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What should I wear for a portrait?

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

The essence of a portrait is to convey your likeness in a way that you want to be seen. It may be a business head shot for example, and you want your image to be captured against a formal backdrop. It might be a Family portrait featuring your spouse and possibly children too. The planning phase of any worth-while portrait session endeavor is the most important stage. In many cases over the decades, Mall studios offering family portraits had not controlled or even advised family members on this critical matter. In the decades past, you would have seen Family portraits featuring dad in a suit and tie, the mother in a plaid dress, children in jeans, football jerseys and turtleneck sweaters all within the same frame and most likely displayed on an 11×14 matt finished and open framed print on the living room wall.


As the years and decades rolled on, independent photographers and studios decided to take those matters more seriously to improve the continuity and overall experience of the viewership of a finished and perhaps framed print or canvas. Many decided that the clothing choices for a Family portrait did matter to the point that they gave their portrait customer only a few choices of clothing during their initial consultation. An example of that was Khaki slacks or skirts along with white shirts or blouses were the only choices for a beach session. This makes more sense generally speaking because of the color harmony produced with the sand. It most certainly does have a pleasant and warm mood to it, compared to a mash of colors, textures and styles if a group of strangers gathered for an unplanned group picture. I guarantee you, many people in that second group would say they wish they knew a picture was being taken. I think people inherently know that image matters. We all want to look our best. After all, the image is going to last a very long time on someone’s wall. While this approach of over controlling the clothing choices when pondering “What should I wear for a portrait?”, photographers should, in my opinion be a little more creative and offer more latitude within the confines of clothing choices. I have seen countless portraits that were very well executed, nicely posed with a very satisfied customer purchasing a large framed print along with supplemental prints too, that had all 28 people wearing the exact same clothing. Khaki and white or Blue jeans and black tees or something similar. This is over controlling the matter. It’s not believable that everyone would wear the same clothing on a day.


The rainbow has a total of 7 different, yet distinct colors visible to the naked eye, with a more complex and vast color gamut embedded within all of those colors. These are all found in most color wheels on cameras and software programs utilized in post-production for fine tuning imagery. I have never heard anyone criticize the color harmony configuration of the rainbow. So, with that in mind, It is not a stretch to imagine that a collection of harmonious colors will look good and also be appealing to any viewer of a finished portrait. For example, a Family portrait on the beach could easily have clothing choices of black, white and grey. A collection of pastels or even a collection of primary colors looks great in the right setting too. It should be planned by the family decision maker and should also request the opinion of the photographer of any potential problems given the location or time of day. Generally, the public do not consider lighting issues or any technical complications with their clothing choices. The skill level of the photographer also matters. Overcoming location or lighting issues can be challenging, but a seasoned photographer should be able to satisfy the customer. If there are serious matters related to this, then the photographer should explain the potential difficulties to the customer either in advance or as it is happening. The trust factor is important between the Professional and the customer.


There are roles for each person in a business relationship regarding portraiture. Clothing choices, grooming, location/backdrops and the overall mood need to be discussed and ratified before the session takes place. A finished portrait should be framed to compliment the portrait colors.


In the case of a High School Senior portrait session or a business head shot, you can have more latitude to express their personality or company colors. The youth have many different rules for fashion than business profiles or adults in general. We expect them to have fun with clothing, hats, sunglasses and props too. Parents still like to see close-ups of their young adults during these sessions, but formal portraits still have a place in those types of sessions. Gowns, tuxedos or other formal attire round out the experience of High School Senior portrait session.


In conclusion: Don’t take clothing choices in portraits for granted. Proper planning with your Professional photographer should render great results, whether on the beach, during an in-home session or in a studio setting with backdrops too.


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