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How To Get Natural Expressions for Senior Pictures

As a professional, if you've scheduled your sessions so that you have plenty of time to work with each client, you know that time is on your side. There's no need to rush and no need to force actions or expressions. That'll get you awkward-looking unnatural photos faster than you can say "smile." Instead, I use prompts to create natural smiles and expressions for senior pictures everyone loves.

Candid Shots & Carefree Moments: Capturing in-the-Moment Magic

Being a teenager isn’t easy, especially today. There’s pressure from just about every angle to look good and present yourself at your best, and thanks to social media, everyone is “on” 24/7. Teens know, too, they can snap a hundred selfies in order to get the exact look they’re going for…and they do! So how do I prepare them for a professional photo shoot, one in which I’m behind the camera and they don’t have all that editing power?

Hello, Photo Shoot Nerves

Most future grads show up for their senior session and feel a little out of place, especially if they’ve never participated in any sort of professional photo shoot before. Think of it like driving a car. If you prefer to be behind the wheel, it can be a little nerve-racking to suddenly find yourself in the passenger seat ceding control to a different driver. Like everything else in life, there are those who are comfortable being passengers—and there are those who will always be a little antsy at the prospect of letting others drive.

Kicking Off the Fun

I do a lot of work prepping seniors for their upcoming shoots, but most of them still arrive on the big day with a deer-in-the-headlights look and joints about as flexible as The Tin Man. Faced with what’s likely their first full-body photo shoot that will include shots from hundreds of angles with multiple looks is daunting, so I don’t blame them! There’s also the fact that I show up with cases full of professional equipment, including lighting for nighttime shoots, so it can all start to look a little overwhelming.

That said, it’s not surprising that some of my future grads start of a little stiff, and that’s perfectly ok! (Who wouldn’t be?) Because of this—and because I’ve helped so many teens work through their initial nerves to curate a beautiful collection of senior photos—I came up with a list of must-do’s to keep every photo session comfortably flowing.

#1 Don’t Push It

As a professional photographer, I schedule my sessions so that I have plenty of time to work with each client, you know that time is on your side. There’s no need to rush and no need to force actions or expressions. That’ll get you unnatural-looking photos faster than you can say “cheese”!

Exciting Professional Senior Pictures Phoenix Az
Fun Professional Senior Pictures Phoenix Az

Remember the song Video Killed the Radio Star? Keep that tune in your head (you’re welcome) and remember this: Pressure killed the photo shoot vibes.

Sometimes it’s as simple as giving my seniors a chance to warm up to the entire feeling of the photo shoot, so patience is key. Some teens might need to open up and have a little conversation and a laugh or two before you jump right into shooting. Usually we start out with just a few test shots. I want to see how you move, what your skin looks like in the lighting, and just let you be yourself for a few minutes. There will be plenty of time to click away after you get a little more comfortable! We’re not in a hurry, so just relax and enjoy the time off school!

Red Mountain Senior Pictures Outfits East Mesa
Natural Outdoor Professional Senior Pictures Phoenix Az

#2 Start a Conversation

As prepared as they might be for senior pictures, many teens will walk in to their appointment and not know exactly how to interact with me, an adult who they may just be getting to know. (We are intimidating, scary people who occupy a part of the world they don’t normally hang out in, so they don’t really know how to hang out with us comfortably.) But no worries, I rarely act my age and I’ll likely do stupid things without even trying…like trying to shoot with my lens cap on. Yep, 13 years of doing this and at least once during every shoot I’ll lift my camera with the stupid cap on the lens. Oops! But at least you’ll have something to laugh at then!

Keep in mind that while I, the one with mountains of camera equipment, participate in photo shoots practically every day. This is new for you and I totally understand! I want to make them feel welcome, like they’re my (only slightly older) friend, and get a conversation going right off the bat. If you work with high school seniors like I do, be sure they know you’re on their level. You definitely don’t want to come across as just another intimidating adult. We’re friendly, fun, and just barely less goofy than their parents! The point is, we’ll be walking around chatting to lighten the mood and get some natural smiles going. After all, the more at home they feel, the better shots I’ll get.

Beautiful Gilbert Senior Photos
Professional Senior Pictures Desert Phoenix Az

#3 Prepare Like a Survivalist

No, you don’t have to construct an underground bunker, but I am the queen with all magical powers of preparedness to pull off successful photo shoots with authentic poses. Preparation in a couple different ways is key to helping teens kick back, relax, and give up their best natural poses.

#3A Be Ready for the Silly & Unexpected

First, when you set out into the desert for outdoor pictures in Arizona, you’ll need to be vigilant of your surroundings (no scorpions needed in these pics!). At the same time, I’m ready to capture even the slightest movement on camera, because I don’t want to take the chance of missing the perfect pose or expression! I highly encourage silliness and expression; then I just stand back and watch the magic as clients allow their personalities to shine. And I always keep my eyes open for perfect moments that show off their unique identities; these photos are golden!

#3B There Will Be Emergencies

Another part of being prepared and setting my clients at ease involves being a bit of a traveling supply store. I usually keep a fairly standard supply of bobby pins, safety pins, tape, clips, lotion, and a few other necessities in a There Will Be Emergencies Kit…because, you guessed it, there will be emergencies. And the last thing I want is a nervous, tense, and distraught client who’s upset over a broken strap that could easily be safety-pinned for pics. You’d be surprised at some of the disasters I’ve faced! Last spring, Amber really wanted photos with her longboard…but then forgot to bring it! Since they drove from Florence, running home wasn’t an option. But calling my son to bring his for us to use? Score!!

#4 Swap Your Technique

It can be tough to switch gears in a photo shoot. For example, if you’ve gotten your client loosened up, laughing, and having fun, it can be difficult to turn around and slow things down for more serious photographs afterward.

To settle back in for more formal poses, ask the client to close their eyes, take a few deep breaths, and count to ten to reset. When they open their eyes, the result is usually a relaxed, at-ease, authentic expression—exactly what you’re going for!

Professional Senior Pictures Guys Phoenix Az

How to Get Candid Shots

Want to know how I’ve managed to capture some of the award-winning shots I’ve taken to date? I’ll tell you a few of my best secrets, but just remember, it all boils down to patience and taking the time to get to know each individual client.

Make sure you begin by introducing the client (the graduating senior and any family members who may be helping out or attending the shoot) to several unique senior portrait ideas. Continuously update your portfolio or client demo so you show your freshest work!

When it’s time for the real deal, you’ll have a good chance at getting more candid, natural shots if you:

1. Choose the space and location carefully. Work closely with clients to hone in on their interests. When they are in a place they feel comfortable, they’ll be more likely to relax and show their genuine selves.

2. Set the mood with lighting. As a photographer, you know the importance of lighting, so be sure to change things up if you have the opportunity. Do you have the option of scheduling at sundown to get daytime and sunset pics? How about nighttime pics with background lights? Use your creativity to create multiple looks with lighting.

3. Encourage client creativity. Remember to ask clients if they have pets or besties they want to include in their senior pictures! Not only have they had a special place in their lives throughout their school years, visitors like pets, besties, and even special family members can help to lighten the mood and kick off a super-fun photo shoot. Likewise for props that represent their high school interests like sports memorabilia, art supplies, and even their revved up wheels!

4. Prompt clients for emotion. If you’re taking senior pictures, remember to keep your posing prompts on their level. Try things like, “Blow a kiss to your crush” or “Close your eyes and make a wish.”

5. Suggest comfortable poses and movements. Clients are often uncomfortable simply because they don’t know what to do with their hands or their arms or their bodies in general. So if you give them something specific to do, they’ll instantly get more comfortable. Simple prompts like sip a milkshake, spin your basketball, twirl your dress, toss your grad cap…any casual movement with a purpose can provide the perfect pose for a natural and organic photo.

Cute Teenage Girl Blowing A Kiss

Final Note: Stay on top of your craft and stay in touch with your clients to know what’s hot and what’s not! Follow trends in photography, as well as trends in fashion and make-up, so you’ll always be ready to snap the very best senior portraits.

Want to be inspired and see how I worked with a senior guy to combine his love of sports, his dog, and his best senior memories to deliver a senior portrait packed that truly reflected his personality? Check out Matthew’s senior pictures.

  • These are such good tips for photographers to get the best images from their clients!

  • Great tips for photographers and for clients. Great ideas for clients to keep in mind when choosing a photographer.

    • Hi Keith! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. It really helps when a professional photographer can guide seniors, but sometimes it helps the seniors to know what to expect during their photo shoot too. I hope you found these tips helpful!

  • Great tips for awesome Senior Portraits!

    • Michelle