The Definitive Guide to Dressing for Your Portrait Session

How to dress for a portrait session?  Choosing your outfit is one of the most important decisions you will make when it comes to getting your portrait taken.  Your wardrobe sets the tone of the shoot and establishes your comfort zone.  First and foremost, decide what look you are going for.  Unless this is a glamour shot, and you are trying to make a statement with your pictures, most portraits aim for classic and classy – timeless one might say.  That being said, you can still have fun with what you choose to wear.  So…

1) Decide what look you are going for.  If this is your Senior Portrait, try for a couple different looks that speak to who YOU are.  Go for glam, casual, sporty, outdoorsy, whatever reflects who you are at this moment in your life.  If this is a Family Portrait – figure out the usage intent of these portraits.  A holiday card?  Choose colors accordingly.  An updated family shot?  Discuss with me the location we settle on and pick your colors and accessories to enhance that environment.  Portraits to utilize for wall art?  Then look at your surroundings and choose outfits that will compliment the chosen location in your home.  An Engagement Portrait?  You will be all kinds of formal for your wedding portraits, so perhaps use this opportunity to showcase a different side of you as a couple.

A portrait session is not just about getting your picture taken.  Well, it can be…but it really shouldn’t.  Spend some time asking yourself these questions and the wardrobe decisions should fall easily into place.  Do give yourself time though.  Don’t wait until the night before, or the morning of (!), to decide what you are going to wear.  This is especially important as a mother because you will most likely be in charge of selecting the outfits of your children and, let’s be honest, your husband.  You will need some time to coordinate. You may find that you can come up with something fabulous by scouring the closets, or this might be a good opportunity to go find something new.  Whatever you decide, give yourself a decent amount of time in which to do so.

2) Be honest with yourself.  Every single person, no matter how voluptuous or slender, has issues with his or her body.  Acknowledge those insecurities (real or imagined) and choose your wardrobe and accessories accordingly.  I can work some magic in how I position you or how I edit your portraits, but I have to start with a foundation.  So please don’t come to a session with a skin tight shirt on if you are at all concerned about back fat.  Similarly, don’t wear cap sleeves or something sleeveless if your arms are a sore spot for you.   Be smart about the decisions you make and that will be reflected in the portraits I take.  Choose a couple of outfits and take 20 minutes to model in front of the mirror.  And I’m talking floor length.  Put on each outfit (complete with accessories) and look in the mirror to determine how you feel about yourself.  Then move around a bit.  Sit down, stand, bend over, the works – does your outfit stay where you want it to be as you move about?  If not, you may need to changes things up.  Lastly, ask a trusted person for their opinion.  Why last?  Because your opinion is really the only one that matters when it comes to how you see yourself.  One last note, if you are a mother, pick your outfit first and coordinate the rest of your family with your chosen outfit.  If you are comfortable and feel good about yourself, the shoot will move much more smoothly.  This may seem like a bit of effort, but you are likely paying good money for your portraits.  You will be glad you took this time when all is said and done – I promise.

3) So you decided on the tone and had a one-on-one with your inner demons, now what?  This part addresses general tips that will help you look your most gorgeous and will allow the best chance for a cohesive look in small or large groups.

*Most photographers, myself included, will tell you to head for mostly solids when choosing your wardrobe for a photo session.  Though they may seem boring, solids don’t make you vie for attention.  When someone looks at a picture, you want the eye to be naturally drawn to the subject’s face.  You don’t want that someone to zero in on the bold pattern of your shirt.  After all, the portrait session is about you – not what you are wearing.

What solids do for you:

  • They do not act as a distraction
  • They are more slimming and streamlined than patterns

How can I make solid colors more interesting?

  • Texture: a variety of textures can bring depth to a portrait
  • Neckline: a v-neck is usually the most flattering, but cowl necks (not too chunky), boat necks and collared necklines can also work well.  Crew necks, turtlenecks, plunging necks, and strapless should be avoided (thin straps is fine under a cardigan or something similar, but not for the main shirt).
  • Flare: an elegant embellishment or fancy sleeves can take a boring solid shirt and turn it into something with a hint of glamour.
  • Subtle patterns: a simple pattern can break up the monotony of a solid color family
  • Go for a solid up top and bring in a pattern for a skirt (this works particularly well with girls – infants through teens)

*Avoid colors that are close to your skin tone – they tend to wash you out (ex: beige, light brown, tan, pale peach, pale gray and even white).  Avoid solids in bright colors like red or orange – they play strangely on the skin tone.  Variations of those colors work fine – like a maroon or burnt orange.  You can also use red or orange as a “pop” color (accessory, shoe, etc.), but not your main color choice.

*For large group shots, pick three colors (one being a neutral)  and put together outfits with those colors only.  More than three colors can get to be too much.  Neutrals include black, white, gray, khaki, etc.  Color combinations could be: navy, gray and a mustard yellow or gray, black and maroon or purple, gray and white or black, white and kelly green, the list goes on.  This is where Pinterest comes in handy – and I will have a board on my business page devoted to color choices.  THEN, add in an unexpected POP of color.  Just a pop though, so that could be an accessory (scarf, headband, chunky necklace) or shoe.  It gives you all a little flare and adds another element of color and pizzazz to the pictures.

*Compliment each other without being too “matchy.”  Khaki pants with white shirts (or along those lines) is totally dated.  Just say no to the uniforms and matching holiday sweaters.

*Select clothes that are classic and comfortable.  Now’s not the time to embrace the latest fads.  Trends fade; you want your portraits to be timeless.

*Wear clothes that fit!!  This goes back to what I mentioned above; look at yourself in the mirror in a variety of poses before you come.  Keep in mind we will be doing full body shots, shots sitting down, leaning back, etc.  Do your pants come up far enough?  Does your shirt come down low enough at the waist?  Clothes that fit help you look better.  If you are self-conscious, don’t hide your body in voluminous clothing – it actually just makes the situation worse.  Fitted clothes flatter EVERYBODY.

*Avoid clothes with logos – they date the picture.  Similarly, avoid clothes with writing/decals of any kind.

*Sleeves to the elbow look best unless you are rocking Michelle Obama arms.  They look best and they make YOU feel more comfortable.  Anything sleeveless, capped or hitting mid bicep isn’t the most flattering.

*Clothes/shoes that are prohibited (sorry to be harsh, but I’m doing this for your own good!!): tank tops (skin becomes the focus, not you, and that is not what you want in a portrait), short skirts or dresses (see previous and posing becomes somewhat of a nightmare), shorts (see previous) and flip flops (unless we’re on the beach and, in that case, we would be barefoot)

*Glasses – if you wear them every day, you will want to have them in your picture because they are a part of you.  However, head to your eye doctor and see if they can loan you a pair of glasses without lenses, or remove your own lenses, for the day.

*No tanning (first of all, it’s really bad for you – public service announcement of the day).  There are just too many ifs.  You don’t want to look like an oompa loompa in your portraits.

4) The following tips are geared towards the ladies (and some might be repetitive from above, but that just means they are super important!!)

  • Do not wear sleeveless shirts.  Too much bare skin draws the eye and detracts from your face.  If you are self-conscious about your arms, avoid cap sleeves as well.  Three-quarter sleeves work really well.
  • Dresses and skirts need to reach the top of your knee.  Anything shorter presents a posing problem and the bare skin really dominates the picture.  That said, dresses do photograph well.  If you like it, wear it!!
  • Pay attention to your undergarments!!  Bottom line – it is best to wear flesh toned undergarments.
  • HEELS!!  In whatever shoe you choose, try to make sure it has a heel.  Heels elongate the legs (especially when you showcase them with dresses/skirts).  Flip flops are not permitted.
  • Accessories – less is more.  A well placed earring, scarf, headband or belt can add to a photograph – competing accessories just get to be too much.
  • Even if you don’t normally, wear make-up.  It helps even out the skin tone and adds a nice pop to your pictures.  Don’t go overboard though; you want to look natural.  Most importantly, wear something on your lips.  They need a pop of color, but something a few shades darker than your skin tone is fine.  Now is not the time for Christina Aguilera lips.
  • Keep it basic and familiar with your hair.  Don’t do something drastic a few days before the shoot.  You will regret it.
  • Nails (finger AND toes) – if you are wearing, refresh your paint.  Chipped nails stand out.  It’s best to stay with basic/natural colors.

5) The following tips are geared towards the gentlemen

  • Get a haircut a week or two before so it has time to grow out a bit.
  • Shave or trim your facial hair.
  • Avoid shorts.  Jeans, cargos or khakis photograph better and the bare legs don’t take away from your face.

 6) The following tips are geared towards children

  • Really avoid clothing with logos, writing or decals of any kind.  Solids are best for them too.  These portraits are about YOU, not your clothes, so don’t let the clothing detract from what’s most important.
  • Bring accessories.  Snazzy hats, adorable headbands, a pair of Hollywood shades, etc. – having one accent (and something to play with) can be great fun.  I will have a dress up bag for mini sessions that includes a ridiculous amount of headbands, tutus, legwarmers, flowers, wings, you name it.  So I will have those, but only for stylized mini sessions.
  • Bring a change of clothes for all children.  Most of my shoots will be held in the great outdoors.  We may get adventurous.  Things may get dirty.  It’s best to have a backup.  This is especially important for the babies.
  • Speaking of, dress babies in light-weight, soft, stretchy material.  Avoid heavy materials like denim and corduroy.

I know, I know.  No one asked for a novella when looking for a few tips about what to wear in a photo shoot.  If you read through it once, bookmark it and refer back when necessary, you should be good to go for all future photo shoots.  And I sure hope I’m the one behind the camera.  🙂