Tips + Techniques

High School Senior Portrait Photography Tips & Trends

August 3, 2021

By RF + WPPI Staff

© Audrey Woulard

A senior portrait by Audrey Woulard. Woulard's edgy, unfussy style has put her on the map for her young clients, including high school seniors who seek a billboard-quality photo shoot. Her session "Cultivating an In Demand Senior Portrait Experience" is available to watch Free. You can find the link at the end of the article.

As social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest have made high school seniors more discerning about imagery, it’s no surprise that the “classic” high school senior portrait has evolved into a highly personalized production.

For instance Audrey Woulard’s edgy, unfussy style has put her on the map for her young clients, including high school seniors who seek a billboard-quality photo shoot. And let’s face it, today’s high school senior has a more discerning eye than ever before so photographers like Woulard must constantly be one step ahead to stay relevant and in demand. 

Fashion and portrait photographer Lindsay Adler agrees. “Today’s high school senior is constantly bombarded with visuals from the fashion world, whether by celebrities they follow on Instagram or in the pages of Vanity Fair,” Adler wrote in Rangefinder. “They don’t want their poses to be overly rehearsed, static or traditional; they want more of the excitement and glamour that they’re seeing in contemporary media and from figures they admire.”

But this past year was intensely disruptive for high school seniors, to say the least, as the pandemic took away some of their treasured rites of passage into adulthood. In May, Mary Vance wrote about three different ways that photographers could connect with their high school clients post-pandemic, including offering video services that she found to be highly popular during a time when school events went virtual.

Rf and WPPI have put together this report as part of our monthly educational content to help photographers reset their businesses this year after a turbulent 2020. This survey saw 247 respondents, mostly from the U.S., answer extensive questions about their high school senior portrait businesses. Out of the 247 survey-takers, 45% identify as he/him, 39% as she/her, 5% as they/them, and 11% preferred not to say. Respondents were overwhelmingly full- or part-time professional photographers (80%), and tended to be older, with 82% over the age of 45.

Preparing for the shoot is critical for an easy and fun day for both the photographer and subject. The vast majority of respondents (87%) said they talk with their client ahead of time to build rapport and understand their personality, while 74% scout location, 27% map out a lighting setup, 24% create a mood board, and 20% hire an assistant.

Photographer Hope Taylor pointed out in the Rf article “Preparing Your Senior Portrait Clients” that many young clients will likely have not had their portraits taken in a professional setting before, so she recommends sending a questionnaire before the shoot. She also suggests creating a Pinterest board with recommended outfits so the clients have an idea of how to dress, and creating a multi-page “senior style guide” that includes her most frequently asked questions, including what the shoot will be like, her late policy, what to do with hair, makeup and nails, and local recommendations.

When it comes time to shoot, after getting to know them for 15 minutes, she writes: “I like to give my seniors what I call my pre-shoot pep talk: I break down exactly what they can expect and relieve any of their stress.” Taylor emphasizes that it’s her job to make her subjects look good, their only job is to have fun on set.

Photographers said that fashion/beauty imagery and fine art were the types of images that inspire them the most, with many pointing to Amanda Holloway and Sal Cincotta as their favorite high school photographers, and Lindsay Adler and Sue Bryce as their favorite general sources of creative inspiration. Over half (57%) agreed that lighting is the most important element for them to deliver an impactful portrait, followed by posing (21%), composition (18%), and setting (4.7%).

Photographers also said that they believe collaboration with the subject is key, with 81% saying they collaborate with their subjects, and another 14% saying they sometimes do.

“I have a workflow I tend to repeat, but I tailor it based on the subject’s comfort level and flexibility,” one photographer told us. “If the subject has specific requests, I honor them.”

Photographers said that showing the subject’s personality was the most important thing to convey in the portraits, and nearly all (98%) said they achieve that through open communication and posing. Another 72% said they do so through wardrobe, 28% said set design can help, and only 17% chose decor.

The majority of survey-takers (62%) said they shoot in a studio, while the rest photograph on location. Nearly half of photographers said their typical high school senior shoots last a half day, 40% said less than a half day (with many listing 1-3 hours), and only 7% said they are a full-day affair.

Pricing vastly varied between respondents, but Rf has offered tips on pricing your services in

How to Price and Structure Senior Portrait Packages.” Photographer Talara Jo Hall keeps her offerings simple with only two packages, while photographer Travis Dewitz has a few options ranging from 20 minutes with one look to four hours with four looks.

As far as the atmosphere on set, photographer Shawn Lee has told Rf that he turns his shoots into an attended event. “I shoot tethered on a 60-inch screen—it’s a great tool for composition and immediate gratification for those in the studio. I also allow the student to invite friends, family, teammates and classmates to the sessions, which makes for a very fun high school senior event,” he said.

For smaller shoots, only 39% of photographers said they offer mini sessions—discounted shorter shoots with limited options for the client. Out of those who do offer them, 57% said they began the service to reach new clients, 34% said to fill empty slots, and 12% said they provided an alternative service during the pandemic.

Most photographers (69%) said they use props during their shoots, while 31% do not. For backgrounds, muslin/fabric options were the most popular, with 35% of photographers saying it was their preference, while 28% use seamless paper, 8% use collapsible backgrounds, and only 1.5% use vinyl & PVC options.

For lighting, photographers were evenly split on which artificial lights produce the most flattering results, with 40% preferring off-camera flash/speedlights and 40% favoring strobes. Only 5% chose on-camera flash, and 3% for ring lights. Nearly half of photographers (49%) said the harsh light of midday sun was their biggest lighting challenge, followed by fluorescent lighting (15%), and low light (12%).

To create mood, the majority of respondents said side-lighting was their go-to technique, followed by low-key lighting. High-intensity lighting and spotlight were less popular. And, to distinguish subjects from the backdrop or background, the survey-takers said they prefer a rim light. The second most-popular option was to use contrasting color, and the third was lighting the backdrop.

Godox was the most popular lighting brand, followed by Profoto, Westcott and Canon. For lighting accessories, photographers crowned Westcott, then Profoto.

For lenses, more photographers chose Canon, followed by Nikon and Sigma. They largely said that aperture was the most important feature in a portrait lens (63%), though 12% and 11% chose prime and image stabilization, respectively. Zoom, autofocus monitor, and weight were the least popular features. The most popular lens length for photographers’ primary lens was 70-200mm and 85mm.

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