Photographing People: To do Styled Portraits or Not?

When I was a senior in high school, there was one local photographer that nearly everyone went to for their portraits. Part of her process included each person bringing in a bag of clothing to model for her. She would then help select the outfits that would ultimately be worn for the portraits. She also gave specific instructions for hair, makeup, and grooming. Quite often, the photographer hired a makeup artist to be present for the portraits – in effect she was doing styled portraits.

styled portraits two girls

The end result was portraiture that was extremely consistent in style. Even to this day, I can look through my high school yearbook, and pick out exactly whose portraits were taken by that particular photographer. Parents loved her because her output was high-quality, consistent, and you knew exactly what you were getting aesthetically when you booked a session. Essentially, the photographer was offering what has since become known as a “styled session”.

Similar to debating how much (or how little) to post-process images, whether or not to style sessions when photographing people is hotly debated. Let me make one thing very clear – the point of this article is not to take an ultimate stance as to whether or not you should style your own sessions. Rather, this article will discuss circumstances in which it may be beneficial to style sessions, as well as some of the possible disadvantages. Hopefully, this will also start some discussion about what works well for you.

styled portraits newborns

A styled newborn session. I provided the blanket, flowers, and newborn wrap.

Styled Portraits – Definition

In general, a styled session can be defined as being any time the photographer selects the clothing, hair, location/backdrop, and props for a particular session. In other words, the photographer has control and decision making power in all aspects of the session, and controls the end aesthetic look or style of the session.

Pros to Styled Portrait Sessions

  • As the photographer, you have complete control over all the sessions with your name on them.
  • It’s easy to create a signature style or look to your photography.
  • Clients (paid or unpaid) know exactly what to expect when they book a session with you.
styled portraits - A styled child portrait session.

A styled child portrait session. I selected the dress, flower crown, location, and lightly curled her hair.

Circumstances That Lend Well to Styling

In my experience, some types of photography lend themselves to styling more than others. For example, newborn photography is one genre of photography in which the clients often have a desired aesthetic that may be difficult (though not impossible) to capture organically in the client’s home. Many times, newborn photographers have a studio setup with all their blankets, posing bags, and backdrops. If they shoot on location, they often bring blankets, hats, headbands, and various other props to style the sessions to fit their individual style of photography.

styled portraits couples

An image from a styled session with a 1940s theme. I provided the hat, and helped select the makeup and outfits to fit within the theme.

Another instance in which photographers may elect to offer a styled session is when they’re trying to break into a new genre of photography. For example, it’s not uncommon for a photographer looking to break into the wedding business, to hold a styled bridal session in order to create images to use for advertising. The photographer will arrange for various vendors to provide a wedding dress, flowers, a cake, furniture, and other prop items for the purpose of photographing, as if it were an actual wedding. This allows the photographer (and other vendors) a way for their work to be seen via social media and similar venues, before they’ve even booked their first wedding. It’s also a good opportunity to try something new and push yourself in a relatively low-risk scenario.

A third instance in which styling can be appropriate is when you’re trying to create (or recreate) a specific artistic vision. If you’ve been tasked with photographing a 1920s themed engagement session, or one based on a particular book, painting, or movie, then providing a styled session may be the best way to ensure an end product that is consistent with the desired aesthetic.

A senior portrait session that was not styled.

A senior portrait session that was not styled.

Cons to Styling Sessions

On the other hand, going back to the initial example of the senior portrait photographer, the drawback to selecting that one photographer was that the end portraits all looked basically the same, and in some cases, the portraits looked very little like what the person looked like in real life. This anecdote perfectly captures two of the potential drawbacks to offering styled sessions:

  • Sessions can tend to look very similar to one another.
  • Sessions do not always adequately capture the person’s or family’s personality.

Child portrait session that was not styled.

Circumstances That May Not Lend Well to Styling

Although children can be photographed well in any scenario, I prefer not to photograph kids in styled sessions. In my own experience, when I try to style children’s sessions I can become so focused on the outfits, props, and the look of the session, that I can easily overlook capturing the genuine emotion and personality of the child, which is really where my passion lies.

I don’t have this same issue with newborns, engagements, senior portraits, or other types of people photography, but have noticed it particularly when photographing children. As with any genre of photography, there are no absolutes – I’ve seen styled children’s sessions that are unique to each child, and absolutely do capture their personalities, but in my personal practice, I’ve found that my preference is not to style children’s sessions.

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An newborn photo that was not styled – I used their own blanket, swaddle, and knit rabbit.

When I’m talking with clients prior to a session, if I hear them say the words “candid” or “lifestyle”, it’s a good indicator for me that they probably aren’t interested in a styled session. There’s definitely a range of what people are really asking for when they use those terms in regards of photography, but regardless of where they fall on that particular spectrum, they are probably not looking for images in which every aspect has been carefully curated. This is where knowing your client – whether they’re paid or unpaid – and understanding their needs, is absolutely key to a successful portrait.

Meeting in the Middle

Most often I find that clients really want something in between a styled session and photojournalism. These clients want me to capture the best version of themselves and their lives, which requires a bit of guidance, but not necessarily styling.

They may need some guidance regarding what to wear, but they don’t want or need me to select their outfit for them. They may need me to suggest moving a group of bottles and pacifiers visible on the coffee table during a newborn session, but they don’t need or want me to bring a box of books and succulents to completely stage their home. There’s a balance between the two ends of the spectrum that seems to meet the needs of most of my clients, while also allowing me to have some creative control as the photographer.

styled portraits

For this session, we talked about having each girl wear a white dress and a flower crown, but their moms ultimately selected both the dresses and the crowns. This is an example of “meet in the middle” styling.

Just like any area of photography, there’s a range of beliefs and practices in regards to styling sessions. Some photographers elect to exclusively style sessions, because it gives them the most control over the final image. Other photographers prefer to take more of a photojournalism approach and capture their clients exactly as they show up. Still others land somewhere in the middle.

What about you? Do you offer styled sessions, a photojournalism approach, or are you somewhere in between? What works well for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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