Photographing High School Senior Portraits

Content & Photos Courtesy of Donny Stewart.

Donny Stewart is a Photographer in Stapleton, Georgia.
To view more of Donny’s work, visit: Facebook 

Summer is full of sun, vacations, barbecues, and for the Up-Coming Graduates; Senior Portraits. Senior Portrait Sessions are some of the most creative, original projects in portrait photography. Each Senior is a new opportunity to explore personality, style, extra-curriculars, and even hobbies! Anything to stand out and show their originality; Its our job as their photographer to capture these defining qualities and put it to print.

Senior Boys have been, by far, my greatest challenge. Most boys seem pretty nonchalant about being photographed for the better part of an hour. Though, with a few tips I have learned through treacherous trial and error, might help you avoid some of my shortcomings.


Getting teens to smile is like pulling teeth. Almost in a literal sense when you think your last resort is to pry open pursed lips! It takes true finesse to get the perfect shot.

  1. Have their parent hold your light source! One instruction I give the majority of my portrait clients is to always turn toward the main light. Whether it’s a reflector, speedlight, or studio strobe, I have them ‘Look at the light’ and  adjust their pose according to how I want the light to fall on their face. Having the subject face their parent is super helpful for easing the tension. They trade facial expressions and silent ‘inside jokes’ and BOOM! There is your genuine smile. In that quick instant have them look to you and capture it. Capture the exchange, not the pose.
  1. Big Smiles = Big Checks! Some tough guys wont even smile for mama, but money is an awesome tool of persuasion! One of my classic lines in a Senior Portrait Session is, “Ok smile big for the aunts and grandmas you’re sending invitations to! Big smiles get big checks!” This often results in very exaggerated smiles complete with dollar signs in their eyes, quickly followed by a genuine smile for Grandma.
  1. Get Creative! Young adults are much different now than even when I graduated high school. They are informed and have pretty strong opinions and tastes about what and how something should be. Sing a verse from a song very badly, bust a move they may not expect, etc. These clients want a connection of some sort so they feel confident, comfortable, and secure. Humor and compassion get you a long way with genuine expressions in a portrait!



Seniors will often get bored sitting on benches or rocks and could care less about the pretty flowers in the courtyard you’ve staged their shoot in. They’ll drift into thoughts of whatever it is they would rather be doing and you’ll get that blank stare in that image.

  1. Recommend the client bring some props with with them ahead of time. Here is a chance to bring in some of the things that make them, them! Musical instruments, sports equipment, their favorite pet, anything that they love. A lifestyle shoot can put them at ease in their element and let them show themselves through your lens.
  2. Have them walk toward or away from you. Stiff poses are going to look…well, stiff! I like to set my camera on burst mode and fire away as they walk at their own pace.



Unless a person is selfie royalty or a model, they will probably have some insecurities in front of your lens (especially seniors!). They are going to WANT to know they are doing well, and some encouragement will ease that anxiety and help you capture their moments more easily.

  1. If you get a shot that looks amazing be sure to tell them! If you are too quiet they may feel like they aren’t doing something right or you’re not very interested in what they are thinking. “Oh, that’s a good one!” can really help someone overcome those thoughts about the things we probably don’t even notice.
  2. Beware of showing a client the back of the camera! Of course if you snap an amazing shot you can show them to reinforce the above statement, but going through the whole set can cause major issues later! I have had personal experience with this (remember, this is supposed to help you avoid my mistakes). They may see an image and fall in love with it….then in post, you notice one eye isn’t fully opened or a number of other details that just doesn’t present you subject in the best form. Of all the awesome portraits you deliver, they’ll miss that ONE image that didn’t make the cut!




My last focus point (get it? Focus point) and probably the most important, is your creativity! Your eye and how you capture your images is probably what drew your client to you in the first place! Use a bit of ‘know-how’ and give your senior some great images with different choices of looks that stand out from the rest.

  1. Find natural frames for your shots! Be it different colors and textures in the foreground, creamy bokeh in the background (open up that aperture!) And find vanishing points and leading lines that draw the eye into your photo!
  2. Try out a fisheye! you can find relatively inexpensive but effective models that will add something extra to your shoot. Be mindful to keep your subject away from the edges of the frame to avoid awkward distortions in facial features. These super wide-angle photos have a whimsical feel and really bring the frame around your subject! Remember to get close, but not too close!
  3. Get creative with your edits! Cinematic type portraits always grab attention! Making them look like a movie poster will have them feeling like the star role in their Senior Year! Phones and apps are widespread used for the fun filters on mobile snapshots, take that principle and put your artistic touch on it for some WOW factor.


Laura’s Sessions

I’d like to bring closure to this article with a few words about a program I have recently started with my studio.

Senior year is full of big memories that will last a lifetime, memories I feel are deserved by everyone. I recently started a program in my local community called Laura’s Sessions, named after someone I knew who was not able to have her Senior Portraits taken like many of her peers due to the costs of professional photography. Even before I started my journey in photography, I didn’t feel like that was fair. I contacted some local schools and went through teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, and principles. I had them select 2 students who work hard and would appreciate a senior photo session, free of charge. Confidentiality was a big must for these sessions (I still remember kids being shamed in the lunchroom for not having lunch money). I wanted these kids to have the same experience as their peers- to feel like a star and hold on to their memories of graduating High School without worrying about cost.

My biggest tip for budding photographers is to use your talent to give back as much as you can. Showing compassion is something that will help you in any business. When you work in a public service, without a ‘public’ you have no income. Take care of your people and they will take care of you. Make a difference in someone’s life, no matter how big or small!

Content & Photos Courtesy of Donny Stewart.

Donny Stewart is a Photographer in Stapleton, Georgia.
To view more of Donny’s work, visit: Facebook 

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