Two competing forces in high school portrait photography

Two competing forces in high school portrait photography

I’ve been photographing high school students for five years. It wasn’t my first choice in photography genres, it just found me. In that time I learned to love portraits of high school students.

If you’re new to the genre, remember a few simple rules and understand the two competing forces. Equally important is how you can approach those two forces and be on the winning side of both forces mentioned.

Before we go any further, please understand that what I am describing today are guidelines, they are specific not absolutes. Curious about more? Read more!

Force number one: mom

Mothers are the ones who usually organize the high school senior portrait sessions. They will often make clothing choices for their sons. Often to the chagrin of their male offspring.

If you have never been a parent yourself, understand that mothers still have the vision of their sweet little boy or girl that they have cherished since giving birth. Unless you have been a parent yourself, it can be difficult to understand this concept.

The high school senior portrait – in addition to perhaps a wedding – is perhaps the crown jewel for mom in regards to their precious child. In general, parents struggle with the idea that their children will soon be leaving home for good. This may be the last event in their child’s life that they have any control over. It is important to be sensitive to that.

Remember that mothers want a healthy photo of their daughter or son. We can take the “cool shot”, but it’s important to get this shot out of the way.

Mothers (usually) want a healthy appearance of their son or daughter’s image

During the initial consultation with mom I will often ask her what she hopes to get out of the shoot for a result. The response is almost universal. I want a beautiful picture of my son/daughter for their graduation cards and to display in our home.

This means that there is a picture mom has in mind for their son or daughter. A specific look that summarizes how they see their child. What you will realize is that the vision that mother has is drastically different from the vision that the son or daughter has for himself.

If you’re shooting weddings, remember that the healthy shot equates to family photos at a wedding. Not a portfolio image, but the kind of image that almost ALWAYS gets the sale.

This brings us to power number two…

Power number two: the son or daughter

On your way to a senior portrait, try to remember these two golden rules about these young men and women:

  1. Girls want to look and feel beautiful
  2. Guys just want to look cool and not be ashamed of their picture in front of their friends


When shooting a high school girl, I highly recommended professional hair and makeup. You may even want to consider adding this service to your cost and getting a deal with a local hair and makeup professional to be there for pre-shoot makeup and touch-ups during the shoot. You want this to be a spa-like experience for them.

The other option is to strongly recommend mom’s hair and makeup and have her arrange this service in advance. Girls in high school are generally very good with their clothing choices. Most young women who enter the studio are ready to be photographed in their favorite outfits.

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High school girls just want to look and feel beautiful
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Sometimes high school students want to look cool too!


When I’m shooting a senior boy, I often tell the mom to pick out her favorite outfits for them, but I’ll always encourage mom to let their son choose some of their favorite clothes/outfits as well.

This is extremely important as it lets the son know that you have their eye on their interest in the shoot and not just following mom’s directions.

Use language to gain the trust of the senior

As soon as we leave mom and start taking pictures, I have a conversation that goes something like this:

Me: “So this first part is for mom. Understand that your mom wants a specific healthy photo of this and we’re going to get that out of the way first. Then we will do what you want to do.”

The Senior: almost immediately sighs with relief and smiles broadly – as if saying “thank goodness!” — from that moment on I am on their side and immediately gain their trust. It breaks the ice and a huge weight is lifted off their shoulders. From that point on, the senior feels comfortable and we can capture their true essence, and some great shots. It gets even better when we switch to their choice of clothing and environment.

For the “Picture for Mom” ​​portion of the shoot, I’m strapped to a large TV screen in the studio as Mom watches the images appear on the screen. If we know we’ve captured the “Mom shot” then I know it’s safe to move on to the “Son and Daughter” side of the shoot. The photographer and subject nod that it’s time to get the shot they want all their friends to see.

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This is an image I would consider a “Mom Shot”.
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This is an image that a high school boy wants to show his friends – boy looks “cool” here!

Knowing these simple rules will help you win both sides of the senior portrait and also help you get great shots. Mom will tell all her friends how great you are but the son or daughter will tag you all over social media. If you’ve done your job, you’re likely to be bombarded with requests from high school students.