The example above demonstrates cool tones used well in this successful portrait. Blue jeans are a good example and always popular, and actually photograph quite well.

by Mike Guilbault, MPF

We would like to give you some suggestions that will make your portrait a success and so you can enjoy the experience. We cannot over-emphasise the effect these factors will have on your final portraits and would be happy to discuss any questions you might have for your individual or family portrait needs.

CLOTHING... What to Wear

In general, we want to make the people dominant in the photograph, rather than their clothing. Apparel and props should be secondary, so they contribute to the mood of the photograph instead of detracting from the subject(s).

Consider bringing props that reflect your personality or lifestyle such as musical instruments, hats, sports equipment or uniforms, etc. We can have lots of fun with accessories and make your portrait as unique and interesting as you are!

Generally speaking, clothing which is simple in design, even though it may seem boring, will make your portrait more powerful and not look dated in a few years. Strong, exciting colours and patterns will tend to dominate and take attention away from the person. Also, strong primary colours, such as bright red, can be very dominant and detracting. it is best to use subdued tones, such as burgundy instead of red, and brown or rust instead of bright yellow.

An example of a "Low-Key" portrait where the clothing and background are dark so as to focus the emphasis on the people in the portrait.

Cooler tones, like blues and greens, can be particularly universal and attractive if you are in doubt about your best colours. This is because those colours tend to recede into the background more, and give the skin tone a warmer glow. 

We suggest you choose tones that are at least slightly darker than your own skin tone, no matter what colour you choose. Lightest areas generally attract attention in a low key (dark tone) portrait, so if your clothing is lighter than your skin, it will compete for attention and because it represents a larger area in the portrait than your face, it will become the dominant element. That being said, blue jeans and white tops are a very popular look for a portrait, but can cause problems if photographed on a bright sunny day.


Plan clothing style, colour and tone very carefully. If a group dresses in dark, cool blue tones and one person in that group dresses in a bright warm colour, like yellow, the brighter garment will dominate and distract your attention when viewing the final portrait. It wil make that person stand out, and they will look more prominent, and larger, which no one typically wants.

Blue Jeans make for a classic yet contemporary look to a family portrait. And of course the family dog should be in the portrait as well. After all, they are family too.

Try to keep the colours of the group in the same colour family. That is, either warm earth tones or cool tones as mentioned above. The colours need not be identical, like uniforms, but should simply coordinate, not clash. For really large groups, like extended families or family reunions, you can even go as far as have each individual family in their own colour. This way too, if you choose to have each family group photographed separately, they will each have their own colour scheme and the different from the others. 

Don't mix style within the same group. Keep it all formal, or casual. Always dress from head to toe - meaning think about your socks and shoes as well. Dark, or black, is usually best. A good way to see if clothing coordinates is to lay the articles on a bed, side by side. If one piece stands out, it will be evident to you with the direct comparison, and you can replace that piece.

As well as colour family, try to keep the tonal range of light to dark similar. For example, a very dark brown and a light beige are in the same colour family, but opposite in tonal range. Generally the larger the group the more difficult it will be to fully coordinate. If some of the group are reluctant to cooperate or want to stray from the plan - try to impress upon them how they will 'stick out like a sore thumb' and these suggestions are to make them look better. It is very much worth the effort to buy or borrow an article of clothing in the right colour for your portrait. Beautiful light, creative posing and artistic composition cannot correct poor clothing selections.

An example of a "High-Key" portrait where the clothing and background are lighter than the skin tones, again to focus attention on the subject.

If you are looking for a special effect, like High-Key, where the tones in the portrait are all white or very light, all of your clothing and accessories should also be very light so that the emphasis is still on the skin tones.

In Summary

Choose plain, solid coloured clothes and wear subtle darker muted solid colours unless you want a special accent or effect. Dress according to the style of portrait you want; formal/casual, sophisticated, elegant, indoors or out. Long sleeved garments photograph best and are more flattering and slimming on most people. Sweaters, turtle-necks, cardigans and jackets can be used very effectively as well. V-Necks can have a slimming effect and conversely, a wide-open neck can make the neck appear too wide in a photograph. Know what clothing styles suit you to make you look your best. If in doubt, ask for suggestions.


Children can wear colours and styles that are stronger than adults can, successfully in portraits. Generally, children under one year of age should wear lighter pastel shades or white. Also, consider bringing toys or props that have a special meaning. It will provide extra security to your child in a strange environment as well as personalize the portrait.

To prepare the child for the photography session, let them know how much fun it's going to be. Sometimes, most of the time, when young children are told they need to be good and smile for the camera, they feel pressured and don't respond well. And most important, if your child doesn't small just right, or puts on a 'fake' smile (common in 2-5 year olds) and you're unhappy, they feel they've done wrong and may stop cooperating. Just let the photographer do their job and make the smiles come out naturally. The session should be fun so enjoy it as a family.

Here the white shirts help this group stand out against the dark trees in the background. But only select white if you know you are going to be photographed in a shaded area. In the sunshine, it's simply too bright.


Choose casual styles and colours appropriate for the environment. Denims and leather styles are excellent outdoors. Pastels can suit a similar environment in your home quite beautifully. Simple sweaters, jackets and scarves photograph very well and add a personal touch. Remember coordination for couples and groups.


Hair should look natural. Avoid hairstyles that would be extreme or out of style in your portrait in a short period of time. If changing hair styles or getting a cut, it is recommended that you do so at least a week prior to your session. This way you have time to get used to it, or correct it if the cut or style isn't to your liking.

Make hair style appropriate to the style of portrait. If it's a formal portrait, suites and long gowns, a more elegant 'up-do' may be appropriate. Outdoors, in jeans and t-shirts, hair down and natural would be better suited.


Last but not least is makeup. Above all, skin should have a natural, clear appearance after makeup has been applied. Avoid oil base makeup that will give the skin a shiny look. Enhancing the natural structure of the face by emphasizing the cheekbones with high-light makeup and naturally blended darker tones will slenderize your features. But be careful not to go too dark or attempt this if you don't normally do this type of makeup.

Use a touch-up stick to cover blemishes but be careful not to overdo it. If you plan to use a coloured eyeliner or accent, apply it very lightly as this type of makeup will luminesce when photographed and look much brighter in your portrait. You can use a much stronger makeup treatment for a Black & White portrait than for colour.

Carefully applied, high quality makeup can be a great asset in getting outstanding results in your portrait. Get your makeup professionally applied if you dont' feel comfortable doing it yourself and tell them it's for a portrait session. Generally though, if you don't wear any or a lot of makeup, just do what you normally do - otherwise it won't look like you and you won't be happy with it.
If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact us.

This article is ©2008, Mike Guilbault
Unauthorized Reproduction Prohibited