15 August 2012

WEAR: what to wear for portraits

This past weekend, I photographed a sweet family of five.  When I was talking to the wife and mother of three about preparations (location, time, etc.) she also asked me what I suggested she and her family wear for their portraits.  I told her right off the bat to try to avoid logos, black and white or too-bright, conflicting colors, and not to be all matchy-matchy (they didn't need to all wear the same exact shirt, for example) but past that, I was stuck on what to suggest.

I did a little research (thank you, Pinterest!) and found some excellent recommendations for couples and families who are preparing to have their pictures taken.  For my own purposes, I want families and couples to feel relaxed and comfortable, and this can be strongly linked to what they're wearing -- if you're dressed up too much, you might feel stiff and awkward, and trust me, that will show in your photos!  I think it's better to convey your true selves for optimal photographs (though you should probably generally avoid sweatpants and running shoes).

A great piece of advice from photographer Lexia Frank: "The biggest myth I can bust here is that you do not need to match.  Actually, please, don't.  It is so fake and contrived, and as a photojournalistic photographer I’m doing my best to keep it real -- I just can't with matching outfits.  Coordinate, sure, but don’t match."

Here are some examples of what I love (and maybe a few examples of what I don't).

This first example looks good to me because it covers a couple of bases: it's not too matchy-matchy (the grouping of muted primary colors is coordinated without looking too contrived), it's casual and relaxed, and it looks like a natural setting.  This image shows the family in a context that could happen anywhere, anytime -- this photo could have even been snapped in front of their own home.  They look like they simply paused in their conversation to grin at the camera, and then continued on their morning walk.  I love that.

{image by Ashlee Raubach Photography}

I'm also a big fan of images that are candid and editorial.  I really love images in which maybe just a couple of people are looking at the camera, or no one is looking at the camera!  I think the photo below is a good example of this.

I like this portrait because, as I mentioned, no one is looking at the camera.  Mom and dad are posing, of course, but it's certainly not so formal or traditional.  I don't love it that it looks like the two older kids are about to fight, but I digress.  You get what I mean about candid, right?  Okay, moving on.

Here are a couple more examples of families unafraid of a little wardrobe diversity.  This next image actually has what I might characterize as TOO many patterns and it's almost distracting, but it kinda works.  What do you think -- too much or just right?

More pattern and color-mixing action that WORKS! 

I've also found quite a few outfit combination boards that mirror these types of ensembles: coordinated and cohesive without wearing identical outfits.  Here are some of my favorites:

Some additional tips for dressing for portraits, borrowed from various sources (check out my Portraiture board on Pinterest for more!):

  • Do stay in the same style group together.  If you’re going formal, you all need to be formal and likewise for casual.
  • Dress for the weather.  There is no sense in having a well-planned outfit but having the children freezing (or sweating) and unhappy during the shoot.  It will show through in the photographs.  Have backup outfits ready for cold weather.
  • Textures, patterns, and layers give interest to your shoot just as those same elements give interest in interior design.
  • De-stress beforehand, even if that means having a glass of wine. The kids can read your level of stress and will act accordingly.
  • Flowy dresses are always a big bonus; anything that shows movement will translate beautifully to photography.
  • Consider getting your hair and makeup professionally done; it makes such a huge difference in how you feel during the shoot and the final product afterward.
  • Have snacks for the kids ready, and make sure they get a good nap in.  That goes for you too -- remember, they can read your stress.
  • Trust your photographer.  Remember, it’s all about the light, the connection between you all, and the location.  A boring parking lot can be completely transformed once you step into the best light.
  • Give your photographer some space when she photographs the little ones.  Hovering parents does not help, no matter how much you want it to.  The very best images are not when they are smiling at the camera.
  • Only bring props that you feel are intrinsic to you as a family and that are interactive.  The main objective is to photograph the love and connections in your family, not the items in your life – unless they relate directly to your love.
  • Don’t put off shopping until the last minute and wear your clothes for the first time on your shoot.  You want to know what you can and can not do in them.  If you feel restricted, it might not be the best choice
  • Your shoes will be shown in photos, so don’t forget about that style!
  • Sometimes less is more, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to clothing! The less skin exposed the more we focus on your faces and the connection between you all, and the more timeless your photos will be.
  • Don't be late.  When that sun sets, it’s all over.

Do you have any good tips or suggestions for great family photos?  Share ideas or links below in comments!


  1. I love this post..i think it will definitely help a lot of people and you have great ideas, not to mention your photos are AWESOME!
    Sheree x

  2. I am with you on the patterns but muted and not too matchy matchy. Oh how times have changed for the better when it comes to family pictures

    1. I agree, Cassi! I have a 1980s family photo of my own family and WOW, am I glad it's changed since then! ;)

  3. As a photographer myself, this comes up a lot!!! I feel guiding my clients in the right directions helps a bunch. I send 'em a link i put together, with every booking, and it generally turns out perfectly!

  4. This is fantastic. I am not a fan of the let's all wear black shirts and jeans or the wear a white shirt and khakis look. People don't dress like that on a normal basis so why do it in a photo you are going to share with your family and friends.

  5. This is such a great list of tips Emily! I'm so excited your photography is taking off :)


  6. Very informative post. It's always a struggle for me to figure out what to wear for family photos. There are five of us. It's a challenge to say the least!

  7. I see some photo shots that are well...overwhelming! And yes on those shoes! I can not tell you the number of Christmas pictures (family poses) that shows me without shoes! Yep, I hate to wear shoes!


  8. Great advice! I actually love the woodpile photo: I agree that it's a lot of pattern, but it doesn't seem to go all the way overboard. The background is awesome!

  9. I have to say I love the woodpile photo too. You wouldn't think it would work but it does. I love how vibrant the wood is, it actually makes the family stand out more


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