Initially, there wasn’t much about the idea of photographing high school seniors that excited me. Boring portraits of kids wearing their caps and gowns and flashing whatever year they’re graduating with their fingers like an awkward gang-sign always came to mind. After all, it’s this type of cliche portrait that I most often stumble across online, but this doesn’t mean that all senior portraits have to be so boring. Below are a few tips that I've learned over the years.
Get To Know Your Client
I’ve always been comfortable talking to people, regardless of their age or background. This makes it a bit easier to communicate with high-schoolers and their parents, who sometimes aren’t the best at describing what it is that they’d like. It’s because of this that I typically take a moment to learn a little bit about the student I’m being hired to photograph.
I ask basic questions like, “What is it about my photography that led you to hire me?” A lot of times, either the student or one of their family members saw an image I created with another high school senior and want something similar. If this is the case, I’m able to give them more information about that specific location, the time of day we’d need to be there, and decide if creating an image similar to what they had referenced is something we can do.
I also like to ask a few questions to get some sort of an idea about the student’s personality and interests. It doesn’t make any sense to photograph a student at your local high school football field if that student never played football. Simply asking the student what sort of things they’re into and what they have enjoyed most about high school will often provide you with some valuable information. Use that information to make professional suggestions if they haven’t already been made, and use it to help create a set of images that the student and their family will love and that no one else would have created for them.
Everywhere and Everyone Is Unique
Each little town and big city across the globe is unique in its own special way. If not even a little bit of that uniqueness is being reflected in your high school senior portraits, then you’re missing a big opportunity. It’d be like painting with only half of your palette. Use what makes your community and student special, like a painter uses the colors on their palette, and create senior portraits that actually mean something and genuinely portray the student and this moment in their life.
How Long Will This Take?
In order to keep everyone’s attitudes positive and comfortable, it’s important to let your clients know what to expect in terms of how long they could be in front of the camera. Depending on how you work on set and the number of images you intend to deliver to your clients, the amount of time needed to successfully complete a shoot can vary. My company typically delivers a gallery of between 40-50 diverse images per high school senior photo shoot and I’ve found that it can take up to two hours to accomplish this. Two hours gives us time to travel to two locations, photograph the student in two outfits, and capture portraits that are both bright and sunny as well as portraits set against the sunset, both of which are typical requests.
Act Your Age
It has been roughly 17 years since I last stepped foot in a high school classroom as a student. Nothing makes me realize how much times have changed than an hour or two with a high school senior. For this reason, I don’t try to relate to them or pretend I know what is popular or trendy among others their age group and you probably shouldn’t either. It’s important to remain professional and act your age.
It can be difficult to keep things from becoming awkward in conversation with a teenager (parents will attest to this). I find myself explaining what I’m doing and my process when I photograph high school seniors much more so than I do during my typical portrait sessions. This keeps the conversation constant but light enough not to bore them to sleep. Not everyone is a talker, so don’t force the conversation, otherwise, you’ll end up with a set of images of your subject with an uncomfortable look on their face or a forced smile.
Shoot Is Over. What Now?
Once I’m done shooting, I’ll fill in the student and their parents on any details they may not already know about how my company delivers final images. Lately, I’ve been trying to move away from online galleries and deliveries via email and instead have been moving towards in-person photo-reveals (possibly more on that later), but either way it’s important to let your clients know when they can expect to see their images and whether or not you’ll be sharing any teasers on social media before their gallery is delivered.
Sharing On Social Media
Nothing can be more frustrating than a client sharing your work online and giving you no photo credit, or seeing your wonderfully edited image shared with an ugly Instagram filter, or shared as a blurry screenshot. If you don’t want this to happen, you need to educate your clients on how to properly share the images online and whether or not that is even something you’ll allow for. I sell my clients a print-release for personal use, along with digital image files that are sized appropriately for Facebook. This ensures that if and when they do share them online, they’ll look as though I intended for them to look. I also take time to explain both verbally and in writing that if and when images are shared, they're not to manipulate the images in any way and to credit our company. Ultimately, happy clients sharing your work on social media will have a snowball effect and hopefully lead to more work.
Much of what can be said for photographing high school seniors can be said for nearly any other type of portrait photography. Professionalism and creativity will hopefully lead to creative senior portraits and happy clients who will turn to you for their photo-needs.
Do you photograph senior portraits? Is it a seasonal genre where you live, or something you do year-round? Share your favorite senior portraits in the comments below.