Of course one of the most common question I get asked before a session is..”What should I/we wear to our session?” There are no real rules but I will recommend having a purpose for what you wear. I believe the portrait is about the individual and/or family and not the clothing. I've listed some basics below but of course there are always exceptions to every rule in life and I'll cover some of those as well.
Have a purpose for the clothes
This is often decided by the context of the portrait itself. Indoor portraits usual indicate more formal clothing while an outdoor on-location portrait will invite a less formal style. Regardless, there are some general guidelines to follow for color, style, and coordination of outfits. One more thing to consider is to think about who you are or who your family is as a whole..if your personality is usually relaxed then I would opt for informal clothing but if you are the type to always get dolled up it would make no sense for you to be photographed in this less formal way. So think about what your style is when following the guidelines below.
We all have our favorite colors we like to wear. Some photograph better than others but it's usually best to wear something that compliments skin tones. Warm earthy tones and cool pastels usually work best. Unless creating a black and white image, dark tones usually will not work well with someone lighter complected as there may be too much contrast created between skin and clothing. Darker clothing a darker complected person may also not be a good choice as that person's face may get lost in the image. Usually the pants and/or skirts should be darker to force our eyes to look up to the person's face but the exception to this can be a well coordinated family wearing khaki's with say black tops.
Indoors Versus Outdoors
As mentioned above have a purpose for the clothing chosen. Indoor sessions will also need to be coordinated for the backdrop and/or style of picture chosen. Outdoor pictures will have to be coordinated with the location and time of year.
Usually I advise my clients to try and wear longer sleeve shirts because of the contrast made from skin versus material. However, this again is going to be dictated by the look you are going for in the portrait. I would advise to coordinate within a group and all wear close to the same length otherwise eyes will be drawn to the odd person. Formal shirts tend to work better while golf shirts and t-shirts are not as pleasing to the eyes. There are styles to consider here such as necklines. For a more slimming look choose a shallow v-neck and avoid the deep necklines as well as bare arms and shoulders.
Pants are just as important as shirts. I think for an indoor portrait it's best to go with a darker color and not necessarily dark jeans if the pants are to show. If it's indoors and when coordinated with a background jeans is an option then as with all pants make sure there are no holes, tears, discoloration and that pant color pretty much match. For outdoor sessions I think jeans are an option but the same rules apply. Khaki's are another great option especially when well coordinated with come great tops. For pants that have pockets like cargo pants please make sure pockets have been ironed down so they don't stick out.
If a family is having a session indoors, I usually ask that shoes and socks be ditched (unless it's a very formal portrait in which it will probably be a tighter shot and I might not even get feet in the portrait). Shoes are a dead giveaway that dates a picture (especially sneakers). If clients want to wear shoes then I advise to make sure that pants are long enough to cover socks. Test this out even in a sitting position so that the pants don't ride up. Also, try and match the socks to the pants as best as can be. Nothing worse than white tube socks showing with dark pants.
Black and White Portraits
Black and white photography is really becoming popular and is a classic way to preserve a precious moment. It's best to talk with the photographer about what is the intent of the portrait. If it's a personal intimate family portrait, then I would recommend dark grey and/or black because if photographed on a dark background the coloring will become secondary to the faces which is the goal. If the portrait is an outdoor environmental portrait, then check out the location and lighting along with clothing choice to see if black and white is a good option.
Individuals Versus Groups?
This is a key consideration here and there are many ways to take this. All the other guidelines apply here but there is one additional component and that is the outfits need to relate to one another. Not only do they have to compliment each other style and color-wise, but it's important to keep the style of the individual and family a factor as well. Sometimes it's fun to coordinate the boys in one color and the girls in another. And example of family outfits can be jeans with tops within the same family color, or perhaps have the family all in khaki's with all white or black tops..but let the styles be a little different for each person or family unit.
Kids and Senior Sessions?
Kids often like brighter clothes and this can be OK especially when done outside. Again, I would think about is the purpose of the picture and consider if it's just the kids alone..or are the parents to be included. High school seniors sessions are different in that most seniors will have a few different outfits to change into. If it's an outdoor session, plan accordingly for a changing place and try to follow the rules but allow the senior to show their style. However, it's strongly advised for a senior to have one portrait done in a traditional clothing style.
I always believe less is more. Well applied even makeup looks best while really rouged checks or heavy eyes will force our eyes to look at the makeup job rather than the face as a whole. Women's lips should always have some sort of slight shine or color..even if you normally don't wear makeup. You don't want your lips to look dry.
As soon as you schedule your portrait session, call for a hair appointment for about a week before your session. Don't wait until the last minute because you may not get a hair appointment. Hair is also something that tends to date a picture, but a conservative cut will create a time-honored portrait. If you are having an outdoor session plan on using a little more hairspray than usual so it doesn't fly away but don't overdo it so that it has a stiff look.
Jewelry and/or Accessories
Now I am not a big jewelry person but I can make some suggestions here that are based on what will look best. Like I have written before, everything in the picture must have a purpose! Of course wear wedding rings or engagement rings but avoid big flashy jewelry. The goal is to avoid people admiring your bling but rather to focus on the portrait as a whole Cool trendy earrings and necklaces are sure to date a portrait so my advice is to stick to items that are classic such as small studs like diamonds or pearls. Now the exception here I would say is that if you are known for big bling, then yes wear something that compliments who you are but that will not draw attention away from you as a whole.
I don't like jewelry, but I LOVE different glasses. In fact I consider those to be my accessory. That being said I myself have taken pictures with and without my glasses. Wearing glasses in an indoor session is not a big deal as the reflection that can occur can usually be dealt with easily by tilting the head a little. Outdoor sessions can be trickier because it's not always easy to deal with the glare and transition lenses are becoming more popular. My advice would be to talk it out with the photographer and discuss what the portraits are to look like and move forward with that in mind. Sometimes, this just has to be a compromise. For more information, visit my link
Things to avoid
Clothing should be plain. Avoid patterns, logos, writing, stripes, dots or anything that creates a bright versus dark contrast. Avoid bright shiny fabrics as well. A portrait will still be timeless years to come with well coordinated clothing choices. I tell my clients that trends should also be avoided as they date pictures.
Now, after I have written out all these general guidelines, it's important to note that sometimes it's just not going to happen for whatever reason. For example, perhaps the child that day is just not having it wearing that color. Be prepared to approach this a few ways. One way would be to ask the photographer if it's possible to do a little photoshop work (but be prepared to pay extra for this) or perhaps ask the child to only wear the shirt for the picture and as soon as the session is over they can take it off.
Also, parents of children with special needs will have to do a little extra planning. Parents should consider sensitivities such as textures and tags. http://lifesjoyfulexpressions.blogspot.com/2010/05/photographing-kids-with-special-needs_24.html talks more about this on my blog.