How to Take More Considerate Senior Portraits

How to Take More Considerate Senior Portraits

Ever wonder how you can elevate your senior portraits beyond the standard cap and gown pictures? Think about lifestyle photography the next time you book a senior portrait session.

It’s nearing the end of the senior portrait season for my company and looking back on the many unique senior shoots we had this year, it’s clear to me which are my favorite. While the typical cap and gown shot is often a requirement set forth by families, they’re also my least favorite to shoot. I don’t spend too much time focusing on those captures, and I think my clients have come to understand why. Instead, I focus more on lifestyle portraits for seniors, since to me, photos like this should be representative of who your subject is and where they come from. I just assume this makes the images more special to look back on years down the road and it’s these types of shoots that I enjoy most.

Consider Where You're From

Being based in a small town in rural Arizona, farming and ranching are a common way of life. I grew up here, and as I did, an influential love for the country wove itself deep within the fabric that makes up who I am. The way of life common in small towns and little communities all over the United States is something special, and many of my portraits reflect a little bit of that lifestyle as a result.

Consider When and How You Begin

Deciding when to schedule a shoot isn't all that difficult, given your schedule allows for some creative freedom. My favorite portraits are shot outdoors during the last hour to hour and a half of daylight. It’s then that the lighting is most pleasant and I’m able to achieve the warm tones that I’m fond of, with minimal effort. Oftentimes I begin shooting with my longest lens, a Nikon 70-200mm. This gives my subject a little bit of space as they get comfortable in front of the camera. Later, I work my way in closer with something like a 24-70mm for wider shots and a different perspective.


I’m a minimalist when it comes to equipment. If I have a point to make regarding gear, it’s to keep it simple stupid (KISS). Thinking like this has kept me out of trouble in terms of equipment related problems (for the most part) up to this point. For most of my portrait sessions, a single Nikon SB-910 speedlight and modifier is all I need for additional lighting equipment. As the sun sets below the horizon, I’ll typically add one more speedlight to the set as a backlight.

The small Photoflex OctoDome seen here has proven to be a great modifier for my speedlights.

Determine an Appropriate Location

I used to spend way too much time thinking about locations I could shoot at. The truth is, the best locations are the ones that work with you. When it comes to senior portraits, and lifestyle photography in general, I typically do a little investigative digging to find out where my subject spends the most amount of time. It just doesn’t make much sense to shoot a competitive swimmer in the sand dunes, or a cowboy in a ballroom. In this case, the location was my subject's home located on a small family ranch.

Asking your subject questions about what they enjoy doing most can also be helpful in determining a location as well.

Me: What kind of chores did you grow up doing?

Jonathan: Feeding a cleaning up after every one of these animals.


When it comes to post-processing, I think most photographers eventually decide on a certain look they like to reproduce set after set. No worries if you haven't nailed down your editing style yet. It'll happen. It is important for clients to see consistency when it comes to the overall look of your images, however. No one wants to pay for one thing and receive another, so developing your own presets with the basic adjustments you make most often is helpful in developing a consistent and cohesive portfolio.

I use a custom Lightroom preset I developed and named "My Sharp Punch." I use it on all of my images at the beginning of my editing process. The preset consists of a few sharpening adjustments, along with small adjustments to the contrast, clarity, and vibrancy. They're minor adjustments, but in the long run having them all saved as a preset saves me a lot of time and helps add to the consistency of the sets I deliver my clients.

My most common basic adjustments are small, but together they make a significant difference.


Whether you're from the big and bustling city and your clients consist of slickly dressed and smooth talking youngsters, or you're from a more rural part of the world where boots collect mud and dust, let that shine in your senior portraits. Show off who your subjects are and where they're from and you'll be rewarded with a set of images that just make sense. More so than the cowboy in a ballroom anyway.

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John Ohle's picture

Thanks Dusty. I love the shots, they sure beat the hell out of a cap and gown photo any day!

Jim Cutler's picture

Good post.

Dusty Wooddell's picture

Thanks, Jim

Mark Bowers's picture

Well written article, and some amazing shots! I have a client pending for some graduation photos and will pitch the idea of doing something non traditional in addition to the cap/gown shots after reading. Many thanks!

Dusty Wooddell's picture

Thanks mark! It definitely makes senior shoots more enjoyable for me

Kendrick Howard's picture

Hey Dusty nice work - I am just entering the field taking over for a seasoned vet and your article was a great shot in the arm!