Don't Match, Coordinate: How to Dress for a Photography Session

Matching clothes is the easiest way to dress a family for a photography session.. which is why I tend to steer clear of that approach. It’s a lot harder to coordinate - to make sure each family member retains their unique style while also looking good as a unit. And that’s one of the biggest reasons why I do on-site styling for each and every one of my portrait sessions. My clients typically don’t have to worry about this stuff, but it still helps to know what I’m looking for (after all, everyone has to bring in options to being with!). 

So here are some guidelines and some tips based on my experience…

Create cohesion 

Every outfit set starts with a color theme. It doesn’t have to be complicated - light or dark, bright colors or muted, etc. Often this theme comes from the style of the family’s home, and is something we talk about during the phone consultation, before the session is even booked. For sessions with younger kids or babies, we tend to lean towards lighter colors, and older kids get darker palettes to work with, including more patterns and accessories. 

The point is for everyone to fit together and at the same time, not stick out in a photograph. 

I would never put parents wearing black with a baby who is wearing white. It would be too much contrast and the resulting image would appear too busy to the viewer. I also pair each set of outfits with an appropriate background color, one that will enhance the image without taking interest away from the person in the portrait. 

  • Pick a color theme and work within it for the set of outfits.
  • Colors should be similar in brightness.

Add variety

I try not to dress any two family members in the same color or same type of top. Now, I find that it’s perfectly acceptable to use the same color with a different type of shirt (for instance, dad wearing a sweater and child wearing a polo shirt), or slightly different shades of the same color, within a family unit. The biggest thing to stay away from is dressing everyone in the same exact shirt, same color pants, and calling it a day (as in those very popular white button-down shirt and jeans ensembles from the 90s). That doesn’t mean we never have similarly-dressed parents, or children for that matter. It simply means that when there is an opportunity to add variety into the mix, I take it.

  • Avoid using the same type of shirt on both parent and child.
  • Avoid using the same color on more than one person.
  • Throw an unexpected color into the mix or add interest with accessories.
  • Place all selected items in a row and check that nothing clashes or looks weird together.

Work with what you have

When working with family wardrobes, there will usually be at least one person who is limited in what they can wear. Children might not have as many classic options to choose from (I tend to stay away from stripes and crazy patterns, which is largely what kids clothes have these days). And a parent might be between sizes (especially if said parent just had a baby!). The key is to work with what is available. That means that my job is to make the family look as good as possible, but they don’t necessarily have to look 100% perfect! 

  • Start with the person who has the least number of outfits to choose from.
  • Let children have input by letting them choose between two equally qualified items.
  • Let go of any notion that everyone has to look perfect, sometimes having an item that doesn’t quite fit in works much better!
  • Always prioritize favorite and meaningful items over looks - things like a favorite stuffed toy, special necklace, or favorite headband can really make a portrait special in the end.

Go shopping

Sometimes it really helps supplementing already-existing pieces with new outfit choices. (This is actually a tip I learned from a client) Go shopping! Buy new clothes for the children or for yourself but leave the tags on. Whatever we don’t actually use during the portrait session can be returned (that is, if you really don’t want to keep in).. because very often even if something will photograph beautifully but doesn’t go with what the rest of the family is wearing, we don’t be able to use it in the end. And to clarify, I’m not suggesting you wear clothes and then return them.. we take off all tags when an item of clothing is being worn.. this is only for the clothes that you bring in as an option but don’t actually end up wearing.

If all fails..

Send me a photo! That’s right, I’m 100% available for any styling advice before your portrait session. Not only do you get a handy Style Guide to reference when selecting your outfits, but you also have unfettered access to me (via email, text, or phone) if you have any questions. Most of my clients simply bring a few options to the Studio on the day of the photoshoot and I take care of the rest, but I know that certain people simply can’t relax if they’re not super prepared (that’s me), so I make sure to be there for them if that’s the case.