Creative Senior Portraits That Will Sell, Sell, Sell!

How-to tips from senior portrait photographer John Mueller

Photographer John Mueller shares advice for professional portrait photographers—and those who want to break into the field—on how he creates stunning, cutting-edge senior portraits in this exclusive interview.

Photograph © John Mueller

John Mueller is one of those superstar photographers who immediately garners 1k views and 80+ comments per photo he posts on flickr under his moniker, Extra Medium. As a former stand-up comedian, his wacky personality stands out as much as his gorgeous portrait photography. In this interview, Mueller discusses his approach to senior portrait photography, and how he makes the shoot a fun experience.

What elements make a great senior portrait?

Since, for most seniors, getting these style of portraits taken will be their first time with a professional photographer, it's important for them to be relaxed. These portraits should emphasize their personality and interests. Yes, lighting and a great location are also important, but foremost is to capture who each of them is as a person at this stage in his or her life.
Is there a growing trend of parents seeking external photographers for their teen's senior portrait?

Studio headshots for the yearbook are great, and provide a good standardized baseline for yearbooks, but with the popularity of digital photography, there is a growing desire to have more creative outdoor senior portraits done. Not as many parents are aware of it as the students are, so marketing your brand and abilities to the parents are very important.

How do you approach creating a comfortable atmosphere for the teen/parent?

Being in front of a big camera with someone you're unfamiliar with is intimidating to a lot of high school seniors. What works best for me is my own personality. I keep it fun throughout. Having a background in standup comedy and improv, I'm able to change accents and personalities if a senior is too nervous or serious and get a good, natural smile or look. Keeping the parent engaged too is just as easy as typically they like to provide their own input.

Photograph © John Mueller

What are some of the most common requests, in terms of location and style, placed by clients?

Parents and their high school senior rarely see eye-to-eye when it comes to what kind of photos they're hoping to have. The parent typically wants more conservative, timeless photos, while the student wants cutting-edge images. Because the parent is usually paying, there needs to be a compromise which can be discussed at the initial meeting. In my area [suburban Los Angeles], there tends to be three primary locations used: beach, rural areas and fields, and urban. I'm always up for something new, but typically the students like to use their local environment in order to capture them in their local context.

What do you look for when scouting a location?

A location needs to provide the context for the shoot. If it's the beach, then it should be a beach which will be less crowded and private while yielding a good view of the sunset. Regardless of location, what I look for is the possibility of good light [from the sun]. If we're going with natural light, I'll scout out places where I know I can use the sun to my advantage. I also look for other random, interesting textures, subjects, or objects to engage in.

Do you ask the client to bring a selection of wardrobe? Tips for suggesting wardrobe?

For what to wear, again depends on their own personality, but I encourage outfits which will not date them in 10, 20 or 40 years. I don't mind being edgy, but the trend with some of the girls is to go overtly sexy. I don't know many parents who encourage this, so for the girls I try and tell them to bring layers as well as scarves, sunglasses, props, and other accessories. Lots of color, not many stripes, no logos. Guys can bring a variation as well, and any sporting equipment or other hobbies they're engrossed in.

Photograph © John Mueller

What's your advice for getting rid of that cheesy-posed-senior-portrait look?

The problem with the typical, cheesy portrait is that you need to take a few of these. They're cheesy for a reason—they work. There need to be a few simple, well posed, simple smile headshots taken, to appease the parents, if nothing else. Plus, they go well in yearbooks and are to be sent to relatives. I'd suggest doing those in the middle of the session, once the senior has warmed up to you and you can say, "Hey, sorry to do this, but we have to get some normal shots now..."
Do you think natural light is more suitable for senior portraits?

I use both natural light as well as portable studio lights for my high school seniors. Depends on the kind of look they want and I'm going for, but I always bring them just in case  Light is the most important aspect of a photo, so if it's not happening naturally, I bring all my lighting gear, reflectors, diffusers, etc. and make it happen.

Photograph © John Mueller

What are some common newbie mistakes, and what advice do you have for novice photographers when using external flash outdoors?

I think the most common mistake photographers make is not using flash. There has been a widespread change in style in the past couple of years to over-expose images and shoot directly into the sun for that "sunflare" look. While a few of these shots are great to give a different feel, properly exposing for the background and using a simple flash for fill is becoming a lost art.

For those with a Speedlight, it can be used on the camera, but might wash-out and flatten the subject. A light stand and something as simple as a Pocket Wizard or more inexpensive Flashpoint remote triggers available from Adorama can give a photographer a great deal of creativity photographing their subject with light coming from different angles. Once a photographer is ready to move to the big equipment, high end strobes with modifiers like softboxes, grids, beauty dishes and ring flashes can be used to get a very professional look. Those who profess to be "Natural Light" photographers are missing a great deal of creativity with the use of strobe lights, regardless of expense or not.

Do you usually shoot with an assistant?

I typically do not use an assistant. Nervous as a senior is about their first professional shoot, I try to keep it relaxed and just myself. Plus, there really isn't a need for an assistant until you're using multiple strobes. To keep costs down, I do it alone.

For many years, I did shoots on my own with lights outside with no problem at all.  I purchased a couple light stands and had two Nikon speedlights. I used an inexpensive flash trigger and was able to trigger two flashes at the same time. Just watch the sun carefully over the spots you scout and figure the perfect time of day to shoot there.

Photograph © John Mueller

What's in your camera bag, especially for outdoor portraits?

I'm a Nikon guy, so in my portable bag I bring:

Nikon D700, Nikkor 70-200, Nikkor 17-35, Nikkor 85 1.4, Nikon SB900, Nikon SB600, Gary Fong cloud dome, light stands, remote triggers, Alien Bee AB1600, Alien Bee AB800, Octaboxes, beauty dishes, grids and a Paul Buff Vagabond Mini.

And I bring some of my own props, and a lot of personality.

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More About John Mueller:
John Mueller is a Ventura County-based photographer who specializes in portraits, weddings and events. You can view more of Mueller's work on his website or his flickr account.

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