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Formal Senior Pictures – The Head & Shoulders Pose

In this article, we’ll talk about the finer points of posing and lighting formal senior pictures. In addition, we’ll cover hard and soft lighting and a typical four-light setup for head & shoulder portraits.

Psychology plays a big part in senior portrait photography so we’ll touch on how to engage and talk to high school seniors. As a result, you’ll gain the ability to elicit expressions that sell photographs – if that’s your goal.

Quite honestly, formal senior pictures like you’ll see on this page and the boys and girls formal galleries may not be as prevalent as they once were. That said, in some parts of the country a formal image may still be mandatory for the school yearbook.

Styles, likes and dislikes, senior portrait clothing choices – they will all – always be evolving. Photographers who develop their ability to create beautiful formal portraits will have a skill-set that will be forever valuable.


Getting Your Subject Posed for Their Formal Senior Pictures

Most of what makes a good head and shoulders pose happen out of the frame. How your subject’s arms and legs are positioned can make all the difference.

In this particular image notice the position of the body – turned away from the main light – and the head/face turned back towards the light.

Body away and face towards the light is a classic – traditionally female – pose. Posing a guy this way you’ll want to add more movement to his shoulders making the pose more aggressive.

Again, in this image, the subject’s body is turned away from the main light. Her left leg is crossed over her right above the knee. She has her hands clasped around her left knee enabling her to hold herself upright – not slouching. She’s leaning slightly to her left (camera right) giving some movement/angle to her shoulders and her head is tilted slightly to her left.

Depending on the subject and the look you’re trying to achieve, having her tilt her head to her right (camera left) can also look nice.


Look Ma – No Hands Posing

You’ll want to learn to move your senior subject into position with a minimum of touching. Some photographers go to the subject and physically move their head with their hands which – in my opinion – is something you want to avoid.

No matter how too-cool-for-school your subject is, they’re going to be nervous. And a big part of that nervous feeling comes from low self-esteem and the fear of doing something wrong. Physically moving their head for them – no matter how polite you are – as much as says to the senior, “You have no idea what I want you to do so I’ll just do it for you.” 

You need the portrait session to be a cooperative effort. Creating great portraits is not something you do to someone but with someone.

Engage your subject with conversation and eye contact. Then simply stand behind the camera and say, “Tilt your head like this,” and then tilt your head in the direction you want them to tilt theirs.

To get them into this pose simply say, “Cross one leg over the other. Okay cool, now put your hands around your knee,” and you do the same thing; pull your own knee up and grasp your hands around it. “Perfect, now lean a little bit – right here at the small of your back,” and then touch your own back and lean the direction you want them to lean.

Your lights are dialed in, your camera is set, the music is going and your humming or singing along; click, click, click. “Tilt your head a little to the right this time,” click, “maybe a little more,” click, “awesome, you look great.” If you’re screwing around with your lights and trying to figure out your camera you’ll ruin the synergy between you and your subject.


Senior Guy – Same Pose But Different – How

So here’s an example of a senior guy. Essentially this is the same formal senior picture pose – body away from the main light, face back towards the light. But it is different. How?

What makes this pose different and more powerful looking? 

How about;

  • Serious expression
  • More aggressive tilt/lean towards the camera
  • Harder light
  • Stronger light ratio

Guys like the serious expression – girls not as much. That said, the vast majority of Moms want a smile on their son’s face – which believe me – is not always easy to elicit from a seventeen-year-old boy.

You can see the angle of his shoulders, a harder tilt towards the camera. In this pose you want him leaning his right elbow/arm on a posing table and putting weight on it. His left hand may actually be on his hip. Putting his hand on his hip squares off his shoulders but I’m always sure to tell him, “don’t worry you’re not going to see that in the image.”

We’ll talk more about hard and soft light later in this post but look back and forth between these formal senior pictures; the image of the guy at left and the senior girl above. Notice in particular the transition from highlight to shadow on their face(s). On the image of the guy the transition from highlight to shadow – on his left cheek (camera right) – is hard and defined. In the girl’s image, the transition is more soft and gradual. 

Additionally, the hard transition edge on the guy is accentuated by the stronger light ratio – probably a 4:1 ratio compared to a 3:1 on the girl. Girls want to look soft and pretty. Guys want to look chiseled and tough. The main light in the girl’s image is a four foot by six foot Larson Soff-box – positioned horizontally – to create soft wrap-around light. The main light on the guy is a 14″ x 48″ Larson Soff-Strip – positioned vertically to create directional harder light.

How can I help? What questions do you have? Just CLICK HERE and shoot me an email. I’ll answer your questions as quickly as I’m able.


ESP: Expression Sells Portraits – Senior Psychology

High school seniors come in all shapes, sizes, and sexes – none of which has any effect on their disposition. That said I’ve always had a more difficult time getting the expressions I want from senior guys. Certainly, I’ve had senior girls who were especially shy or sullen and difficult to photograph but they seem few and far between.

How often do you suppose anyone, who comes before your camera, has had their portrait taken? Sure, in today’s world, people are taking pictures all the time with their phones. But it’s rare that someone sits for a portrait where all the attention is focused on them. So you’re going to have subjects who struggle with being in the spotlight, and it’s your job to help them relax.


Leave Your Ego at Home

Just a little aside here. My barber of 25+ years had the gall to go and retire on me, so I had to find a new guy. I really enjoyed going to see Gary for my haircut. We had similar senses of humor – sarcastic grumpy old men – and were close to the same age. We always had a good give and take conversation.

My new guy no so much. I sit down in the chair and he immediately starts talking about himself and what he’s doing that night or weekend. When I first started going to this guy I’d ask questions about what he was talking about – and get lengthy answers. I don’t like to talk about myself much but I did expect a little back and forth in the conversation. Nope. On and on he’d go. Now I just close my eyes and tune him out. I actually fell asleep once – while he was talking.

So why do I keep going to this self-absorbed putz you ask? He gives me a decent haircut, which I could probably get just about anywhere. But the thing is, when he’s done with the haircut, he uses heated shaving cream and a straight razor to shave the back of my neck. I look forward to that part of the experience every time. 

As hard as this may be for some to understand – your clients don’t give a shit about you or your life. They don’t care how expensive your equipment is, how many hand-painted backgrounds you have or the number of awards you’ve won. Ninety-nine of a hundred people you meet will only be interested in themselves.

So instead of letting this fact of life bruise your precious ego use it to your advantage. Think how easy it is to be thought of as the nicest photographer in town by just putting your own ego aside for 90 minutes and focusing on the person in front of your camera. 


A/B Testing Your Portrait Creation Process

If you’re into marketing you’ll understand what I mean when I say A/B Testing. In an A/B marketing test, you create two marketing pieces that are identical – except for a single item.

For example, you might come up with two different headlines for a sales letter. You mail the letter and you keep track of which headline performs better. The next mailing you might test a new headline against your “control.” 

On some sales marketing I did for a different website, I’d use “Fourth and Final Notice” or “Final Notice”  as the subject line in the last sales email. That email always pulled better results than any of the others. I quit using it because it did piss some people off. And I always hated getting letters or emails like that myself. But there was no denying it worked better.

For years I started every session with the formal senior pictures. Based on tips I’d received at various photography seminars I’d say something like, “Let’s get these formal ones for Mom and Grandma out of the way first, then we can move on to the fun stuff.” 

Unfortunately, it took a few hundred senior guys to realize the problem with this approach:

  • We’ve just met and the guy has no idea what I hoot I can be.
  • He’s nervous to the max.
  • Getting the formal ones out of the way first sounds like a good idea – he thinks to himself – I’ll just force myself to smile. 

This is the portrait Mom wants. She could give a crap about the picture of him with his car or the slutty girlfriend she doesn’t like. She wants a nice formal portrait of her little boy and she wants him smiling.

Standing over your shoulder while you’re trying to get her son to smile, Mom sees the cute happy seven-year-old boy she remembers from years ago. Her Rockwellian memory blinds her to the sullen teenager sitting before the camera, ill-fitting sports coat, a gigantic zit on his forehead.

And here’s something I can guaran-damn-tee you. When you ask that senior boy to smile and he forces a big toothy grin, if Mom says, “not like that!” turn off the lights and put the lens cap on, the session is over. She has now ruined the mood, pissed off her son and completely nixed any possibility of a natural smile.

If my spine hadn’t been surgically removed when I was married I’d have had a disclaimer on all my marketing materials that said, “Mothers of high school senior boys are not allowed in the camera room.”


Start With the Easy Stuff

As it was I needed to figure out how to deal with overbearing mothers. Without fail, if we were asked to do a retake it was always for the formal senior portraits – boys or girls.

So I started A/B testing by experimenting with pushing the formal portrait down the shot-list to at least second – if not third or fourth. If the guy was ever going to relax and give me a natural smile it was going to happen sometime after that first outfit and before he became sick of the whole process. And it worked.

Formal senior pictures require being pretty specific with light placement and proper posing. People don’t normally sit as they do for a formal portrait. So we’d start with some simple standing or sitting poses, natural poses the senior guy would feel comfortable doing. I’d handhold the camera and talk more, ask more questions, get him to tell me about school or his job.

A couple of outfits worth of casual poses and he’d be loose and enjoying (somewhat) the process. Then we’d go into his formal senior pictures and with much better results.


Listen to Your Subject

Remain open to suggestion – don’t become so set in what your way of doing things that you miss an opportunity to engage your client.

For example: People view portraits the same way they read a page – from left to right. In classic head & shoulder, formal senior pictures, the eyes of your subject should be at the line of the top third of the image which of course then puts their face in the top third of the image.

You can see on this image to the right – a screenshot from Photoshop – the one-third, two-thirds crop lines. Her eyes fall right on the top third of the image.

Since a viewer is reading the image from left to right – I’ve always felt – the main light should be on the subject’s right/camera left. As a viewer’s eyes come across the image they will lock-on to the subject’s eyes.

But on occasion, you’ll have clients who feel the other side of their face is their better side. By all means, move the main light to the opposite side and do a few images that way as well.

The girl’s formal senior pictures you see in the galleries are the images the clients ordered from. So obviously the clients in images 100, 101, 102 and 109 – with the main light at their left/camera right – felt they looked better from that side. The same – opposite side lighting – was used in image 092 in the boy’s formal senior portraits gallery.


Smiling – Serious – Chin Up – Chin Down

You will also have clients who either don’t like their smile, don’t like to smile big or are simply not smiley people period. Regardless, you should always try to elicit a variety of expressions. And there are simply some poses – like this one – that would look just plain weird with a big toothy grin.

It can be difficult for some people to adjust their smile. There are those – and they’re typically a joy to be around – where it’s all or nothing; huge smile, lots of teeth, they’re just happy people.

If I have that kind of client and I want this look I might say something like, “Just give me a straight-lipped smile.” (You just did it yourself didn’t you.;-) And then when they have their lips closed and a small straight smile I’ll say, “Now just let your lips part a little bit.” Click.

Photographing a particularly lugubrious personal injury attorney one time I asked, “Are you going to smile for any of these pictures.” He had a big deep voice and he bellowed, “Mr. Meir, I intimidate people for a living, I don’t smile.” Okey dokey then. No smiling pictures.

The point – that seems to have gotten lost here in the storytelling – is to work hard for a variety of expressions and poses for your client’s formal senior pictures. Don’t get someone into a pose, bang off three or four (of the same) frame and think you’re giving them variety.

Vary each exposure a little bit. A little more head tilt. A bigger smile, a smaller smile, have them recross their legs, see if it changes their body position. If they have long hair move it all behind their shoulders, then one with it in front of their right shoulder, then left shoulder.

How can I help? If you have questions please don’t hesitate to ask – that’s what I’m here for. Just CLICK HERE and fill out the contact form. I’ll answer your question as soon as I’m able.


Formal Senior Pictures Lighting

Artful head & shoulders formal senior pictures are well posed, have pleasing color harmony, and beautiful lighting. And it’s the lighting that can make or break the image. Here we’re going to go through a four light setup. Understand these four lights could be comprised of;

  • Four studio strobes or flashguns
  • Three studio strobes or flashguns and a reflector
  • Two studio strobes or flashguns and two reflectors
  • Even one studio strobe or flashgun and three reflectors

We’ll talk about the lighting used to create the formal senior pictures you see in the galleries. Most often I used three or four studio strobes and sometimes a reflector as well. We’ll talk about where the lights are positioned and what each light does. Keep in mind, as described above, we’re talking about light sources – don’t get hung up on the type or brand of equipment.

In-studio I used the following lights to create these head & shoulder portraits; [Following are affiliate links. If you click on any links and make a purchase I may earn a small commission – at no additional cost to you.]

  • Main Light – Photogenic DL1250 Studio Strobe
  • Fixed Fill Light – Wall mounted White Lightning 1800 Studio Strobe
  • Accent Light – Photogenic 750 Studio Strobe
  • Hair Light – Ceiling mounted Photogenic 750 Studio Strobe
  • Additional Fill – 4′ x 6′ Calumet Silver Reflector

The light modifiers on each of these lights as follows;

You can see descriptions of all my equipment on the RESOURCE page.


What’s An Accent Light?

Understandably some readers here may be very new to the idea of studio lighting for formal senior pictures and that’s great – bravo to you for taking the time to educate yourself. That said here’s a brief explanation of the lights used in this four light setup and the purpose of each.


Main Light

Your main source of light for exposing your subject. Outside it’s the sun, whether bouncing off some kind of natural or man-made reflector, softened by clouds or direct. Of course we could go on all day talking about how to see and control natural light but for now, we’re talking about studio lighting.

The larger your light source – in relation to your subject – the softer that light will appear. Think of the difference between a bright cloudless day and an overcast day. On the bright cloudless day, the sun is – relatively speaking – a small light source. Shadows on the ground are hard and defined. On an overcast day, the sun is of course still the light source, but it’s softened and dispersed by the clouds – making a much larger light source. Shadows are soft, maybe even non-existent.

You have an endless variety of light modifier options from which to choose for creating formal senior pictures. Parabolic(s) and parabolic(s) with barn-doors, beauty dishes and light panels and softboxes and strip-boxes and umbrellas to name a few. All of them modify the light source in a different way. A softbox tends to be the gold-standard for most portrait photographers and that’s what I used to create the formal portraits in the boy’s and girl’s galleries.


Fixed Fill Light

In formal senior pictures – as in any portrait – your main light creates the base of your exposure – in a 3:1 light ratio your main light is the “3.” Your fill light fills in the shadows. Look at this image for example . . . 

In this particular image, you could call this split lighting as the right (camera left) side of his face is well exposed while the opposite side is almost completely in shadow. His cheek and jawline are illuminated by the accent light.

This is probably a 4:1 or a 5:1 light ratio – meaning the light on the (camera left) side of his face is four or five times brighter than the (camera right) side of his face.

My fixed fill, as described above, was a White Lightning 1800 studio strobe bounced into the wall/ceiling at the back of my camera room. In this image, the fixed fill was probably fifteen + feet from the subject.

Bouncing it into the wall/ceiling created a very wide and soft fill light. I would typically keep the power set to provide a 4:1 or 5:1 ratio – then I’d add fill with a 4′ x 6′ silver reflector. If you do it this way you’ll easily be able to go from a 5:1 to a 2:1 ratio just by moving the reflector closer or farther from your subject.


Accent Light

Years ago I wrote an article about the accent light and explained that Big Daddy Don Garlits called it a “garlic light” because you only needed a little bit. Fortunately – or unfortunately – one of my readers was a drag racing fan and knew that Big Daddy Don Garlits was a famous drag racing driver. I meant to say Big Daddy Don Blair – who is, in fact, a famous (now deceased) photographer. (In my defense since I remembered it as a garlic light it’s easy to understand how I got it confused with Garlits. Right?;-)

Anyway, I love using a little garlic light in almost all my portraits – even outside. 

You have to be careful in how you position the accent light. It’s typically pointing towards the camera from behind and to one side of your subject. You really don’t want it to hit their ear but just skim their cheekbone. The image below right of the guy with his arms crossed is a good example: 

You can see the little kiss of light on his (camera right) temple area. This is not a very strong light ratio – barely 3:1 – so the accent light is not as noticeable – as it should (shouldn’t?) be.

Another thing to keep in mind with the accent light is the light itself is pointing towards the camera. Instead of bouncing away from the camera like your main light, the accent – pointed right towards the camera – is going to appear brighter than its actual reading.

I never metered the accent light and I rarely changed the power setting on that light. I moved the light in and out and checked the image on the camera to see if I liked it.

The image below of the guy with the blue shirt is not a good example. Notice the odd shape of the accent light – it looks like a mistake as opposed to something that’s supposed to be there. As I said – it can be tricky to position the accent just right.

Hair Light

If you’re short on lights you could use just one to create both the hair light and the accent light. 

In all the years I had my studio I was never happy with the hair light on dark-haired subjects. My hair light was mounted near the ceiling and modified with a Photoflex 9″ x 24″ softbox. It was an analog (not digitally controlled) Photogenic studio strobe so I couldn’t adjust the power level without getting on a step ladder.

Yes, I could have bought a digital light so I could control the power level remotely but I just never did. Consequently, I had to set the power at an unhappy medium; not so bright as to blow out blonde hair – but not really bright enough to illuminate dark brown or black hair.

Looking at the formal senior pictures of the two guy images above you can’t see any hair-light on the guy with his arms crossed and just a tiny bit on the guy with the blue shirt. If you scroll back to the top you’ll see quite a bit of hair light on the blonde girl with the one-third/two-thirds overlay as well as the blonde in the first image of the post. Same light, same power setting – different hair color. 


That’s a Wrap

Hopefully, this article has given you – if you didn’t already have it – a basic understanding of how to create formal senior pictures. Watch the Posing and Lighting Lessons section of the site for future tips and videos on the various poses.

How can I help? If you have questions please don’t hesitate to ask – that’s what I’m here for. Just CLICK HERE and fill out the contact form. I’ll answer your question as soon as I’m able.

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