Without a doubt, the most common question clients ask me is “What should we wear for our family portrait session?” I’ve worked on commercial photo sets as a photographer and as “talent” (believe it or not) where there is a dedicated wardrobe stylist. This is a career and these people are compensated well for their expertise in selecting the right clothing pieces to communicate a specific mood and message. All this is to say that what you wear matters in the final product. But that doesn’t mean it has to be stressful or intimidating. Here is my guide to what to wear: Photo Styling 101!
Consider the purpose
What are you going to do with the photos? In many cases, you’re going to use the images for a holiday card or birth announcement. There are so many designs for these that you’ll have no problem finding one that will “go” with what you choose to wear. In other words, you don’t need to wear red and green for a Christmas card. In this screenshot, I’ve used a photo of my family and the “Find it Fast” function on Minted to give you an idea of the variety of styles there are to choose from and how you can easily find one that fits the style, colors, and mood of your image.
Let’s say you want to hang the pictures on your wall (hint: you do). In that case I suggest you choose colors that will work with your decor or play it safe with neutrals.
This is an image from a maternity session where the clothing and background are both neutral. Below is the image displayed in the couple’s bedroom and blends in perfectly with the neutral decor.
Choose a Color Palette
Limit the colors you choose for clothing/accessories to 2-3. Let your purpose guide you here. If you’re not limited to colors in a room in a your home, then you can go with colors you like, colors that look good on you, or neutrals.
What are Neutrals?
Basic colors that go with anything and that everyone has.
What are benefits of choosing neutrals? Again, they pretty much go with anything, everyone has clothing in these colors (or they are easy to find), and they are universally flattering. Neutral colors will work with any background.
Neutrals are also classic and timeless, so they will help in keeping your photos from looking dated. They aren’t distracting and so the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the faces. This is why I always recommend neutrals for newborn sessions.
To add visual interest to a neutral palette, vary the textures in the clothing pieces. Look for chunky woven sweaters, lace, ruffles, pleats, balloon sleeves, etc.
Neutrals with one or two accent colors
Here are some examples of how to add more color to your neutral palette.
In this example of my family, the neutrals are white, khaki, and denim, and the accents are rosy pink and blue. Here’s a family wearing the same palette I shot at Crissy Field:
Keep in mind that the eye is drawn to contrast. If a color contrasts with the background, or with what others are wearing, the eye will naturally notice it first.
Here, the parents are wearing neutrals and the toddler is wearing burgundy. The eye is drawn to her because of the bold color pop.
In this shot the family is wearing neutrals with some warm accents of mustard yellow.
In this shot, the palette is mainly black and yellow but notice how the mom’s lipstick color adds another accent color of fuschia–I love it! Don’t forget lip and nail color can add color too!
At the beach the girls’ pink and coral dresses really pop against the blue water and sky. The look is bright, fresh, and happy.
Solids vs. Prints
Most sources say to avoid prints and stick with solids because prints are too distracting. I don’t necessarily agree. I think prints can add a wonderful pop of visual interest.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Very small scale patterns often read more like a solid.
- Patterns with similar shades/colors read more like a solid.
- When mixing patterns, use only one large scale or contrasting pattern
Let’s dissect this image:
First notice the 2 color palette: shades of blue and red/pink. Notice how everyone is wearing prints, but because most of them are very small or tone-on-tone, they read more as solids. The one the stands out the most is the baby girl’s dress, because it’s a larger scale and has contrasting colors within it. The dress has both of the colors in the palette and so ties it all together. It works.
As an artist, I use color in the surroundings to either repeat colors in the clothing or contrast with them to add visual interest. Notice how the blues, whites, and pink in the clothing pop out from the mostly green background, but shades of pink are also repeated in the background with the flowers.
Pattern in the image can also come from other elements besides clothing. In this case I saw what mom was wearing and that the colors repeated beautifully with the artwork on the wall. We even clipped some stems from the yard with the same color add one more repeated element.
What About Black and White?
First let’s talk about wearing black and white. Can you wear them in photos? Yes. They are considered neutral in the fashion sense. With photos, they can be a little tricky because of the way cameras sense them. Basically, cameras have a much harder time “seeing” detail in high contrast situations–scenes where there are both very light and very dark areas–than human eyes do. Because white is at the light end of the spectrum and black is at the dark end, cameras can sometimes lose detail in these areas. It’s my job as the photographer to use professional gear and know how to expose the image properly to handle these situations (think of a bride with her white gown and a groom in his black tuxedo).
Black can be slimming, especially if worn head to toe. It also adds drama and contrast. It looks fantastic in high contrast scenes. When my subjects wear black I try to shoot them against a lighter background so they stand out.
If it’s a maternity shoot and you choose to wear black, the bump can sometimes get lost unless there is a lighter background. I need to make sure to use the light and background to highlight your bump in that case.
The same thing can happen if you wear white at a maternity shoot–the bump can get lost against a light background so I have to watch for that.
Wearing white can help the image look clean, bright and airy and the subjects look happy and pure.
Black & White Photos
All digital photos are shot in color and can be converted to black and white. If you know you specifically want black and white photos, it works best to wear very dark and/or very light colors to provide contrast. Mid-toned colors that add a lot of punch in color photos look boring when converted to black and white:
Here is an image that works great in both color and black and white because of the contrast in light in dark tones:
Casual vs. Formal
In general, the clothes should match the setting. If the location is casual, dress casual–home, beach, etc.
If it’s more formal, like a manicured garden with a gazebo, dressier clothing works.
Most of my clients wear “nice casual” for outdoor sessions.
Lay it all out
Once you’ve decided on a palette, go to your closet and start pulling pieces out. Personally I like starting with what I’m going to wear because I’m the pickiest about what I wear. Lay them on the bed or floor with pieces from everyone else’s closets. Swap things out if you see too much of one color or not enough texture. Don’t forget accessories–shoes, jewelry, scarves, headbands, etc. As you do this, you may decide you’re missing something and need to do some shopping. At least then you won’t be starting from scratch and you’ll have an easier time finding what you need. Browsing online rather than driving to multiple stores will save you time! Get specific in your search, such as “Burgundy pleated skirt” or “Navy blue belted cardigan.” You may discover sources or sales that way you wouldn’t know about otherwise!
Just a few more things to keep in mind:
- Arms often look wider in photos than they do in real life, so if that’s a concern for you, wear long sleeves.
- Wear clothes that fit! I’ve been on shoots where the mom bought brand new shoes or pants that were too big for the child and the child had a hard time focusing during the session because of discomfort.
- Ladies–wear more makeup than you normally do. And please wear lipstick–your lips need the extra color in photos!
- If you want to look slimmer, choose pieces that elongate your silhouette, like a maxi dress, wearing all one color head to toe, and/or layer with a long cardigan.
- Most importantly, choose clothes you feel good in! If anyone is uncomfortable, it will usually show in the photos.