Could sending a style guide be the answer to improving your portrait photography?

Do you wish your family photos looked more polished and editorial? I think the answer to this is yes! This is exactly how a guide can help!

We so often get caught up in the bigger picture that we sometimes forget to study our own photos and ask ourselves how we can make them better. Sometimes we think it’s the background or posing, but if you look beyond those things we can see that sometimes it’s simply color coordination!

Let’s dive into the do’s and dont’s of choosing outfits, which you can pass on to your clients through a carefully considered guide!

1. Remember it’s a GREAT Reason to Dress Up!

Let’s be real, when it comes to family sessions, sometimes moms and dads forget they can actually dress up! Encourage your clients to take the extra time to put together a nice outfit that will make the FEEL good about themselves. It’s probably the first time in years they are getting family photos taken, so it’s a special occasion, right?!

For your family pictures, tell the mom that it’s OK to wear a beautiful flowing dress or wear those shoes she’s been wanting to take out of the box from last year. Ask the dads to break out the slacks and wear a button down shirt!

The point is, people will look at their photos and think back to how the FELT during the family pictures session.

Whatever they wear for the family pictures, we want them to feel confident and beautiful. What better reason than to wear a new dress, or a funky bowtie than for family photos. Remind your client in their guide that they don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars, great outfits can be found in any price point!

2. Coordinate but DON’T MATCH!

Long gone are the days of family sessions with matching white shirts and black pants. You’ve seen them, right? Looking back at my own engagement photos, I cringe when looking at our matching white shirts and jeans.

While this strategy may work with LARGE group photos (to keep it simple and clear), advise your clients not to be “too” matchy-matchy on portrait or family sessions. This means advising them to choose maybe 3-4 neutral colors as a base, and then have every person use those colors to coordinate their own outfit.

So if you’re heading to the beach, you could suggest that your clients wear softer tones that match the colors that you would see at the beach! Check out this tutorial on taking better family photos!

Styles Guide

Here are tips on how you can make a color scheme board: 

Fall Color Schemes

Fall outfits are all about layers. Wear warm tones such as:

  • Maroon and Brown
  • Tan and Denim
  • Cream, Navy, Tan
  • Denim, Crimson, Yellow

Winter Color Schemes 

Winter’s the perfect time to bundle up and bring out those family sweaters and furry scarves! This holiday season highlights cold tones like:

  • Glitter and White
  • Crimson and Navy
  • Crimson, Tan, Blue 
  • Grey, Black, Red
  • Green, Rose, Copper 

Spring Color Schemes 

Spring is all about vibrancy. Try the following sample combinations to set apart your subjects from the surroundings:

  • White and Blush
  • Teal and Blush
  • White, Tan, Light Blue
  • White, Navy, Yellow 

Summer Color Schemes

Ask the family to find outfits with the warmest of colors like:

  • Teal and Orange
  • White and Tan 
  • Green, Yellow, Blue
  • White, Tan, Light Blue

3. Ditch the Obnoxious Patterns

As much as we all love kittens, seeing a family show up with animals, flowers and faces all over their clothing can be a bit distraction. In fact, if the patterns are small enough, they can also cause some distortion in your photos! It’s just a bad choice all around. Eliminating these distractions can put the focus on your clients, where is exactly where it should belong!

This doesn’t mean that your client shouldn’t wear a beautiful floral dress, plaid or stripes. What it means is to keep it simple to a certain degree with only ONE family member wearing a print.

If your client wants to wear that patterned dress, maybe advise her to keep her accessories more simple. It’s all about balance. Don’t overwhelm the eye with too many colors and patterns.

We ABSOLUTELY need our clients to be the center of attention, NOT their clothing. Asking your clients to be mindful of what they wear to a family photo session can really help improve the overall look and feel of the photo. For more ways to improve your portrait photography, check out this tutorial!

Focus on Your Subjects, Not Their Tie-Dye

Along with patterns, we also would like to avoid REALLY bright colors. Neon anything is going to cause problems with editing because those colors tend to DRASTICALLY change when you adjust things such as exposure, contrast and highlights. Then you’re stuck choosing to prioritize certain areas of the family photo verses improving the entire photo.

For example, while the family photo below turned out great, the bright orange and yellows were hard to manage while adjusting other aspects of the family photo in post processing.

You can see that the orange in the photo is almost oversaturated and that you lose texture. Unfortunately, if you start manipulating just orange tones, the leaves and skin tones also start to change!

Stick to Neutrals

Neutral colors are always a great option, not only because they go well together, but because they are classic. Matching outifts in colors such as grey, tan, cream, blue, lighter browns, white are also great.

There are some great resources on the net where you can actually create your very own styled board, that you could include in your guide! Pinterest is also a great source for fashion ideas!

Styles guide neutrals

4. Keep it Classic

As fun as it is to see those awkward/iconic family photos from the 90’s outfits, maybe you want your clients to leave the Justin Bieber shirt at home.

5. Consider the Clothing Texture

Textures add visual interest to any outfits. When you add textures through outfits and accessories, you are also making the family photo more lively and interesting. One way is to look for outfits in fabrics like wool, chambray, lace, faux fur, cable knits, herringbone, and tweed. 

Help the family try on different outfits and clothes even if they choose an all-white or all-black outfit. To pull this off, try to mix fabrics and various types of clothing in the outfits. For instance, pair shiny black pants with a matte shirt and a jean vest. 

6. Study your Favorite Brands

This is something a lot of photographers don’t think about. When you start studying different brands or photographers that you admire, you’ll see a pattern in their work. Consistency is key when it comes to brand development!

What color scheme are they using? Are there specific colors, textures or patterns that you see and love? What kind of subtle pops of colors and patterns are you drawn to?

START RESEARCHING and suggest some of those things like color and patterns in your personal guide. This will also help you when it comes to building a consistent portfolio! It’s a win-win for all!

Come up with a list of three fashion brands that you like and research their websites. What color scheme are they using? How do they mix and match outfits. Do they have a neutral pairing with a pop of colors? Write down all the things that you LOVE and that you can incorporate into your guide.

7. Coordinate With the Location

Some clients rely on the photographer to help them prepare what to wear for a family photo. Help your clients choose a color scheme or palette for the clothes that will complement the home decor, setting or location. Make sure they pick items of clothing in colors that will not compete with the background or their home decor. 

If you’re in a studio, cotton-based outfits can catch lightning well. However, it’s best to avoid wearing something too reflective as it can bounce light around. For city or urban setups, try a more edgy look. 

For beach-themed family photos, your clients will probably go barefoot. Men can wear for family photos roll-up sleeves and pants for a more casual or comfortable look. Meanwhile, women can have fun with the breeze using maxi dresses or flowing skirts.

Styles Guide

8. Help Flatter the Body!

How can we suggest flattering the body without offending our client?! Just make some general statements about what can be done to help cover areas that your client may be self conscious of.

For example, long sleeves tend to be more flattering verses shirts with skinny straps. Just think of a few things that may help avoid those less flattering family photos.

Balance Between Loose and Oversized Clothing

One of the best tips to follow is to avoid wearing too tight or baggy clothes for family photos. Whenever possible, wear for family photos properly fitted outfits that can highlight the body frame. 

Oversized and fitted clothes are not for everyone. Such outfits can sometimes distort proportions on a photo. One of your tasks as a professional photographer is to make sure your subjects look their best.

Be Cautious About Horizontal Stripes

Clothes with wide, horizontal stripes can make a person’s figure appear bigger in a family photo. This is why it’s better to choose clothes with vertical lines that can make the body look slender and taller. 

If the clients still want to wear clothes with horizontal stripes, recommend outfits with narrow, horizontal lines that can somehow make a slimming illusion. 

9. More Than One Outfit?

You can suggest in your guide to bring two outfits! This can not only change the look of your client’s gallery, it can add to your portfolio as well. You could ultimately post a FEW family photos from their photo session on social media and your followers may not notice it’s the same couple or family. This adds to diversity all around.

Tip: If they don’t want to change their entire outfit, encourage them to bring accessories to change the look of their photos. This could be a hat, scarf, different jacket, necklace or tie. Layering is also effective in achieving different looks. Simply taking off a jacket can change the family photo completely!

10. Avoid Editing Too Many Details

While using a few accessories is okay, over-accessorizing can be distracting. Little things like hairbands on the wrists or clothing tags can also ruin a family photo. 

If you don’t want to waste time removing minor inconveniences in each photo like a misplaced scarf or loose threads during post-processing, pay attention to such details during the shoot. 

11. Keep It Comfortable

Wearing comfortable clothes can affect the family’s enthusiasm and overall attitude toward the shoot. If everyone’s looking cranky or annoyed because of their outfits, you’ll have a hard time doing the family photoshoot. 

As a photographer, you need to think of how you can balance an outfit’s comfort and aesthetics for each photo. Consider whether the family can move around freely while still looking good. 

When it comes down to it, we want our clients to be comfortable and themselves. If your clients tend to be more on the casual side, that’s TOTALLY ok. All we can do, is send a guide to do just that…guide them!

It’s not going to work 100% of the time, and we have to take great photos either way! What is the most important is that our clients have a great experience and tell everyone how professional and fun we are!

Photography Style Guide

Final Reminders on What to Wear

Sometimes, especially starting out, we don’t want to offend our clients. We also trust that they are fully capable of choosing their own clothing! I mean, we’re not their mothers!

But the thing is, our clients are looking to US as the professional to guide them into looking their best. They often don’t know how to pose, either, because they aren’t models! Well, 99.9% of your clients probably aren’t attending fashion week in NYC either.

They’ll appreciate a little guidance, since they consider YOU to be the expert. You’re in the business of noticing what is pleasing to the eye, because it’s a part of your ART.

So while composition, storytelling and the background of your photos are VERY important, so are your subjects! I mean, make sure your client is THE MAIN FOCUS of the photo, so what they are wearing is going to make a difference. Sending a guide before their session is a subtle way of directing them on how to coordinate with the whole family.

If you want to lessen your work load, check out Betsy’s Family Portrait Session Toolkit! It’s the quickest way to better family photos!