Zach Ashcraft: Taking Better Senior Portraits

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All images by Zach Ashcraft. Used with permission.

Zach Ashcraft is a wedding and portrait photographer based in Dallas, Texas. He is also an avid landscape photographer and traveler, having visited 40 states. But when he pitched his work to us, we were most enthralled by not only his wedding photography, but his senior portraits. Senior portraits are one of the more profitable ways to make a living from shooting portraits, but it has less to do with the gear and more about working with parents and the budding adult.

Zach shared a couple of tips with negotiations, locations, and getting the right timing.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

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Zach: I actually got my Bachelors Degree in Trumpet Performance. During my undergrad, I really got into audio engineering and started recording student recitals for fun. Eventually friends started asking me to film their recitals as well, so I picked up a cheap Sony Handycam. I was frustrated with the quality and eventually was lead to the Canon t2i by a friend.

During my first year of grad school studying Music Education, I typically arrived on campus about an hour early since I took the train to school. I stopped in the campus book store each morning to read Joe McNally’s “LIFE Guide to Digital Photography: Everything you Need to Shoot Like the Pros,” which really helped teach me the basic foundations of photography. Due to my background in music I was soon after given the opportunity to work as a media intern for the Crossmen Drum and Bugle Corps, which allowed me to really learn and hone my craft while on tour with them.

Phoblographer: What got you into portraiture and senior portraits?

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Zach: While still having a huge passion for music and music education, I was fortunate enough to work on staff at Marcus High School as a marching band technician during the fall of 2013. I took photos at the football games, rehearsals, and on band trips mostly for fun, but a lot of the parents and students took notice. I submitted all the photos I took during the season to the Band Yearbook crew and that eventually led to my first couple of Senior Portrait inquiries and bookings from parents.

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Phoblographer: Senior portraits are supposed to tell a bit about the person and in some ways are very environmental. What do you try to achieve with each session?

Zach: Location is a huge part of senior portraits, and I think it can really add a lot of depth not only to the images but to the story you’re trying to tell through them. You’re not only celebrating the past accomplishments of each senior, but you’re looking forward to what comes ahead. It’s a rite of passage for most young adults and I think it’s incredibly important to remember that season of life. I love to take seniors out to real world locations, whether it be Downtown Dallas or a favorite local coffee shop. It helps portray that they’re about to be out on their own, ready to take on a new set of challenges and adventures.

Phoblographer: Walk us through a typical negotiation for sessions like these.

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Zach: I almost always meet with the senior and one of their parents ahead of time. I do show them some of my past work, but ultimately I want to try and learn as much about them as possible. Allowing the seniors and parents to provide location, wardrobe, and prop suggestions helps me to get a better feel for their personality. Meetings prior to the shoot also helps them become more comfortable with me, which in turn allows the seniors to be more comfortable in front of the camera.

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

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Zach: I just went through a pretty big change in gear, having sold my entire Canon setup in favor of Nikon about 5 months ago! Currently I’m shooting with the Nikon D810 and D750, a great combo for portraits, wedding work, and just about anything else really.

For lighting I really enjoy the Phottix Odin system, particularly for the high speed sync capability and the ability to control my flash manually from the camera. I usually stick with a single SB-700 modded with an umbrella or softbox, which provides more than enough output and control for me in most cases. Moms also make great lighting assistants during sessions, seriously. They love being a part of the image making process!

Phoblographer: These sessions obviously have a Q&A interview session, how do you get the seniors to talk more about themselves and get them to open up to you.

Zach: There is usually so much going on in a high school seniors life, that its not too hard to find something for them to talk about. I usually start by asking them about their interests and activities in school, and then move on to their plans after high school. Some of them are dead set on going to a certain college, and most of them are very excited about graduating. I find that if you show a genuine interest in their life they will almost always open up to you.

Phoblographer: Tell us about one of your favorite senior portrait images.

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Zach: One of my seniors, Scott, was a French Horn player in both the Marcus High School band and the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra. We had planned to do some portraits of him in Downtown Dallas outside the Meyerson Symphony Center, and when we arrived we discovered there was a middle school band festival taking place. During a lunch break, we asked one of the backstage assistants if we could take a quick photo on stage, and they happily agreed! Getting to photograph him on the same stage the Dallas Symphony and countless other world class musicians perform on was pretty incredible luck.

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