Senior portraiture: the experience is everything

Taking high school senior photography beyond the portrait helps Maria Moore stand out

The senior portrait clients of Maria Moore, M.Photog., CPP, have been known to take a hike. Makeup flawlessly applied, hair perfectly coiffed, they might don rain boots, hitch up the skirts of their lovely formal dresses, and tromp through the woods surrounding Huntsville, Alabama, until they reach a creek that’s become one of Moore’s favorite sets. Once there, they glide into the water, sometimes soaking their outfits to the knees, to get ethereal images unlike any senior portraits their parents or peers have seen.

Moore says these water sessions have become part of her signature style. But she’s well aware that subjects and their parents will also want to own some images that are more classical.

senior portraiture it's not just the image it's the experience, maria moore senior portraits
© Maria Moore

“I always encourage people to have two timeless concepts and at least one creative concept,” Moore says. “So the timeless concept would be something that looks more like a regular portrait. You, with a cute sundress, by the church fence, smiling. That, whether it was done a long time ago or last week, should always look a certain way.”

“But when I say creative, I mean something that is a little out there: something 1920s-inspired or based on a movie or TV show like ‘Downton Abbey.’ I want it to be a little bit of a storytelling situation.”

Sometimes Moore’s creative senior setups draw inspiration from fanciful ideas, but that doesn’t mean costumes. For example, for one of Moore’s outdoor water sessions, a client may want to look like a fairy in the forest, but don’t expect to see wings. “We’d probably just have her wear a pretty dress,” Moore says. “At the end of the day, the girls are high school seniors, and they just want to be normal.”

Word of mouth

That understanding of what makes teenagers tick informs Moore’s business strategy as well. Moore has focused on senior portraits for about four of the six years she’s been in business. She quickly learned—via workshops with pros and through trial and error—that traditional marketing techniques like fliers, referral cards, and discounts weren’t going to work for a business based around teens.

“Most of my clients are girls who don’t care for free things,” Moore says. “They are not paying for their own portraits; they don’t care that their parents are paying money. That’s just not something that motivates them at all.”

Most of her business, instead, comes from the word-of-mouth promotion she gets through her Senior Model Experience program designed to keep her client base growing. Each spring, Moore hosts an elegant afternoon tea and invites a number of high school juniors (mostly friends of previous clients) and their moms to attend and learn what the Senior Model Experience is all about. Afterward, students who want to be a part of the program agree to pay $1,600 and move on to the senior model shoot, a photo session that takes place in March or April with all the participating seniors-to-be, for which Moore provides hair and makeup services, food, and other amenities.

It’s a lot of work and a significant upfront expense, but she says if the clients have a good time, it’s well worth the cost in the end.

“It’s so many girls and so many pictures,” Moore says. “But I believe most of this is just about the experience. If you think that was fabulous and then you tell your friends about it, that is really what I want.” She’s found this process to be far more fruitful in attracting clients than simply using seniors’ photos in printed marketing materials.

senior portraiture it's not just the image it's the experience, maria moore senior portraits
© Maria Moore

Moore keeps the images from the senior model session under wraps until her viewing party. For this event, Moore goes all out with catering and a DJ, encouraging the seniors to invite their friends and family. At the party she plays a slideshow featuring all the session images and offers individual prints at a discount from her usual rate.

“In the end, I don’t lose any money,” she notes. “The sales are really good from that day so it kind of makes up for it. And all their friends came and everybody’s so excited, so hopefully we get some clients from that.”

Moore also offsets costs by having all clients, including senior models, pay a portion of their fee up front. But she also tries to ensure they feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth. For example, potential senior models pay $100 to attend the tea, but if they decide to become part of the Experience, that’s deducted from the total price of the program. The Experience includes a Santa session and a head shot for sorority rush, and Moore also offers participants a chance to add on a family session at a discounted price.

Moore’s approach is working: She started with eight senior models in 2012; in 2016, she had 42. Every year, she’s asked the current senior model group to pass along the names of 10 junior friends, who she then invites to tea the following spring.

Moore’s objective is to always have at least 40 senior models as a base. “If I have 40 senior models that bring me 40 referrals, then I have my year,” she says. Moore photographs about 120 sessions a year, with the balance being families and Santa sessions.

Classic approach

Once the big senior model session is done and the viewing party has ended, Moore’s senior models get the standard portrait client treatment. Their consults begin in May, and depending on what type of setting they want, their sessions may be scheduled as far out as the fall. This gives Moore the ability to be hands-on in the whole process, helping plan the concept session and even giving advice about outfits.

“I try to keep it where it would be conducive to an image that I would like to create,” Moore explains.

senior portraiture it's not just the image it's the experience, maria moore senior portraits
© Maria Moore

The setups Moore typically plans for are classic portraits in studio, contemporary portraits in studio, and something on location, such as the water sessions. Though her concepts may seem to span a wide range of styles from traditional edgy, Moore says the common thread is her classic approach to posing and lighting.

“I always try to pose women in classic feminine poses, where the woman is away from the light trying to face back toward the light,” she notes.

Moore most often uses three lights in studio—a main light, a side light, and a separation light—plus  a reflector. And even when she’s photographing outdoors, she takes lights and follows the same rules she’d observe in the studio. That’s what gives some of her more edgy outdoor images a painterly quality.

“Most of the time, I choose the location not caring about the light and then I light it the way that I want it,” she says.

It’s no wonder then that she devotes a full day to most senior portrait sessions. Clients usually show up at Moore’s 2,000-square-foot studio by 10 a.m. to get their hair and makeup done and don’t wrap up until sunset. Moore orders lunch into the studio, and makes sure parents are around to share the experience.

“I believe that the senior session should not be just a portrait session. It should be an opportunity for Mom to bond,” Moore says. “We try to create an environment that will be something they remember way beyond their portraits.”  

Deblina Chakraborty is a writer in Denver.