Graduation 2.0: What shooting senior portraits in the last year has taught me

Graduation 2.0: What shooting senior portraits in the last year has taught me
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When i wrote the first part of this article about a year ago, i established my senior portrait ethos; the portraits that parents want to print and seniors want to share are less stiff and formal than the standard school portrait fare. At the time, I had shot my first few Senior sets and wanted to remind myself over the next few years that more of my clients came from senior’s word of mouth (or rather, Instagram feeds) than any kind of formal advertising. If i wanted an increase in clients (or repeat customers), then my portraits needed to make my seniors look and feel... cool, for lack of a better word. (Dope? Fresh? Lit? What are the kids saying nowadays?) I’ve written down a few ways to keep my clients (and their parents) happy, while developing photographic relationships with your YA clients that last and are lucrative in the long run. Below I’ve provided some examples with series regular Christine.

Mindset

This year has been full of gear changes, life changes and emotional changes for me. I’ve found that this kind of upsetting has put me in the mindset of the young adults I’ve been photographing this senior season. Between finishing their classes, applying for jobs and colleges, their extracurricular activities, friends, and all the other demands on their limited time, they’re tired. Overwhelmed. Stressed out. And being forced into uncomfortable clothes to take stiff, boring studio portraits don’t seem to help any. So here are a few tips to keep everyone involved; Environment, Interests, and Emotion.

Environment

As with any natural light portrait, the environment is everything. A boring environment can make for a boring portrait, so try to find places that your client likes to go and try to schedule the shoot there. Last year, C and I shot around the Arts District of Norfolk. In my new example, we knew that we needed to shoot the her cap and gown photos, but we didn’t have a location planned. I ran through every local option i could think of, but when i mentioned the beach her eyes lit up. I knew I’d found our winner!

Lighting

1.a) Flat lighting,in shadow with the sun directly behind me. Nikon D3200 with 85mm F1.8 (f3.2, ISO 200, 1/250) Well exposed but boring.

1.a) Flat lighting,in shadow with the sun directly behind me. Nikon D3200 with 85mm F1.8 (f3.2, ISO 200, 1/250) Well exposed but boring.

Any photographer worth their camera strap knows the basics of good exposure, and how to manipulate the light around them using bounces, flashes, and the exposure triangle (ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture). Sometimes you follow the conventional 35mm film wisdom; f16 with an ISO of 100 and shutter speed of 1/100-1/125 on a sunny day. But an aperture that high will bring the whole background into focus and can be distracting for portraits. You also catch more motion blur and camera shake at slower shutter speeds (although hand-holding at 1/125th is no problem if you’ve got a fairly steady hand, and with modern I.S. camera shake is practically non existent for most mirrorless cameras.) My senior sessions are mobile, and it can be hard to pin me down to one location for the whole session, so knowing this rule (and bending it) can get solid results from almost any lighting situation. Check out photo 1.a for an example. The aperture is just fast enough to separate the subject from the background, but not so fast that the slower shutter speed blows out the highlights. I compensated for the dip in light by raising the ISO to 200, which incidentally is my preferred ISO for the shadowy areas on sunny days like this. I like symmetry, back-lighting and sun flares as well; all things that are typically taught against in traditional portraiture, but are very on trend for the Insta-generation. A “bad” photographer will not understand how to adjust to these difficulties, but if you do anything long enough it becomes a style instead of a mistake.

Backlighting. OMD EM10 with 45mm f1.8 (F1.8, ISO 200, 1/1250). We shot this during Golden Hour with the sun directly behind (and slightly above) the client. The houses and sand dunes that were around gave us a good bit of shadow to play with.

Backlighting. OMD EM10 with 45mm f1.8 (F1.8, ISO 200, 1/1250). We shot this during Golden Hour with the sun directly behind (and slightly above) the client. The houses and sand dunes that were around gave us a good bit of shadow to play with.

Direct Sun, coming from camera left OMD EM10 Mk 3 (f1.8, ISO 200, 1/4000)

Direct Sun, coming from camera left OMD EM10 Mk 3 (f1.8, ISO 200, 1/4000)

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Direct sun, camera right. the shade from the hat, her hair and the buildings makes the light a bit more flat. (f3.2, ISO 200, 1/1600)

Direct sun, camera right. the shade from the hat, her hair and the buildings makes the light a bit more flat. (f3.2, ISO 200, 1/1600)

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