As much as children and teens have smashed gender stereotypes over the years, fundamental differences remain between the genders when it comes to their senior portrait preferences. These differences vary from market to market, but they are valid considerations for photographers who want to create a customized experience for each client.
Working in a mid-sized community in northeast Ohio, Nicki Hufford has noticed marked differences that have helped her tailor her client experiences. By both embracing the individual and accepting some typical patterns in style, she’s been able to create experiences for male and female clients that lead to better results, happier customers, and an appointment book overflowing with senior portrait bookings.
Regardless of her client’s gender, Hufford customizes each session for the individual and the location. She spends the first 10 to 15 minutes of each portrait session reviewing the outfits her client brings, selecting pieces that are the best colors for the individual, and getting a sense of the senior’s style. She has a loose script of questions she asks to determine if they prefer soft and classic or more hard and edgy looks. As she’s talking, Hufford thinks about locations and makes a plan to start photographing based on the subject’s style and personality.
Based on her experience, Hufford approaches this initial conversation differently for boys and girls. She’s found that most guys don’t want to drag out the process, so she keeps the conversation succinct. She asks the parent or parents what they want from the session and checks in with the boy about what he wants, then they make a plan and move on.
Girls, she’s found, typically look for a fuller experience. They want to lay out their clothes, mix and match pieces, and talk about different outfits that will work for various locations. There are more involved discussions about how outfits will work in different poses. Hufford may makes tweaks to hair and makeup before moving on to photographing.
Throughout this conversation, Hufford is also preselling. She uses descriptive words to project her vision of what the finished images will look like. Her goal is to give everyone a little bit of everything so she can provide a variety of styles while also homing in on what fits the senior best. “Not every guy is hard and edgy, and not every girl is soft and pretty,” she says. “You have to read your client and make some game-time decisions about what you’re going to do.”
She also makes suggestions about which of her products would work well with the types of images she’ll be creating. This allows clients to start visualizing those items. This is where it’s useful to have good product samples for clients to see and hold. Think of these samples as educational items, not just selling tools, says Hufford. She’ll often show a client different albums with a variety of photography looks—soft and natural versus hard and urban, for example—to get a sense of the style that will satisfy both senior and parents. This helps clients make educated choices before she starts photographing.
Based on these scene-setting discussions, Hufford builds out the session. The subject’s style and preferences play into location choices, with boys and girls falling into typical patterns. “We’re always choosing locations based on their personality,” says Hufford. “Choosing the right location to sell to the parent is also important.”
Hufford favors Rembrandt lighting for boys, usually switching between two- to three-light setups and letting the background go darker. She typically photographs between f/7.1 and f/11. She uses lots of strip lighting, even in outdoor locations, often setting up a couple of 1x4-foot strip boxes to provide directional light. Neutral density filters drop down the background contrast.
“Most guys’ faces can handle more hard light, and guys’ skin looks better with texture,” she says. “They can look a little more rugged. [In post-production] I’ll clean up their skin, get rid of any acne, but it’s not as smoothed out as girls, who want to look more finished. I let them look like a guy. That’s important for my guy clients, who don’t want anything that looks too plastic.”
For girls, Hufford uses similar techniques but adds additional light on the face. Instead of full Rembrandt lighting, she opts for a butterfly style, sometimes with a beauty dish to create a pleasing light on the face with fewer shadows.
“You can still be edgy with a girl, but by moving the main light an inch or two, you can make it cleaner on their face while still keeping shadows on the rest of the body,” she says.
None of these techniques is absolute. Some boys don’t look good in hard light, and some girls prefer more dramatic lighting on their faces. Micro adjustments need to be made for individuals based on their personality and preferences.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. You need to look at your subject, decide what’s going to be most flattering for them and what kind of photos they want at the end of the day, and make your decisions based on those factors,” says Hufford. “Sometimes it’s about playing with your subject and figuring where they look best. Once you find out, keep going with it.”
In Hufford’s experience, boys want quick and done, and their sessions tend to last half as long as the girls’ sessions. That said, their parents may want the full experience, so Hufford makes sure to cater to them a little, “but mainly boys want to look cool and move on,” she says.
Because girls tend toward wanting the full experience, Hufford allots extra time. This gives her the ability create an environment that is both artistically productive and fulfills the client’s expectation for a red-carpet portrait experience.
These trends carry through to the ordering session. Hufford often tells senior boys that they should be there for the first 20 minutes of the ordering session to go through their favorite images, and then they can bolt while she finishes up the details with Mom or Dad. Girls usually want to be part of every decision, and they often opt to stay through the entire ordering process.
Despite the different approaches, Hufford’s senior portrait clients usually buy the same things regardless of their gender. Hufford’s packages offer the choice between an album or album box that comes with digital files, as well as wall art options.
The major difference is that boys typically spend about 25 percent more. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve gone after boy clients,” she says. “Guys don’t get photographed nearly as much as girls, who seem to always be in front of a camera. And for boy moms, when their boys leave, it’s a big emotional moment. … I shoot a ton of photos, show them lots of looks, and constantly change up the lighting. And they always want it all.”
Sports portraits are another big revenue-boosting item. With a strong connection with youth sports in the area, Hufford draws in a lot of seniors who are looking for sports-themed senior portraits. The parents of both boys and girls will typically buy a big traditional senior portrait for the wall. However, the parents of boys want a large sports portrait as well, which drives up sales for those sessions significantly. Football and baseball wall art are particularly popular, as are smaller metal desktop prints.
Whatever the gender of the client, Hufford stresses that senior portrait photography requires pushing the envelope creatively. “If you’re not offering something really unique, then you’re not going to get booked,” she says. “Your experience has to be super good. You have to blow them out of the water, provide great client service, all of that. But you also have to provide something they can’t get through an app on their phone. If we can do that and provide a great experience in the process, then there will always be a place for senior portraits.”
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large.