High School Senior portrait ideas?
August 8, 2008 5:50 AM   Subscribe

What made your senior portraits/pictures awesome? Or, conversely, what made them awful?

I ask because my brother and his friends are investigating their options (ideas for cool/funny/timeless pics, studio or not, etc).

All anecdotes and advice welcome, but please don't focus on money.
posted by fake to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I thought my pictures turned out 'acceptable' which differed from my friend, who thought hers were an abomination. We went to the same studio, same photographer, etc. Why the difference?

I had control over my pictures - I wore the things that I usually wore (in my case, dressing like a male 50s era science nerd was how I rolled), no make up, kept on my glasses and didn't do any extremely false poses.

She, on the other hand, didn't speak up for her own interests, and got stuck with a whole lot of extremely patriotic backgrounds that didn't match her at all. It's no good when the class hippie shows up with American flags flapping in her ears in the yearbook, no good at all.

So yeah: follow their interests. They like hiking, hunting, birding - get a good photographer to follow them outside and take interesting candids. More into cello and oboe? They can stay in and get those done.

One important thing to remember is a lot of yearbooks do require the photo submitted to them to be a boring head shot with a boring background, so they may have to spend some studio time after their outdoors extravaganzas.
posted by palindromic at 6:13 AM on August 8, 2008

I spotted this senior portrait in a restaurant in louisiana not too long ago. I only saw it after noticing how many of the other patrons stopped by the pic and kept gazing at it. some giggles, some shook their heads, all had a reaction. go for something fun or unique. too many people take themselves waaay too seriously.
posted by krautland at 6:14 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do not pose with a vehicle of any kind (car, motorcycle, etc.) unless you are intending the picture to look idiotic.
posted by jtfowl0 at 6:26 AM on August 8, 2008

My senior picture was made awesome by the juxtaposition of my gigantic metal hair and cheesy mustache with the cheap tuxedo the school made us wear. It would be even funnier if you could back far enough out of the shot to see that it was only a tuxedo shirt and jacket, and that I was really wearing shorts, beat up basketball sneakers and a Carcass t-shirt. This was in 1991.
posted by The Straightener at 6:28 AM on August 8, 2008

We didn't get a choice when it came to my high school photos - the backdrop, cap and gown, props and poses were all pre-determined by the photographer. Mind you, the photographer came to the school and set up, just like any other picture day in school.
posted by LN at 6:28 AM on August 8, 2008

My brother-in-law took pictures of me outside with my dog...i think it was nearing twilight and some of them came out with rainbows in the prints...

I thought they were great. Stick with something unique, but personal.
posted by schyler523 at 6:28 AM on August 8, 2008

If you get a lot of shots done, pick the one you like the best, not the one your parents like the best. My dad basically picked mine for me, and I ended up with one I've never really been happy with. The one I liked he decided was not to his taste, so rather than having me outside I have senior shots of me in front of a solid brown background. What with my brown hair and brownish shirt, I am basically blending into the photo.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:32 AM on August 8, 2008

I spotted this senior portrait...

One of my classmates did a double-finger-gun portrait that somehow actually looked pretty good, but I don't know whether it was just luck or if he took a few hundred exposures and combed through for the one with the right relaxed expression, angles, and lighting.

But yeah, make sure he insists on what he wants. And is conscious of maybe wanting to look back at it 10 or 20 years from now and not be horrified.

And he should smile. The grim Old West look is gone.
posted by kittyprecious at 6:35 AM on August 8, 2008

I was lucky in that my high school really didn’t have a lot of rules for your senior photo, just that it was you, and it wasn’t inappropriate. Mine was my hand out a car window, a friends was their profile Alfred Hitchcock style. It’s okay to be a little wacky, just remember that these photos are around for quite a bit, so its best not to do something you may regret.
posted by hibery at 6:41 AM on August 8, 2008

Senior portraits will NEVER, EVER, look good. So with that in mind, go with the trendy, faddish options and wear "stylish" clothes. For instance, if you'd had your picture in the 90's, you could have been another uncomfortable boy in a suit, with a boring blue sky background. Or you could have been a kid with a mullet and a hypercolor shirt, with the black background with lasers shooting through it.

Both will be equally embarrassing, but the latter will provide hilarity in the future. We can't see it now because we're knee-deep in the thick of it, but every decade since at least the 60s has provided a few distinct looks, and I'm sure today is no different.
posted by explosion at 6:44 AM on August 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

I didn't get mine taken at a studio. My dad grabbed my trusty Pentax k1000, some black & white film, and me, and we went outside next to a pine tree outside my house (the pine tree softened the bright daylight, which was good). He just started talking to me and taking pics. For some reason I was wearing white in the first couple of pics, which was a bad idea. In the one I went with, I was wearing my favorite ratty old dark grey sweater (which had holes in it) and looking away from the camera -- actually turning my head mostly to the side, rather than gazing slightly off to the side of the photographer (the latter of which is a common awkward yearbook pic pose). It's still one of my favorite photographs.

The common elements among the photos that still look good many years later seemed to be:

1. No lame studio backdrops
2. Unposed
3. More close-up
4. Looking the most like you usually do in life, rather than made-up to high heaven if you don't usually wear makeup, hair slicked back if it's usually messy, dresses if you're a jeans-wearerer, etc.
5. A natural smile or a naturally relaxed face, rather than a smile on command or "seriousness" on command

The best shots were relaxed face shots of people looking like themselves. The more people tried to make their pictures "look good," the more awkward and unflattering the photos were.
posted by tigerbelly at 7:00 AM on August 8, 2008

A few things I remember from my experience, maybe they'll help your brother. :)

My school had an 'official' portrait studio which we needed to use for the shots that would go in the yearbook. Most students got their entire senior photo shot series done there, too, prints and all. But I did not like how my photos came out and just felt 'blah' about it; the sets and poses and just how I looked did not look great or feel like me. So I looked around and found a better studio that was not contracted by the school. And I was *so* much more pleased with those shots! Everything about the photos was better - the angles on the shots, the sets, the colors... So don't be afraid to ask around to find a good place; it probably won't be the place that has a contract with your school. (They probably got the contract by offering a cheap price, which means the quality is probably not great, and they also are guaranteed a lot of business, so they won't work for yours.)

Remember to be yourself! Whatever that means for you. I wore clothes that flattered me and were like what I would usually dress up in or wear casually. (not something flashy or super-sexy or whatever.) I incorporated some things that were important parts of my life like my violin, my "Senior Women" jersey, and I even took some shots with a good friend of mine - we made back-to-back appointments and the photographer did some of us together.

When you look at these in 10 years you are going to want to remember what you were like, whatever that was. You won't be interested to see who you *wished* you would be. My studio made me look like my best version of myself, not like someone else.

Oh, and don't be afraid to ask the people at the studio for suggestions or help. I benefited from that a lot. They have a lot of experience and are probably pretty creative, and will have some ideas about which crazy ideas will and won't work.
posted by inatizzy at 7:01 AM on August 8, 2008

I was the only member of my (all female) high school class to wear a tuxedo.

Maybe your brother and his friends could dress in drag?
posted by Lucinda at 7:03 AM on August 8, 2008

I had the worst skin in high school, I wore braces through all four years, and I had a stick as a body and a huge head but, surprisingly, my Senior pictures still turned out good.

I think what made the pictures work was the photographer knew what angles would take into account my insane body to head ratio and make them look proportional. Also, he (or the studio) had awesome editing skills and was able to erase any hints of my braces and cleared up my problem skin. I noticed that he also upped the "glamor shot haze" a bit which definitely helped. He even taught me how to smile 'naturally'.

He definitely worked hard to understand me physically and put this information towards making me look my best.
posted by simplethings at 7:23 AM on August 8, 2008

Time made them all awesome. When they were taken it was either plain novelty or what just happened to be a good photograph.
posted by rudyfink at 7:41 AM on August 8, 2008

I had a similar experience to Tigerbelly. My mom grabbed our old camera, some B&W film and we went out in our front yard and just started taking photos. The first few shots were awkward as I really didn't know what to do but we started to have fun with it. We had a berry tree in our yard and there are more than a few shots of me throwing berries at my mom. Not a good senior pic but a fun time.

The one I decided on was one of the last pics we took. I'm sitting down on our porch, leaning against a pillar, arms crossed and looking at the camera with a half-smile. It's a great shot.

So my suggestion would be to get a couple rolls of film, an old camera and just have fun.
posted by Diskeater at 7:50 AM on August 8, 2008

On the issue of letting your parents choose:

You can have lots of senior pictures! My sister submitted one picture to her yearbook, printed another to give to her friends, and then my mom picked yet another to put in her office and send to the grandparents. That way, Mom got the nice boring head shot, and my sister could have more creative shots for her friends.

Also, my mom took these senior pictures, but at my school non-studio shots were the norm.
posted by matematichica at 7:51 AM on August 8, 2008

I decided to have my hair cut and styled two days before my pictures were taken and I treated myself to a cut at the cool progressive place in town. The stylist reeked of certain substances and proceeded to sheer my shoulder length hair to just a few remaining inches and then perm the hell out of it. I was all for weirdness with hair, but this was truly awful and uninspired.There was absolutely nothing to be done with it but let it grow.

What made it awesome was doing the whole photo as camp as I could: I wore one of my mother's long, brown wigs from the early 70s, a very conservative black velvet dress with a square neckline, and a string of pearls. I was the kid who wore garbage bags and safety pins to school and dyed my hair unnatural colors, so people were completely confused when they saw my nice debutantesque picture in the yearbook. The look on the photographer's face when he attempted to flip my hair over my shoulder and instead flipped the whole wig around was also worth the price of admission.
posted by Heretic at 7:56 AM on August 8, 2008

Find a friend or local photographer to do the shots.

Someone artsy will have more creative ideas for your pictures than a studio, and will probably make you more comfortable during the session.

Check out Kris Doman's Blog for some examples.
posted by bradly at 7:57 AM on August 8, 2008

Hair gel was a bad choice for me.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:57 AM on August 8, 2008

I went to boarding school, and we had the option of having them done at the school or back home. I had mine done back home, and while they certainly had some cheesy elements (posing with the wagon wheel, with my class ring arranged "just so", peeking out from behind a tree, etc) they weren't nearly as bad as the ones my classmates got - lasers! Mirrors! Fog! Klassy.

I graduated in 1993, though, so things just were cheesier back then.
posted by pyjammy at 8:04 AM on August 8, 2008

Don't let them push you around.

Listen, learn, accept their expertise -- but you know you better than they do.
posted by amtho at 8:05 AM on August 8, 2008

pyjammy - lasers? What?
posted by amtho at 8:06 AM on August 8, 2008

I had mine done in 99 and I was really pleased with them. I lived on a farm and the photographer actually came out to the farm and took me all over the place, finding interesting textures to shoot against like the side of a barn or up against a rusted wagon. They did the shoot when the sun was low, which really helped the tone a lot. I also had the opportunity to change my outfits a few times so I got to do both casual and dressy shots. The only picture that I didn't like was when the photographer made me climb a tree and look down. It was hard work and not flattering at all.

My friends at the time had some cool pictures, too. One kid took his photographer to the golf course and played a few holes while they followed around, shooting. The pictures turned out great and since golf was his passion and probably would be for a long time, it was a good choice.

Most everyone chose to go outside to have theirs done because good nature shots will never look dated and the lighting is hard to beat.

One thing I do regret about my senior pictures was wearing socks under my sandals. WHAT was I thinking?
posted by bristolcat at 8:13 AM on August 8, 2008

Like others said, the school often has an official photographer that everybody has to use for the yearbook photo, and a lot of students will just stick with that. Don't. Unless you really, really DO like the photographers style. Mine were awful.....fake laser background, holding a fake rose in a terribly unnatural way on my leg, the big blue feather boa. Blech! And this was mid 90s but looking at them you would think they were the 80s.

I would find somebody who does outside portraits....look at some of the wedding/engagement/children photographers around your area. If you want something a little more modern, this may mean someone still on the younger age spectrum of things. This is a totally random sight I came across but it's the same style I see a lot of places that I happen to like:
posted by texas_blissful at 8:17 AM on August 8, 2008

I had my senior portrait(s) done at the studio my school required us to use. Personally, I liked having the photographer there so that I didn't have to think about the details, but I hated the cheesy poses they wanted me to do (oh, hello camera, I'm just sitting here casually with my hands folded under my chin...). A couple of thoughts:

No one looks good in a cap and gown, especially the shiny cheap-o type you get for high school graduation, and extra-especially if they’re in the school’s colors. If possible, your brother should do at least a few photos without the cap and gown. I loved my high school’s tradition of uniform portraits (black sweater and pearls… it was an all-girls school) because it achieved the timelessness that the cap and gown photos aim for without making everyone look stupid. I think the simplicity of the clothing helps a lot. I mean, of course you can look over decades of my high school’s senior portraits and laugh at the hair, but generally the girls look happy and natural. Also try to remember that not everyone looks their best with a wide smile, so try a range of neutral expressions, closed smiles, as well as broader smiles to see what looks best.

So, my recommendation for “timeless” would be: simple, slightly dressy clothes (oxford shirt and khakis?); hair done as usual, but maybe a bit more carefully; and a variety of takes on smiling to get the most natural and relaxed look.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:21 AM on August 8, 2008

I had some fun with it, and photoshoped my head onto the Army of Darkness poster for my big full-page senior yearbook picture. I still enjoy that image, but I do wish I had some more "traditional" photos from that time as well that were carefully composed and professionally shot. Whatever you decide, try to have some "fun" photos and some "square" ones as well.
posted by raygan at 8:25 AM on August 8, 2008

One thing to keep in mind, that other people have mentioned - certain highschools are more restrictive when it comes to senior portraits. The company from which I received my portraits would not deliver my pictures to the school for me - I had to deliver them myself - because I violated one of the "rules" set by the school.

What rule had I broken? My hands were in the picture.

(one of my most favorite non-traditional yearbook pictures was a college one, done by a friend of a friend. He was standing at the bottom of an outdoor stairway, normal, smiling. About halfway up the stairway, one guy was holding a gun at the head of another guy, who was crouched down on his knees. It wasn't immediately noticeable, which is what made it great. And yes, this was in the early/mid 90's.)
posted by Lucinda at 8:52 AM on August 8, 2008

Don't go with that pose where they make you look towards the floor so you look pensive or aloof or something. It results in "I didn't realize I was that fat in high school." And it's not that you were fat, it's just that no one looks good doing this.

Be sure you wear clothing where the colors will not "blend" if the color got skewed a bit. You don't want to look like you're wearing a unitard. Grey sweater with black pants = bad idea.
posted by giraffe at 9:51 AM on August 8, 2008

With our kids, there were the "official" senior portraits (the one done by the school-approved photographer that will appear in the yearbook), and then there were the "real" portraits (the ones done by the photog of your choice which you give to friends and family.)

it's a big racket here, but have to say that our experience with the "real" portraits have been very positive. The kids would bring several changes of clothes and the photog would do a few studio setups, then move the circus to a couple of off-site locations and shoot more poses in those settings. He asks the student to bring props or accessories that mean something to them (my son did a few poses with his guitar, for instance.) Those "real" shots are, invariably, more representative of the actual person that the "official" portraits ever are.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:29 AM on August 8, 2008

I had a great experience with the photographer the school required us to use. Keep in mind, this was a fairly ritzy girls' school, and the photog was most likely a former parent, who happened to have a super nice studio right down the hill. He was classy. We did the shoot at the school, but we set up in the gorgeous courtyard complete with fountain, columns, some greenery. Really great natural light, but still shady enough to keep from being washed out.
Before hand we'd been furnished with a sheet of tips; things like: avoid large patterns, darker colors usually work better, simple make-up (not applicable for your brother probably). We were allowed to change once. Also, though it was a scheduled shoot at the school, I was the only one in that slot, so I didn't have to worry about performing for my classmates. I did bring my best friend (who attended a different school) who was great for keeping me comfortable and natural looking. The photog kept encouraging her to make me laugh.
The only negative aspect was this was the first year they used digital instead of film. The yearbook crew had no idea how to do the layouts that way, and every copy of the yearbook had my (and several other girls) makeup off. I have orange lips in everyone's permanent record. sigh.
posted by purpletangerine at 11:18 AM on August 8, 2008

Remember you don't HAVE to take a picture specifically for the yearbook. The picture that I used as my senior yearbook picture was taken of me at a Ren Faire complete with sword and garb. My quote was Shakespeare "Why then the world is my oyster, which I with sword will open"

I lost the yearbook when I was in the Navy and still miss it.

posted by legotech at 2:37 PM on August 8, 2008

My niece recently had her grad pics done by a photographer who was very creative and made my niece look stunning. However, when I saw them I didn't even recognize her. It wasn't my niece..they were simply glamor shots. If that's what you want, you can go that route. I combed through all of them and finally chose one that most resembled my actual niece...a lovely, sweet girl with a slightly crooked nose, gorgeous, huge blue eyes, and a humorous sparkle...I didn't choose the ones of her in various getups that she never ever would actually wear, and camera angles that made her not "her".

Her favorites, however, and those of her mom, were totally 'model' shots and looked nothing like my niece. I know she's delighted with the ones that make her look ready for the Ford modeling agency. I prefer more the ones of my niece! Just my two cents.
posted by mumstheword at 3:51 PM on August 8, 2008

The studio I went to had this deal where if you booked early, you could get something like 75% off a session. This place was huge and fancy, so of course I got super jazzed about it and went to town. I think I brought more luggage (full of props) than I took to summer camp :P

Looking back, it looks like me, but... not really. I had four outfits, and some of them were just stupid-looking because they reflected who I wanted to be, not who I was. It was really subtle, but noticeable to the people who knew me. My parents got the photos back and were slightly baffled, because as far as they knew I had never worn a Pink Floyd t-shirt or a sort of camel-hair blazer in my life. And the ones with my "interests"? Ick. Keep it very simple. I had one of me leaning on my cello, but the bow was resting in the arms of my stuffed elephant. Eh.

For posterity, I would recommend splitting the difference. Take a very plain shirt or "jewel-tone" sweater that fits your style, and go with that. You'll have time to do other wacky stuff. Keep your clothing as simple as possible, because not only will it look better years from now, you'll be comfortable AND it will go with more backgrounds and objects. And remember that most photographers have no idea who you are; their job is to take pictures of the person and things that are there in front of them. Unless you know the photographer well, you need to have a good idea of who you are and what you want to portray ahead of time.

For cripes sake, have fun :)
posted by Madamina at 5:05 PM on August 8, 2008

Amtho, this is the classic laser background.
posted by Jahaza at 8:39 PM on August 8, 2008

I'm all for having a friend or family member take your photo as many people are more natural/relaxed that way...but if you do, please make sure that they're GOOD at photography (in particular the lighting) because otherwise the quality difference will be so noticeable in print, that it'll detract from the fact that it's even you.
posted by kattyann at 8:42 PM on August 8, 2008

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