James Bitz: The Basics of Shooting Senior Portraits

unnamed (8)All images by James Bitz. Used with permission.

One of the biggest fields of portraiture has to do with shooting portraits of high school seniors before they ship off to college. Quite obviously, they’re called senior portraits and are a type of environmental portrait that tells a bit about the subject.

Photographer James Bitz hails from Lincoln, Nebraska and is a master of the senior portrait. He has a unique creative vision that we describe as playful, authentic, down to earth, and overall beautiful. It started when he bought his first DSLR back in 2007–a Nikon D70.

Since then, he’s honed himself into quite the portrait shooter. And he shared a couple of his tips and tricks with us. But for even more, you should check him out on Instagram.

Phoblographer: Tell us about how you got into shooting photos.

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James: It’s honestly kind of a hazy memory at this point, in regards to where I really began, but it probably stems mostly from my love of drawing and painting. Having an understanding of light and shadow before you even pick up a camera, gives you such a leg up in this industry.

I bought my first DSLR back in 2007. It was a used Nikon D70, purchased with money I had made off of a small record deal out of Asia that I had got when I used to write electronic music. I immediately began taking pictures of anything and everything I could, especially landscapes. I would annoy my wife by going out alone on a daily basis for hours on end, snapping away. Only after I started taking pictures of family and friends did I realize that I love capturing people most of all.

Phoblographer: What do you like about portraiture?

James: The thing about portraiture is that it’s so personal. When taking pictures of objects or landscapes, it’s hard to develop a relationship with a tree, a mountain, a sunset, or even a plate of food (though I’ve had some pretty intense relationships with steak). With a portrait, someone is putting a lot of trust in you. You’re in control of the scene and have a lot of responsibility. You have to connect with your subject in some way or you’re not going to get the best image possible. I love making people feel good about themselves, and I feel so much more fulfilled showing someone a picture of their own face and seeing their eyes light up, than giving them a picture of some scenery they’re not connected to, no matter how pretty they think it might be.

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Phoblographer: In your personal opinion, what qualities do you feel make for the perfect set of senior portraits?

James: As far as technical aspects go, I don’t think there’s one magic bullet. Each senior can have a very different style that they have in mind, so I think the biggest thing is to listen to them and their ideas. Getting the subject excited about what they’re doing can also make a huge difference. I’ve long ago given up on freaking out about light that’s not optimal, or a location that isn’t as perfect as I had hoped. It’s my job to make the session a fun experience, and so it’s hugely important to be able to go with the flow, and be able to work with any situation, no matter if it’s ideal or not. Seeing me excited about the process helps keep them excited, even if I’m cursing in my head about something not being exactly as I’d envisioned it when I look into the back of my camera.

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Phoblographer: Working with such a young generation of adults has to be quite an experience! What is posing them like considering the popularity of selfies amongst younger folks?

James: In general, most high school seniors are pretty self conscious when they think about being in front of the camera. It’s funny to say that when you think about all the time they spend in front of their phones taking selfies like you mentioned. The biggest difference is that when they get in front of their phones, they’re comfortable. They’re either with their friends, in their bedroom, or doing something fun. They’re in a “safe” place.

“The thing about portraiture is that it’s so personal. When taking pictures of objects or landscapes, it’s hard to develop a relationship with a tree, a mountain, a sunset, or even a plate of food (though I’ve had some pretty intense relationships with steak).”

Since I’m basically some strange dude getting in their face with a big camera, it automatically puts them outside of their comfort zone. Part of my job then is to break down some of those awkward barriers. One of the first things I have them do once they book their session is to fill out a questionnaire. Along with some basic info like contact information and activities they’re involved in, I ask them questions about their personalities; how would they describe themselves- how would their friends describe them- if they could visit anywhere in the world to take their senior pictures, where would they go and why? Things like that. It not only gives me some insight into their personal style, but it also gives me some starting points for conversation during the session.

I’ve found that once you get these young adults to talk about something they love, they immediately relax, and start to open up. The biggest compliment I can get as a photographer is that my subjects look like themselves; that I was able to get their “real” smiles, laughs, looks, etc. After sending out the link to their online galleries, it’s nice to get an email with “WE LOVE THEM!!!!!”, but it’s much more meaningful to hear that I made a parent cry, because the pictures captured their kids so well. That’s what keeps me coming back for more.

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James: Walk us through a session and a pre-session. There is obviously some sort of interview process for this as well as careful wardrobe selection.

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James: So for me, my job starts even before I’m booked. I almost always insist on a sit down meeting with the senior and a parent. This serves a couple purposes. One, it gives me the ability to not just sell my services, but to sell myself. Part of what they’re booking with me is an experience, and that experience should be one that feels natural and comfortable. The other part, and this is a biggie, is that it gives the parents assurance that I’m a safe person for their kids to be around.

The reason why this is so important, is that I have a “no parent” policy regarding my sessions. Basically, I don’t allow parents to come along or participate in the actual portrait session, though I do insist that they bring a friend. In all of my years shooting senior pictures, I’ve found that it is almost always a stressful situation to bring parents along.

There are inevitably arguments and/or awkward situations that arise from things as simple as a mom adjusting a dress strap, or saying something like, “Come on honey, do your REAL smile, not that fake one!” This last year was the first year that I fully instituted this policy, and it has made such a huge difference. The seniors feel so much more relaxed, and are able to really be themselves.

“…it’s much more meaningful to hear that I made a parent cry, because the pictures captured their kids so well. That’s what keeps me coming back for more.”

I’ve put together a “style guide” for my seniors that addresses a lot of questions, one of which is their wardrobe. Their hair and face can look absolutely fabulous, but a bad choice of clothing, wrinkles on a dress, or a mismatched accessory, can really ruin a picture. Once they’ve made their clothing choices, sometimes with or without my direct input, I have them send me pictures of the outfits. This way I’m able to coordinate locations with clothing. It might not sound important, but I’d much rather shoot an evening gown under the night time city lights, than out in a grassy field at sunset, where a flowy sun dress would be more appropriate.

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Overall, it’s so important to set very clear expectations at all stages of the process.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.

James: Currently, I’m almost all digital. I’ll use my medium format film gear on occasion, but it can be costly to make that a permanent fixture of your business model. For now, I’m a Nikon guy. Up until late last year I always had my Nikon D3s in my hand. I swore I would shoot that thing until the day it fell apart on me. They made me eat my words, last September, when they released the D750 though. It really is the best wedding and portrait camera I’ve ever used. I was starting to realize that my hand and wrist were hurting more and more after a full day of shooting, when I was carrying the D3s, so the light weight of the D750 was a welcome addition. For being such a small body, though, it’s incredibly powerful.

My favorite lens is most definitely Nikon’s 35mm f/1.4G. The 35mm focal length has always been my go to range. It’s just wide enough to capture a full scene without having to worry about distortion, but still close enough that I can do portrait work with it. A lot of my friends swear by the 50mm focal length. I understand why they like it, but it’s just not my thing. I actually only own one 50mm lens, and it rarely gets taken out of my bag.

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To be honest though, I don’t really get the brand wars and the die hard fandom people show towards a label. Ideally, I’d love to sling a Nikon over one shoulder, and a Canon over the other. There’s some really great things being done by both companies, and the advancements tend to leap frog every few years anyway.

It just so happened that the first DSLR I ever bought was a Nikon, so that’s what I stuck with.

Phoblographer: How do you go about explaining the creative vision in your head to these seniors?

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James: I like to do a lot of back and forth talk with my seniors before a shoot. I like to ask them about their vision, as well as mine. You’d be amazed how creative some of these teens are, when you let them open up and tell you what they really want, not just what they think their parents want. Sometimes I’ll send them links to images that have inspired me for their shoot, and on occasion I’ll even send them a hand drawn sketch for an idea I’ve got if I can’t find anything comparable.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about one of your favorite photos from a senior portrait session.

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James: Such a hard choice to make! One that I would single out immediately would be from a session that I shot out on the Niobrara River in Western Nebraska. To give a little back story, the senior is heavily involved in dancing, and I knew we had to work that into her session somehow. While I was talking with her a little about her life, she mentioned that every summer she visits her family’s property out in the sandhills along one of Nebraska’s biggest rivers. I was sure we had to somehow incorporate that, even though it was a five hour drive for me. So, my family and I packed up and drove out there, and made a weekend trip of it. It not only turned out to be a fantastic session, but it’s been one of my favorite family vacations to date.

To actually capture the image, we both waded out into the middle of the river. I have to admit, I was extremely nervous carrying my bag of camera gear out into fast flowing water. The unique part of the Niobrara is that it’s very shallow for its length and width, but I was still up to my thighs in river water, protectively carrying my camera bag like it was a baby. We got to a sand bar, and I pulled out a large, red, silk cloth I had purchased especially for the session, and just had her go at it, and do her thing.

I love the final product, but I feel that knowing what it took to create the image means just as much to me. I want to go above and beyond what others might do to get the shot. If there’s a cool idea for a picture, I really want to make it happen! That’s how you take your pictures to the next level.