What to Wear to Your Upcoming Photo Session

A family of six poses for a portrait as an example of what to wear

So you’ve just booked a photo session with me! That means you’re paying a professional photographer to capture photos of you and the ones you love. Maybe you’re looking for some candid, playful photos with the kids. Or it could be that you’re hoping to capture some romantic engagement photos for your wedding invitations. Perhaps you’re looking for some headshots for your new job, or that dating profile. Whatever the case, I’m sure you’ll want to look your best.

It turns out that you and I have the same goal. I’m going to bring my A-game, my camera and lighting gear, and I’ll even hit that special button on the camera that removes ten pounds (you know, the pretend one that my clients always ask about with a wink).

But I’m going to need a little help from you in the wardrobe department. You see, all the Photoshop in the world can’t save poorly coordinated outfits. So take five minutes to read some suggestions to help you decide what to wear to your photo session.

Location, Location, Location

An example of engagement photography showing what to wear at a beach.
It just made sense to kick off their shoes at the beach

As it turns out, the location you choose for your photo session will give you clues about what to wear. Think about it this way: If your family photo session is happening in the middle of a bustling city, you probably shouldn’t come barefoot, dressed for a day at the beach. Or if your engagement session happens at a beach, you probably shouldn’t bundle up in your cutest scarves and beanies. Not unless you’re aiming for that “fish out of water” look.

In other words, your outfits should match the context of your location.

So bring your vests and long pants out to the woods. Wear your shorts and tank top to the beach. Bundle in coats, sweaters and boots for family fun in the snow. Get casual for a night at the fair. Or sport that evening dress or suit for your nighttime city shoot.

Just make sure that your wardrobe fits the spot.

Coordinate Your Colors

Vintage diagram of a color wheel

Someone wise once said, “‘Tis better to coordinate than to match”. At least I’d assume they did, because complete matching can easily come off wrong. Perfect matching can be great for team soccer photos, or for coworkers wearing company uniforms. But when it comes to your family, you’ll be better off choosing colors that complement each other, rather than match.

In years past, it was common for families or couples to dress in blue jeans and white tops. I get the feeling this was intended to keep things simple by ensuring a match. We all like the thought of an easy-to-follow plan, right? Though to my eye, that look emphasizes uniformity, instead of unique personality that each person brings to the mix. And it can feel a bit dated now.

Instead, meet your new best friend—the color wheel*. It shows just about all the major hues of the rainbow, but that doesn’t mean that you should wear every color in the wheel. Instead, you can use the color wheel to help you pick out great color combinations.

A family portrait that shows what to wear when it comes to complementary colors
The blues and yellows in their outfits complement each other perfectly

For example, say you’ve got a mama wearing a yellow orange dress for some family photos. If you want some colorful contrast, others in the family could wear a complementary color, like blue violet shirts or overalls on the kids. Just draw an imaginary line from your main color to the hue directly across the circle to find a complementary color. Now you’ve got some significantly different colors in the mix, but they all go together.

Or perhaps mama is wearing that same yellow orange dress—and you’d rather not have any one person stand out in the photos. You could choose outfits for other family members in analogous colors, like orange or yellow shirts. Analogous colors are the hues immediately to the left and right of your main color on the color wheel. This would give a similar warm feel to all the outfits, by using different warm colors.

Want to try out a color wheel for yourself? Here’s an online color wheel I use to experiment with color combinations in real time.

Patterns and Prints

Family portrait with patterned and solid colored outfits
Mom’s got the pattern, while the others are wearing solid colors

Now solid colors can work great for outfit combinations. But if you feel like getting bold, you can add a pattern, print, or texture into the mix. Maybe a tartan skirt, or a plaid shirt, or even a striped dress? Because patterns often feature colors of their own, let your pattern determine your main color, and build the rest of the outfit colors around it.

But if too much of a good thing is bad, then using multiple patterns in your outfits is just the worst! Sure, wearing a pattern is a great way to bring attention to someone in a photo. But our eyes don’t know where to look when several people are each wearing different patterns the same photo–as if the different patterns are fighting for our attention. Honestly, it’s tricky to find patterns or textures that can actually go together well. Her in a leopard print dress and him in a plaid shirt would be a disaster. And having multiple types of plaid in the same photo would make for one busy and distracting scene.

One more note: avoid wearing clothes with large text, brand logos, or pictures on them–unless they fit the story you’re looking to tell. When could these sorts of things work? An engaged couple might come to their session, him in a shirt that says “I asked”, and she wears one that reads “I said yes”. But otherwise, choose uncluttered clothing that lets your faces and body language do the talking.

Coordinate Your Vibe

Yes, the colors and patterns you wear are important. But even more important is that your outfits are equally casual … or elegant … or Disney-themed. If mom and dad dress in their Sunday best, things will look off if the kids sport colorful tennis shoes along with their daily schoolwear. Or imagine the bride-to-be in casual sundress while her fiancé wears a full suit. That’s the opposite of nailing it.

The key is dressing up (or down) together. If you’re scheduling a lifestyle family session in your home, it can even work to wear pajamas, sweatpants and undershirts—as long as you’re all dressing for the same look. Are you starting to get the picture?

Dress Confidently and Comfortably

“Oh, I’m not really a photo person.”

“We’re totally awkward on camera.”

“I’m pretty nervous about being photographed.”

Professional Headshot Photography of a young brunette woman
Tera’s jacket helped her feel confident and convey a professional tone for her business headshot

These are the sorts of things I often hear from my clients at the start of a session, and I get it. I feel the same way when I’m in front of the camera. So I’ll do my best to get your mind off the photos, to let your hair down, and to have a good time.

But you can do yourself a favor by dressing in an outfit that makes you feel confident. This is how I feel when I wear a new shirt out for the first time. Or it could be wearing a dress that you already know is flattering to your body shape. Or maybe the ritual of ironing your outfit makes you feel better wearing it. And aside from wardrobe, consider getting your hair or makeup done to look and feel your best.

Feeling as comfortable as possible in your outfit is also a must. When you feel comfortable, you’re going to look comfortable in your photos. So while wearing 3-inch heels may sound glamorous, it may make it much harder to walk around during your photo session. Open-toed shoes might also make it harder to get around if you’ve chosen a location that takes a bit of light hiking. Or if your top is more revealing than you’re used to, you may risk spending every spare moment adjusting it. Wear something that you already know will let you feel at ease.

Wrapping Up

I can’t wait to spend some time with you at your upcoming photo session, and I’m hoping you feel the same–even if you feel a bit anxious now. I’ve written up this advice so that you feel even more empowered and encouraged with some ideas about what to wear. Don’t hesitate to ask a fashionable friend for help, or look on Pinterest for ideas. Or if you’ve got some questions for me, feel free to give me a call or email.

Just trust that however you come dressed—I’ll be there to capture photos that make you look and feel your best. See you soon!

*Color wheel diagram found at http://facweb.cs.depaul.edu/sgrais/color_wheel.htm