Clothing can make or break a photoshoot. No matter your portrait photography skills, if the outfits aren’t right, the images will just feel…off. I know this from experience. That’s why you must take steps to ensure the clothes your clients wear fit with the photoshoot theme, the environment, the client’s personality, and more. In this article, I share several key tips for choosing the right clothes for photoshoots. I also offer a handful of ideas and examples; that way, if you’re struggling to pick the perfect clothing, you can always refer back to my list for inspiration.
Note: The client plays the most important role in any photoshoots – so while I offer advice on what to wear, I like to ensure the outfits match their preferences. I always ask my clients to send me some of their outfit ideas before the big day, and I’ll offer comments and suggestions. But I never force them to dress in a way that makes them uncomfortable!
How to choose photoshoot clothing: quick tips
1. Tailor the clothing to the type of photoshoot
Every type of photoshoot is different. And different photoshoots call for different outfits! A corporate photoshoot may require formal clothing, but an engagement photoshoot is often far more informal, and a sibling photoshoot is more casual still.
So make sure that you always keep in mind the type of session when advising clients on outfits. If you’re unfamiliar with the different types of photoshoots, here’s a relatively comprehensive list:
Family (immediate family, perhaps with a couple of grandparents added)
Children (just the kids, sometimes with cousins included)
Siblings (brothers and sisters)
Three generations (e.g. grandmother, mother, daughter)
Engagement, love shoot, or couple shoot
Newborn or baby
Activity-based (sports, event, themed)
Clan (bigger family shoots to include extended family or several families together)
Lifestyle (usually more informal)
Portrait (usually more formal)
Once you book your session and determine the type of photoshoot your client is seeking, it can help to do some Googling. Look at images taken by other photographers, and ask yourself: How does the clothing affect the mood? How does it fit with the client’s goals?
And if you’re not completely sure what your client wants, ask them – or at least have a discussion about it. Are they interested in a formal session? Or do they want the images to look more informal? Clients can have different ideas about the seriousness of a portrait session, so it’s best to clarify any confusion from the get-go.
2. Think about the type of client
In my experience, clients generally fall into one of two categories: styled or casual.
Styled clients like to think about every detail of their shoot, including:
The look and feel they want
The color scheme, location, and props they want to use
Makeup and accessories
The final outcome of their shoot (i.e., products and prints)
Casual clients, on the other hand, just want to capture some memories. They generally hope to wear their standard outfits and showcase what they do as a family. They’re not too worried about location or clothing; they just want lovely photos of their family or themselves, and they plan to simply take the digital files and store them safely (so they can print them as needed).
Now, it’s important that you discuss photoshoot clothing with both types of clients. Styled clients tend to have strong preferences, but unless they’re portrait photographers, they may not realize what works and what doesn’t. To capture the best images, you must work with them and guide them in the right direction.
And while casual clients may wish to wear their everyday clothing, it’s still important that you help them decide which everyday clothing. If the photoshoot includes multiple people, you don’t want them all to clash. And if you’re doing a solo photoshoot, the clothing should complement the subject and the environment (and definitely shouldn’t distract!).
3. Pick a specific theme
Some clients like doing themed photoshoots, whereas others don’t – but if you do have a client hoping to keep things themed, then you should make sure it’s specific, then tailor your outfit suggestions accordingly.
I always encourage my clients to keep the theme detailed. A “glamour” theme is pretty broad, whereas “moody forest” is a lot more workable. It’s also important to keep things simple within the chosen theme; don’t go overboard with complex clothing and makeup, elaborate settings, props, and so on. For me, a theme just provides context. The focus of the photoshoot is still about ensuring the client looks good, looks natural, and loves the way they look.
Keeping it simple is best!
4. Consider the location
When you’re choosing photoshoot clothing, it’s important to think about the location – because different locations offer different colors, textures, and lighting that can complement (or clash with) the subjects’ outfits. If your clients have serious outfit preferences, it’s best to pick the outfits first, then choose the location afterward. When you’re dealing with more complex clothing choices, a location that provides a simple but effective background will work best.
However, if your clients are less interested in picking outfits, it can make sense to start with a location and only then determine outfit options. If you’re shooting in a busy location (e.g., a city or a market) where you can’t avoid being surrounded by people, I’d suggest choosing plain, non-printed outfits. This will help your clients stand out despite the busy setting. (When I shoot in these locations, I sometimes use a wide aperture or drag the shutter to blur everything but the client.)
On the other hand, if the location is a park where you can find a quiet spot with trees, foliage, or sky as the background, then your clients can wear florals and even busy patterns. For an even more refined look, widen the aperture so you get a beautiful shallow depth of field effect (with creamy bokeh!).
If you’re shooting in an empty area, you can also create silhouettes. This works well if your clients are wearing outfits that are similar (e.g. simple jackets).
Here are some other locations that can work well as backgrounds:
A brick wall (or any textured surface)
An old building
A row of pillars
And remember: It’s important to maximize contrast between the outfits and the location. In other words, encourage plain clothing in busy locations and busy clothing in plain locations. Make sense?
5. Don’t forget the time of year
This tip is pretty obvious: Make sure that the photoshoot clothing matches the season! You don’t want your clients to spend the entire session shivering (or, conversely, sweating!). I do encourage my clients to bring a change of outfits in case they want a different look. Some take me up on the offer, while others don’t. Depending on your location, the weather can change quite dramatically. In autumn and spring, you can sometimes have all four seasons in one day, so it can be helpful to have several clothing options on hand.
I also encourage my clients to dress in layers. If the sun comes out, they may want to take a layer off, and if it becomes windy, they may want to put some layers back on. You can also bring handy props in case of interesting weather such as rain or snow; photos under an umbrella pretty much always look great!
6. Consider your own style
Do you have a consistent style? For instance, do you capture dark, moody portraits? Bright, airy photos? Glamorous, bold shots? While I don’t think you should be hyper-focused on maintaining a specific style, it can be helpful to encourage your client to dress in a way that matches your preferences. Obviously, don’t push, and at the end of the day, it’s up to the client, not you – but if you get the opportunity to capture images that fit your creative vision, go for it!
If your client is resistant to your ideas, that’s okay. Let them make the final decisions. You could always turn them down, but even if a person isn’t your ideal client, they clearly like your photos and are willing to pay. Do you really want to say no?
What to wear: general outfit advice
Now that you’re familiar with the various elements to consider when advising clients on outfits, here is my general advice:
Classic is good. It’s tough to go wrong with timeless outfits and colors: chinos, khakis, beige and blues, nature hues, pastels, shirts, and simple dresses.
Florals and prints are nice. If you’re working with a simple background, try going for just florals or even an eclectic mix of prints and patterns. Pairing prints with stripes can also work sometimes.
Use a mix of matching colors. Keep the colors harmonious, but avoid perfect matches from subject to subject (i.e., don’t have an entire family dress in white shirts and blue jeans). Avoid stark contrasts such as green and red or yellow and purple. Instead, aim to put warm tones (yellows, oranges, pinks, red, and even warm greens) together and cool tones (blues, purples, and standard greens) together. An explosion of bright colors could also work, although you should shoot it against a plain background or setting.
Keep clothing consistent. If you’re shooting couples or group portraits, avoid extreme differences from subject to subject. You don’t want to capture one person with a casual knitted sweater and the other with a silky dress. Such significant contrast can be jarring! Black and white is another combination that’s intense unless done intentionally.
Combine darks and lights. If you’re photographing adults and kids, make sure the adults wear dark clothes while the kids dress in light or bright clothing. Do it the other way around and the adults will dominate the scene while the kids will disappear.
Clothes for photoshoots: final words
We all have our own personal preferences and styles, but I hope that you found this article helpful! Determining the perfect photoshoot clothing can be tough, but with a bit of practice, you’ll become an expert.
Now over to you:
What type of clothing do you plan to use for your next photoshoot? Share your thoughts in the comments below!