
Dan: They should not wear outfits that make them uncomfortable, interfere with posing, or clash with the style of photographs we are trying to take.
Senior Portrait Trends
Q: Are there any senior portrait trends we should be aware of?
Dan: ProMod lights, tube lights, and smoke are cool if that’s the look someone is going for. It’s okay to experiment a little, but be sure everyone is on the same page about what the finished images will look like.
Brian: A few are out there, but I try to keep it as classic as possible. Parents will be displaying that picture forever. You don’t want the image ever to look dated.
Other Senior Portrait Tips
Q: How can you make students more comfortable during their session?
Brian: Music is always good. Find out what their favorite artists are and play them, or bring a Bluetooth speaker and let them play their Spotify playlist on it. I always bring their favorite snacks and soft drinks they told me about during consultation. It’s a pleasant surprise and shows the seniors that I care about them, which helps relax the session's atmosphere.
Dan: Talk to them. Get to know them on a genuine level. Think back to your consultation and find things to chat about. Take advantage of the time you have together. The more comfortable they are and the better their mood, the better your images will turn out. Also remember, you could be building a legacy with them. One day, they will likely need a wedding or family photographer, and they will remember this positive experience.
Senior portraits are a fun and exciting opportunity to add a new revenue stream for your studio. Combine Brian Derenski and Dan Burgess’ advice with your skill, creativity, and photographic passion, and start promoting your studio to rising seniors today!
Let their enthusiasm and personality shine! You will capture images and create keepsakes they and their families will cherish forever.