Fear not: you’re about to become a photo outfit pro.
Choosing outfits for your documentary family session or engagement photo session can be a daunting task. Admittedly, the outfits that most people choose based on their gut instincts do not look the best on-camera. In this post, you’ll learn the most common pitfalls that people fall for, including style, pattern, and colour choice. You’ll also learn how to ensure you and your loved ones look great in photos!
If you’re short on time and just want the cheat sheet, scroll to the bottom of this post. It’s waiting there for you!
The gist: don’t dress like a threat and don’t dress like food.
We share parts of our brains with distant ancestors who relied on their eyes for survival. Our ancestors needed to be able to identify two things with lightning speed: threats, such as predators, poisonous plants, and insects; and food, the ultimate survival aid. Over millennia their brains adapted to make them very good at registering threats and food, and we inherited those intelligent neural designs.
Though we don’t live in a survival scenario anymore, our eyes still snap to something that looks like lunch or a threat and remain stubbornly fixed on them. This overrides the narrative of a photograph, distracting you from the story inherent in the moment, and making the photo all about a garish piece of clothing. A good photograph contains elements that work together in balance, supporting the story in the image—not distracting you from it.
Very key point: Don’t wear sunglasses, unless you have to for medical reasons. Sunglasses hide your eyes, the windows into your soul and all the emotions you’re experiencing. This is absolutely not ideal for documentary photography, which is meant to capture the whole, true, unobscured emotional experience of your bond with your loved ones.
These outfits don’t distract from the jazz hands and twinkle toes.
What 2 things do threats and food share in common?
Threats and food are often patterned and/or brightly coloured. The most obvious example is a fierce leopard covered in a spotted coat.
Food also usually has a patterned appearance. Think of a berry bush: small, tightly packed leaves dotted with bundles of juicy berries. Any tight, repeating pattern employing highly contrasting colours is an immediate distraction. Patterns that use lower-contrast colours usually don’t grab the eye as much, so don’t consider this rule to be written in stone.
The reason that bright colours don’t work is two-fold. Bright colours, such as punk-rock pink, firetruck red, neon orange, and poison yellow are only seen in the wild in two places: poisonous creatures like snakes and insects, and some foods, which are often also poisonous.
The other reason to avoid wearing red and orange is that camera sensors just don’t handle those colours that well. They come out looking glaringly bright. In addition, since our skin typically has red and orange hues as well, your photographer will have a heck of a time toning down that bright orange blouse without also sucking all the colour out of your skin (rendering your complexion akin to a zombie’s.)
Too much of a good thing just looks like… well, nothing.
As we’ve spent a few minutes discussing, our eyes and brain are programmed to notice what’s different. When you’re wearing a lot of different elements on your body and you’re standing in a texture-rich setting, that photo is going to be a lot for the eye to process. It’s necessary to create space for the most important elements in a photo to breathe, so they can stand out to our visual system. If you have tattoos or want to wear a particular patterned piece, offset that visual smorgasbord with a neutral background.
How dressed up should you get for your documentary photography session?
As a very loose guideline, I usually recommend that people dress one step above their usual look, but that only captures a small aspect of this point. The reason I recommend you try to look your best at a session is to help you feel comfortable and confident. If you getting your hair done, wearing a nice outfit, or hiring a makeup artist, makes you feel like your most bombshell/stud self, that’s what you should do. If you feel like a total king/queen when you don’t wear makeup, or you trust your pillow more than you trust your hairdresser, that’s perfect, too. You probably know which camp you fall into.
Caveat number two: wear clothing you feel fine getting wet or dirty. The most incredible photos occur when people chase each other under a waterfall, slip into an alpine lake, or have a snowball fight (except instead of snow, you’re throwing mud or paint.)
As you can tell, we are probably going to be getting ourselves into some shenanigans at your session, so wear shoes that make you feel like a ninja who can throw down some fire dance moves. You don’t want to be breaking your ankle because you wore high heels.
Lastly, dress on a similar level. Don’t wear a suit if your spouse is wearing a sundress. Jeans and a button-up shirt would fit the vibe better.
So what should you wear to your documentary photography session?
If you only read the top half of this post, you would be 80% of the way to a perfect outfit. But if you want to dial that 80% up to an A+, keep reading.
We’ve covered that busy patterns and glaring colours are a no-go. Instead, opt for neutral tones or subtle colours. Cool colours, such as pale blues and faded greens, are always a good option. Whites and blacks are striking in a good way—without inciting a stress response.
Colour blocking is wearing two colours that alternate their way up your body. It’s a great way to create an intriguing fit with any two colours, especially ones that naturally contrast against each other. It ties an already good outfit together with a bow, making the unaware observer wonder why exactly you look so perfect!
Coordination is Key
Coordination just means dressing on a similar level and wearing colours that don’t clash. You can also coordinate by colour-blocking as a couple!
Unless you are having a group photo taken for work or school, don’t wear matching outfits. That’s because a work or school photo is meant to communicate uniformity. Wedding, family, and couple photos should let each subject’s personality shine through in a beautiful way.
Denim is a great example: often everyone in the family will wear jeans to a fall family session. That’s cool, but mix up the wash! Get a smooth dark wash jean on mom, some lighter surfer wash jeans on dad, and the teenager can rock some distressed jeans with rips.
Lastly, dress on a similar level. Don’t wear a suit if your spouse is wearing a sundress. Jeans and a button-up shirt would fit the vibe better. But don’t be afraid to dress it up together!
The most important rule of all: Wear what you love!
Rule #1 is this: don’t be afraid to throw all the rules out the window if they bum you out. If you love that bright red tee with the huge Nike Swoosh and those mega-patterned cobra-skin pants—you should wear them.
Your photo session is not about looking “perfect,” and it’s absolutely not about being someone you’re not. It’s about being yourself with the people you love, so you can see exactly how incredible your bond actually is, and so you can be completely free to be you, together.
Thanks for reading. Now you’re an outfit pro!
The Outfit Cheat Sheet
- Don’t wear busy patterns
- Don’t wear extremely bright colours
- Especially don’t wear neon orange and firetruck red
- Don’t wear big logos
- Don’t wear sunglasses
- Do colour block
- Do wear neutral tones for a sharp look
- Do wear subtle, pastel colours
- Do coordinate, but don’t match
- Don’t be afraid to break the rules! Wear what makes you feel awesome.