Photography Wardrobe: What to Wear?

March 29, 2015  •  Leave a Comment


Photography Wardrobe: What to Wear?

Wardrobe Guidelines and Tips

Some people get really excited at the idea of picking out coordinating outfits for portraits. Others cringe while fear ensues at the thought of finding the right, picture worthy outfit for their shoot. The closet becomes a wrinkled pile on the floor and you start considering nude unitards and tiger masks. Don’t cry.

Neither type of person is more or less successful in their choices without the right guidelines, keeping photography in mind.  While styling is an art, some basic information can help you in the right direction and prevent poor choices before they become apparent in 2D.

Portrait Photography by Rachelle Morvant of Photograph Nashville

Rachel has long legs and the choice of white shoes interrupts her legs less. She has great arms and her dress pops against the subdued background tones. If you notice, though, the image is more about the dress and shoes than about Rachel. Which was the point here.

First and most important: If you aren’t comfortable in your outfit, it will show.

No matter how much you follow wardrobe guidelines, if your pants are uncomfortable, your top is itchy and the shoes – which, agreeably, are gorgeous – just aren’t you it will be difficult to capture a pleasant, engaged expression.

Getting a client relaxed in front of the camera, let alone delicately coaxing out and capturing a moment between moments defined by every muscle that lingers in the eyes but for a fraction of a second (and do it for four people at once), can be difficult. This is part of your photographer’s skills.  Unfortunately, this can be almost impossible if you are distracted by an annoying top, shoes that are pinching or even the knowledge that your new haircut isn’t lying right.

Try on clothes in good lighting well ahead of time. This way you’re able to make changes without stressing.  You can’t bring too many outfits but you can only wear a couple of them. Your photographer should be happy to help you at this point to eliminate some items and thumbs-up others, helping to streamline the final decisions. Remember to iron.

Portrait Photography by Rachelle Morvant of Photograph Nashville

White can work in a high-key or very white environment. The contrast is less and therefore the white shirt Wendy is wearing is rendered with better detail. If this were a dark background, the white shirt would be nothing but a blinding spot.

Know the guidelines and step around them with purpose. Though I would never recommend a wrinkled button-up, guidelines are not stone-set rules, just suggestions for the best result in most situations.

Models are uncomfortable all the time and pull off confidence and comfort, something of which anyone is capable. Depending on the environment, white might be the best choice or grandpa may like the idea of wearing flowers in his hair to be spontaneous thus creating a special, documented memory.

Portrait Photography by Rachelle Morvant of Photograph Nashville

Kyla offsets her busy shirt with a dark solid jacket.

All of that said, here are the guidelines and why they exist.

Generally, darker colors are slimming and light colors can add size when rendered two-dimensionally.  Because of this, you also want your top and bottom to both be dark or light so that the light half of you doesn’t appear larger.

Wear colors that are simple. Avoid patterns, prints and stripes, especially horizontal (which is enlarging) as the busy action will distract from your face. We want to see your beautiful smile, not the 20 flowers on your shirt.

Generally, you want to wear long sleeve shirts, ¾ sleeve at shortest, as well as pants or a skirt that reaches below the knee.  Visually, the arm takes up a lot of space. If the arm is a drastically different color from the clothing around it, the arm stands out more. The same goes for pants and skirts; covering the legs keeps the eyes focused on the subjects face.

Portrait Photography by Rachelle Morvant of Photograph Nashville

Here is group portrait for promotions and office display. They wanted the image to pop so they went with red and black as their primary colors and each person chose an outfit so they coordinated but didn’t replicate. Notice that, though most are sleeveless, the white woman’s arms stand out most because of the contrast between the skin area and the surrounding tones. Long sleeves would have prevented the eye from being drawn to her arms. Had everyone been wearing lighter tones, the opposite would be true.


Manipulating the guidelines: Lots of textures and patterns can work beautifully in neutral colors. The textures create interest while the neutral colors prevent that interest from overpowering the subject’s person. Also, kids look great in brighter colors and it helps separate them from the background but keep the options simple.

Coordinate colors but unless your last name is Loompa, don’t try to look like replicas of each other. Choose 1-3 colors and stick with those. One helpful tip is to start with a primary outfit, then coordinate using 2-3 colors in that outfit to relate the other outfits.

Portrait Photography by Rachelle Morvant of Photograph Nashville

Here is a great example of breaking the rules while following the guidelines. This family wanted a Johnny Cash feel. Everyone is in black clothing but it’s not matchy-matchy. The feel is semi-formal but the kids are barefoot which highlights their lifestyle without being out of place-they’re kids. Mom is sleeveless but it’s not a problem here. Had she had less skin showing around the neckline, it would have been more obvious.

Side Note: Keep in mind where this image will be displayed. If it’s a family portrait, consider your living room colors. If it’s a business portrait, consider incorporating business or association colors or staying dark and neutral. Or you may want something dynamic and attention-grabbing. It depends on the feel and style that fits you.


Wearing small dark shoes elongates the legs by not interrupting the line. So keep those shoes short so they stay below the ankle and don’t disrupt the flow of the leg which can visually reduce it’s length. On the other hand, if you have long legs and want to show of a great pair of shoes, the red stilettos are perfect. Keep in mind the shoes and legs will be the star and not your pretty smile.

Portrait Photography by Rachelle Morvant of Photograph Nashville

Small black shoes are best, however, some situations allow for some foot bling.

Accessories are great!

Accessories can provide versatility in a shoot, allowing for a wider range of looks without changing outfits. It gives interest with color, pattern and texture but it needs to be appropriate-more on that later.

Obviously, don’t go overboard; less is more. Accessories need to add to the story of a person and not simply linger or distract. Accessories can be clothing like scarves, hats, sweaters, vests or props like flowers, a diary, little Jane’s favorite doll, your mother’s old camera, your favorite boa. (Just kidding; don’t bring the boa.)

Portrait Photography by Rachelle Morvant of Photograph Nashville

Charity is using a hat to add interest to her portrait. Her colorful shirt matches her lipstick and are the only colors in the image. The large hat balances the bright color of her shirt, leaving her face in the middle as the focal point.

So, more than wardrobe, this also includes makeup and hair choices. Many people believe you need to wear stage make-up for photography. This simply isn’t true. If you apply more make-up than you normally wear, you are likely to be disappointed by the results because the images don’t look like you. And we want you to love your portraits!

Portrait Photography by Rachelle Morvant of Photograph Nashville

A good stylist will make you look better, not make you look like someone you’re not.

This goes for an on-location stylist. This is your portrait; if you feel the hair or make-up plan isn’t your cup of tea, say something before you end up drinking tea with tears of regret. Own your image. If you are being paid to have your photo taken, you have a stake in the outcome.

Most stylist are professionals with extensive experience and know how to make you look your best without changing you. If your photographer offers a stylist in their package, ask to see photos from that stylist to get an idea of their skills.

Get haircuts at least 2 weeks before the shoot to allow for grow-in time and user adjustment. Avoid over-tanning and try not to get a black eye. I know some of you can get a bit feisty.

Keep it appropriate. A New Year’s Eve hairstyle will look off with a casual outfit. Conversely a ponytail isn’t the best choice with a strapless gown. A field is not the place to wear dress shoes (unless your going for the couch-in-a-field Indy look.) Conversely, barefoot is great if the rest of the style is natural and casual.

What seems like such a small aspect of a portrait shoot can become complicated quickly. But you’ve got this!

*Remember to be you and be comfortable

*Keep it simple and personal

*Use accessories appropriately and sparingly

*Darker colors are slimming

*Keep it appropriate to the purpose and setting

*Ask your photographer for suggestions

With planning and assistance you can create a spectacular portrait that truly represents you and will be a keepsake for decades to come.

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One thought on “Photography Wardrobe: What to Wear?

  1. Pingback: Nashville Portrait Photography: Early Bird Portrait Special



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