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Planning the Proper Clothing for your Portrait

The selection of proper clothing for your portrait is a critical factor in the preparation for a successful portrait. If the clothing is noticeable in a portrait, it could easily become a distraction. Clothing that does not attract attention to itself is the ultimate goal. It could be the difference between a very successful portrait and just another picture.  

Dark Clothing Tends to Slenderize

Darker clothing helps to blend the bodies with the background, so that the faces are the most important part of the photograph. Dark colors definitely tend to slenderize the subject. Light colors seem to add weight to the bodies.

The color of the clothing should always be toned down.  Bright colors attract attention away from the face.  Colors must be darker than your skin tone, unless you have darker skin, in which case lighter clothing will be fine.   Prints and any kind of pattern – no matter how small – become a distraction. In the case of digital portraits, in particular, small patterns in clothing (even a small herring-bone or checkered pattern) can cause terrible distortions to appear in the portrait that are not originally there.  Avoid shiny material.

In High Key portraits (this means the faces are the darkest part of the photo) white shirts work well.

Avoid Short Sleeve Clothing and Short Pants

Long sleeved clothing is preferred.  For casual portraits it is equally important to wear long pants instead of shorts.  Men in shorts is almost never a good look for a portrait.  When arms and legs are exposed to the camera there will be more flesh in the photograph in those areas than on the face, itself. This is a major distraction.  

White shirts and/or blouses under a dark jacket are perfect. A scarf loosely tied around the neck also helps to frame a face beautifully when a collarless blouse or sweater is worn. Neckties should definitely be toned-down in color and with a minimum of pattern.

Proper Necklines for a Portrait

The most flattering neckline for anyone is something that comes up close to the neck.  A wide-open neckline tends to thicken the neck in a photograph. On the other hand, a neckline that comes up to the base of the neck – a turtleneck or a v-neck top is the most flattering. It tends to slim down the person and frames the face beautifully.  Higher necklines can compete with longer hair though.

Group Portraits

Clothing for group portraits must be carefully selected to blend the bodies together.  First, decide whether the basic tone of the clothing will be warm-toned (browns, etc.) or cool-toned (blues/grays/blacks, etc.) Then, make sure to follow all of the above instructions.   For high key or beach portraits, white shirts are good. (see beach portraits below)

You don’t need to be perfectly matched, just loosely matched.  For example some people like a photo with everyone in a white t-shirt, a variation could be some in white polos, some in button down shirts, or mix some light blue in there too.  Avoid  short dresses and skirts, usually some people will be posed in a sitting position even on the ground, a short skirt drastically limits possible posing configurations.

Finally, lay out all the clothing onto a bed. Shoes, socks, stockings (dark hose is mandatory) – everything should be included…shoes, too! Then, take a careful look at the collection. If your eye goes to any one item in particular, you can be certain that the same thing will happen in a photograph. That item should be changed.

Clothing should not be too tight or too loose. Clothing below the waistline should be darker than above. Otherwise, even light jeans worn below a darker top could easily attract attention to the lower part of the body and away from the face.  Dark blue jeans work well with a black top.  Remember that a photograph is in two dimensions, an overly baggy or loose blouse or pants may add bulk to you.

Casual Beach Portraits

For a beach portrait session it is sometimes a good idea to dress in light colored clothing, so that the bodies will blend with the light-colored sand. In this situation all white or pastel clothing works fine.  All white clothing is good. White shirts and jeans work well, too. White shirts with beige pants is good.  Staying all in light tones can be very effective in this type of environment. Still, remember to dress everyone in the portrait similarly.  I personally don’t mind a mix of beige pants and blue jeans.  You have to blend the bodies of everyone together, so that the faces stand out. This is essential particularly in a group portrait.

Dressing the kids

For outdoor portraits, play clothes are good, they may well roll around in the dirt, a special party dress is probably not going to last.  An extra change just in case is a good idea, especially if white will be a theme.  Avoid tizzy dresses and clothing that will attract attention away from the group.  Even in an individual portrait of the child it will attract attention from her face.

Hair Style and Makeup

Hair styles should be SIMPLE and usually be off the face. Hair falling down onto the sides of the face may create distracting shadows. Bangs that come down too low onto the face will keep light from getting into the subject’s eyes – the very most important part of the face. Eye makeup should be blended – no sharp demarcation lines between colors. AVOID WHITE above or below the eyes. It does not photograph well at all. Too much color above and below the eyes attracts attention to itself. It actually takes attention AWAY from the eyes, rather than attracting the viewer to the eyes. Foundation makeup should be blended at the jawline, so that there is no demarcation between the face and the neck.  For family portraits a normal day makeup is usually sufficient.


Eye glasses may or may not be worn. Non-reflective lenses, of course, are a big help. Better yet, sometimes it’s possible to obtain a matching set of frames without any lenses. This is particularly helpful, if your lenses sometimes distort the outline of your face.

Your portraits are meant to be enjoyed for generations to come. Fad-type clothing should be avoided.

You will feel very rewarded when you view your photographs. All of your efforts will be worthwhile.  

Exceptions to the rule

Variations to these guidelines can sometimes work, if a certain style or particular piece of clothing makes you feel good, bring it along, we can always try it and see.  A colour that you normally look great in is usually going to be a good choice for an individual or couple photo.

T shirts can often be effective in a casual portrait.   

Short list of NO-NOs 

Stripes, particularly bold high contrast stripes. 

Fine stripes and checks, can cause a distracting pattern (moiré) to appear..

Hot bold colours, hot pink, yellow, orange etc. deeper reds can sometimes be effective though.

Strapless and wide necklines (except for certain beauty type portraits where a glamorous look is sought)

Shorts, men in shorts does not work well in portraits

Slogans on shirts