How to Photograph High School Seniors

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Back when I graduated from school everyone gathered in the Gym on “photo” day and one by one like obedient soldiers we walked up to the traditional grey spotted back drop and were ordered to smile and then shuffled off the stage so that the next person could take your place and be memorialized by the lens of some unimaginative robot like old man that seemed to not care if he got a decent shot or not. He just wanted to get the job done so that he could get paid. He was the only game in town and you were fairly well stuck shooting and buying from him.

Today the rules of the game have changed and the students are allowed, for the most part, to do whatever they want photographically speaking and with which ever photographer they choose to use. Different schools have different guidelines but for the most part things are pretty much left up to the individual to take care of.

Be Creative When You Shoot Portraits

What are the advantages of the new way of shooting? Well the obvious one is that you are not tied to the boring old set up the tripod and shuffle people through like a herd of cows mentality. This is supposed to be a creative endeavor and not simply a mass production line. And today that is possible. In fact today’s senior portrait session is more likely to resemble a portrait shoot at glamour shots than it is to look like the traditional session of years gone by.

There is more latitude for you to get creative and to bring out the models personality in the shot. You are no longer simply tied to a backdrop. If the child is a guitar player then let them bring a guitar t the shoot. Pretty much anything is fair game in this day and age. You are no longer constrained by a singular conception of what the look is supposed to be.

Get a Model Release Signed

You can’t let the senior be animated and let them play, laugh and smile and then you can capture that and it makes for a lot better photograph. Be advised though that the senior is likely going to be under 18 so I would advise a parent or guardian is present during the shoot and that you make sure and cover yourself with a less than 18 model release.

model release form

Even if you plan on doing nothing with the photos other than the initial selling of the package to the parents, without a model release the majority of printing labs will not even allow you to get them printed without a signed model release. So always, always make this something that you do at the conclusion of any session. If you do your own printing then you can maybe forgo the release, but by doing so you are limiting yourself to any future income that you might have from that client for reprints etc. In fact you have pretty much done yourself and the client a disservice by not having one signed.

Another huge advantage to the new shift in the paradigm of photography in senior portrait is that your overhead and operating expenses can be very low. Since a good deal of this type of portrait can be done outside and in natural environments you cut down on the need for extra lights, back drops and all of the things that can quite quickly take you photographic budget and throw it in the tank as you buy piece after piece the old fashioned way. You just find a location that will enhance the student’s personality and shoot. It could be out doors it could be at school or even at their home. Whatever works is fair game and that makes senior portraits a great deal of fun to do.

Interview the Parents and Student

I personally do this when I set up the session I have a sit down with the parents to get the input that they have about what their expectations for the photos are and then I talk to the student. I ask what they like and dislike and what do they see as they perfect photo of them. In other words if you could have me shoot you in any way, manner or form, what would that photo be like?

Be prepared, you might get some pretty off the wall answers here. The majority of the kids say they want to look like a sports star or a musician or they want to be shot with their favorite pet and normal things like that. I once had a young man say that he wanted to have his photo taken with Pamela Anderson. He said that would be the ideal senior portrait.

Now while Ms. Anderson never returned my phone call I was able to get a poster of her and I hung it on the all before he arrived for the photos session. He busted out laughing when he walked in and we snapped some silly photos of him clowning around. I knew that these would be nothing that he was going to want but I got what I wanted. He had been stiff in our talk and now he was playful and animated. It made for a great session and according to his parents some of the best shots anyone has eve taken of their son.

The point is that had I not discussed it with him I would have had the same old boring and stale shots of him that everyone else had captured through the years. But by showing an interest in him and then when he showed up his knowing that I had remembered our conversation, it set the whole tone of the session and it truly was a fun time for him and for me.

Use the Best Photo Gear You Can Afford

The first thing is to make sure that you have the best gear that you can afford. Remember that grandma and grandpa and the parents at least are going to want to get 8 by 10 or even 11 by 14 color prints for the wall. That means that you can pick up the old three mega pixel point and shoot and start making money. Shoot at the highest resolution that you possibly can and try to remember that things will be blown up so you are going to want to shoot as close to the final crop as you can. That way you won’t lose any size when you finally edit and crop it down to the size that you ultimately want it to be.

Practice Makes Perfect

The next thing that you will need to do is to practice shooting in the most unusual conditions that you can think of. It will help you learn how to think and how to shoot on the fly so that when situations that are irregular arise you can take them in stride and keep on shooting. There is literally nothing worse than being at a shoot and having something happen and not to have any clue how to handle the situation. It makes you look unprofessional and will give you knots in your stomach at the very least,

Bring Backup Equipment

Okay, I lied there is one thing that is worse than that. And that would be getting home after what you thought was a great shoot only to find that during the great shoot that you though you had something went wrong with the camera. Maybe you changed a setting and forgot to look at the preview. But you certainly don’t want to call the client and say oops, I made a boo boo. In fact, if this ever happens to you it is better to tell a little white lie and say that you had a computer glitch and all of the shots went to the electronic graveyard in the sky. You can then profusely apologize and set up a time to go re-shoot the session for free and maybe throw in some extras (that is that customer service thing we talked about earlier in the article).

Things will work out and you will be able to save face because most everyone has had a computer eat data on them at some point in time. But you want to do your best to avoid that issue. So I always test some shots before I start the session so I can test the waters and make sure there are no issues. I also take a back up camera with me on every shoot and then to be safe I also carry a small pocket 14 MP camera by Canon as an extreme emergency camera. I have yet to HAVE to use it although I did use it once on a corporate shot and got great results and I also let the models use it as a prop from time to time.

The point is that you can never be too prepared when you are shooting something that can not be re-done without a major pain. My on location setup contains two cameras and duplicates of each lens with the exception of my 50 mm f/1.2. I carry them in two separate bags which I carry in two different location sin my vehicle sp that no matter what – I will get there with one camera and the lenses I need to complete the shoot. Yes, it is over kill but it keeps me broke and happy.

In a perfect world you would be able to carry your entire photo studio with you on location so that you will always have the things that you need to be able to do the best shot that you can. That is hardly feasible and in fact would be a waste much of the time.

Bring Portable Strobe Lighting

Depending on the camera system that you use, it is fairly easy to rig up a master / slave system with some strobes and be able to have a small, compact and easy to carry and set up system for a fairly small price. This system, although I typically hate strobes, will do a good job at getting the subject lit up and allowing you to capture the shot that you envision with a minimal amount of issues. A word of caution though, make sure that whatever system you set up is able to work in the automatic mode and that the master stetting will allow the slaves to fire at specific sensitivity values or you could end up washing out the scene and that would be worse than no light at all.

Use Prime Lenses

Since you really have no idea what you are going to run in to in the way of lighting (unless of course you use the strobe kit we mentioned above) I would suggest taking your fastest prime lenses and shy away from zooms of any kind because they could ultimately be way too slow for the job.

Often I have seen beginners pull out a standard zoom to use. The thought process from them here is valid. If I have a zoom I can get what I need with one lens and not have to waste time switching. However most of these run from 3.5 to 5.6 on f settings and that is truly not fast enough to be used for anything other than snap shots.

Invest in Top Quality Lenses

While we are on the subject of lenses, let’s talk for a moment bout quality. Buy the best grade that you can afford. The stock lenses that typically come with the camera are good for lugging around on a field trip or for ordinary vacation shots but if you are serious get a good lens. Your image is only going to be as good as the glass that captures the light and most entry level lenses are not going to do a good job.

There is a reason why Canon offers a 50 mm f/1.8 for $125 and a 50 mm f 1.2 in the thousands of dollar range. It is because the glass is going to be ground better and the result is less flare in the lens and a faster lens that will give you sharper images. Now it’s rue that not everyone needs that much lens. But then again no one actually needs a Corvette either but a lot of them get sold and people use them.

Get the most and the best gear that you can get for the money that you have to spend and then you can always upgrade as finances allow. And you can always keep the first line of gear as back ups in case a problem ever should arise. There is no shame in having an “A” string set of gear and a “B” string set of gear so that you are covered. It can also help you if you need to have an assistant come in and shoot one session while you are at anther or if you need two cameras for one event. Remember, expect the unexpected.

Another thing that your original set of gear is good for, carrying it along when ever you are out in the car. That way if a photo opportunity should happen to come up you will be set and ready to go and not have to rely on that I phone to get the shot.

Shoot in Aperture Priority

Setting aperture priority is a favorite setting for most people or even full auto can get you good results if you are a beginner. If you know more about the camera and you know how to use your tools. Then opt for the full manual mode. You will get a lot more out of your gear and as long as you don’t set something wrong, you will be a lot happier and more satisfied with the results.

Shoot in Manual Mode

The full manual mode will allow you to get more from your menses because you can set every minute detail of the shot and as a result you will be in total control of what is committed to film. I personally set a mid range ISO setting and then try and match the light with the lens. If it is a little brighter I will opt for my 2.8 if it is darker then I pop on the 1.8 or the 1.2. It is sessions like these where you will learn to appreciate having a wide variety of fast lenses. You will find it much easier to milk the most out of any scene if your gear is appropriate for the job.

Shoot in RAW

It would also behoove you to shoot in you camera’s RAW setting. It will take a lot more room off your memory cards, but when you get back to the studio and start looking over the shots you will be able to go in and make adjustments like white balance and things like that where you can not do that on a standard JPG file. It is well worth doing that because more often than not it can save your session if something got out of whack and you for some reason did not notice it.

How to Compete as a Senior Portrait Photographer

This is a really good question that people ask a lot. With so much competition out there and the price point on decent digital SLR cameras getting down to nearing the dirt cheap area. How can the average photographer that is trying to make some money at this game even compete against the many people out there.

The answer is actually a very simple one that I am sure will make sense to you. It is the same thing that has kept many family businesses going strong even when there are so many large mass merchandisers out there trying to steal every dollar they can and put every mom and pop shop out of business in the process. You offer them the peace of mind and kill them with customer service.

In this business the temptation for a photographer is to go for the cheapest price that they can afford to work for and hopefully get lots of work. That Wal-Mart style approach works fine when you first get your business started. You will need a portfolio so you work for cheap prices and even for free some time to get going.

The thing is that the cheaper you offer your services the worse off you and everyone else will be. That is because then the customer will expect those prices all the time. And on top of the cheap prices they are also going to bust your butt to get mega edits and freebies on top of that.

You need to set a price that you think is fair and stick to your guns. At first you will not be working a lot if at all. That paints a bleak picture I know. But once you have done one or two shoots and the word of mouth starts on how great you are and how you bend over back wards to get things done for them. Trust me – the clients will be breaking down your door looking to hire you to shoot their next session.

It is all a matter of treating people the way that you would like to be treated if you were on the other end of the transaction. In other words, using some common human decency and you will go a long way in this business. It is mostly work of mouth and Is it, after all a service oriented business so remember that every time you are tempted to lower a price or when you get so cranky that you want to tell everyone to go away.

How to Ensure Senior Portraits Are Good

This is one area where trial and error will go a long way towards finding the answer. I know that wounds like it could easily be a cop out but the truth is that every senior session just like very regular portrait session is going to be different. Sometimes they are as different as night and day. Other times there are some similarities but for the most part you can count on them being different. That is because each child is their own person and if you want the senior portraits that you are shooting be better than excellent, then you need to portray that student in a light that makes them shine.

The Bottom Line

Not everyone is cut out for this type of shoot. They can be pains in the butt but they can also be quite rewarding and lucrative if it is done right. Not everyone has the patience to handle this type of a shoot because let’s f ace it, seniors in high school are late teens and they can be smart mouthed know it alls. The secret as I said is in the sit down session where you get their input on what they want. It shows them that you care and have at least a little respect for them as a person and a little bit of that can go a long way when it comes to dealing with someone that thinks they know everything that there is to know about everything. You know, like the typical teenager does.

If you can be creative and learn to roll with the flow you might actually find out that you really like this type of shooting. It happens only once a year and if you get good at it you can make a serious dent in your yearly balance sheet by taking them on. I know some guys that specialize in this type of shooting and they make about half of their yearly income shooting senior portraits.

I personally like to do a few each year but not because I need to but I like to keep that skill set up and working well. You never know when a fellow photographer will have an emergency and call on you to help them out. Beside all of that I like to be as diverse as I can be and doing a few every year allows that to happen and it helps to keep the boredom from setting in.

A good photographer will be able to walk in to any type of situation where photography is needed and they will be able to assess the situation, the lighting and the needs and begin to take photographs to help memorialize what is going on. A good saying to live by is that the moment you are bout to see will happen that exact way precisely once in a lifetime. And wouldn’t it be a shame to miss it because we were unprepared?

So the bottom line here, as with any other type of photo shoot is that you need to know your gear, use it as if it were an extension of your limbs and treat the people you come in contact with as if they were the most important people in the world. Remember that the 18 year old senior of today can turn into your best client after graduation so they deserve your best effort.

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