High School Seniors + Sports

Shawn Lee on Delivering a High-Energy Photo Experience

September 15, 2017

By Shawn Lee

Photos © Shawn Lee

Artist Vincent devours his self-made papier-mâché hamburger that helps convey his love for life and art.

How would I describe my senior portrait style to a potential client? Let’s just say I specialize in edgy, high-energy shoots that are commercially executed to tell a high school senior’s story and subsequent path.

Both students and parents alike tell me they are attracted to my “in-your-face” style and the fact that I put so much time and effort into my vision for the shoot, the location and the style.

Before every session, we consult with every single high school senior and their family about their look, uniforms, props, etc. They bring all of their items to the shoot, and I art-direct the session based on the image they want to convey as individuals.

Justin has a swagger all his own, as showcased against this textured work of art mural in Detroit’s Eastern Market. All Photos © Shawn Lee


The client’s initial phone call (usually with the mom) will be to find out pricing, get a sense of my process and find out how things will go if they hire me. That’s why it’s so important in this first impression that I convey professionalism, competence, talent and most importantly, my ability to capture great imagery of their precious high school senior. I take about two minutes to explain the process—from consult to shoot to final prints and delivery. I always make sure I am clear, informative and friendly.


I tend to feature what is really important to the teenager, and my high school senior portraits often have a commercial flair and feature elements that are relevant to the subject. I get hired because of my engagement with the family and the senior. I treat their vision as if it were my own, and it’s really important to always create a sense of excitement and get to know their interests, such as favorite music, colors, clothes, foods, sports and extracurricular activities, hobbies and favorite nicknames.

Zoveire loves Lemonheads and wanted them to be part of her portrait.


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. I keep the studio stocked with students’ favorite snacks and sodas, as well as healthy items for parents and anyone else who wants them. When all the extras are said and done, I help pull out of a high school senior the very best vision of themselves. My promise is that every single session is customized to the individual and is a unique experience they will never forget.

Milan loves his Detroit gear, hip hop style and iPhone.


In-studio equipment always includes my Canon 5D Mark III and 5D Mark IV camera bodies, Elinchrom ELB 1200, 600RX and BRX 250 strobes, along with Elinchrom and Westcott light modifiers, Sekonic light meters and PocketWizards.
On location, I love using my 28-70mm f/2.8 lens. I use it for up-close, depth-of-field shots as well as wide to capture the environment behind the subject. It is versatile for a single session without having to change lenses. I also use the Godox Wistro AD600B wireless strobe, which allows me to take 600W/s of power on location in one compact head.


I market my brand mainly through word of mouth by the seniors themselves. There is the occasion when I host events with very strategic partnerships that are extremely popular with teenagers, like in popular coffee shops, shoe stores and clothing stores.

Annabelle’s style is ‘In Your Face’ and without apology. Ripped jeans, green hair and a jump in the air that makes it all look effortless.


I am a very experiential, high-energy, personable person. You’ll always hear me say, “Rock that,” which is my term for making life happen. It is a part of who I am and is also what I’m known for. Because I say it so much, it is very much a part of my brand, and seniors come to expect it. You can see it through my processes, shoots, photographs and how I communicate with people everyday. So if you’re not ready, you betta’ get ready!

Shawn Lee opened Shawn Lee Studios in Detroit in 2009 and is the head of diversity for Professional Photographers of America (PPA), as well as the co-founder of Xposure 101 Photography Conference, which hosts over 300 photographers from around the country for three days of high-level instruction geared toward diversity. He also held Platform Classes at WPPI in 2015 and 2016.