Clothing and Background Selection

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Today's post comes from the book Corrective, Lighting Posing & Retouching for Digital Portrait Photographers, 3rd Edition by Jeff Smith. It is available from and other fine retailers.

In order to effectively conceal your clients’ flaws, they must be wearing the right clothing and you must select the right background. If their clothes are a poor style or color choice, or fit poorly, you may face insurmountable issues when it comes to applying corrective techniques. With your client in the right clothes, however, you’ll be able to achieve much more flattering results.

Probably the best advice I can give you in regard to your clients’ clothing is to have them bring in everything for you to look at. I am not kidding. We tell our seniors to bring in everything, and they do. The average girl brings in ten to twenty-five outfits; the average guy brings five to ten. By doing this, you always have other choices when a favorite outfit is a bad choice for a particular subject.

Pairing light clothes with lighter settings (and dark clothes with darker settings) helps keep the emphasis on the face. It also makes it easier to disguise common figure problems by letting the body blend in with the background.

Long Sleeves. We stress the importance of bringing in the proper styles of clothing.We suggest long sleeves for all portraits that are to be taken from the waist up. Large arms are much less noticeable in a full-length pose, so short sleeves are less of a problem in these portraits.

Black Clothing. We also suggest that anyone who worries about weight should bring in a variety of darker colors of clothing and several choices that are black. Black clothing is amazing. It will take ten to thirty pounds off of anyone who wears it, provided you use common sense and pair it with a black or very dark background. If you are photographing a family and Dad has a “beer belly,” ask him to wear a black sweater. Unless his stomach is huge, it will appear flat in the final portrait. If Mom has larger hips, put her in a black skirt or dress and she will appear noticeably thinner.

Black is flattering on everyone.

High Heels. Anytime a woman will be in a dress, we ask her to bring in the highest heel she owns to wear with it. If she doesn’t have any three-inch heels, she can borrow them from a friend. If the legs are showing, pantyhose should be worn unless the subject has very tan legs with great muscle tone. The nylons will not only make the legs look better by darkening them, but will make them appear firmer and disguise signs of cellulite.

High heels make the legs look more toned and shapely.

With clothing, the easiest way to know what to do is to know what not to do. If you think in terms of all the problems that clothing can create for your clients and then help them avoid these problems, you will learn how to use your clients’ clothing to make them look their best. Here are
some common problems that should be avoided.

Too-Tight or Too-Loose Clothing. We warn clients against wearing jeans or pants that are too tight around the waist. These create a roll where the tight waistband cuts into the stomach. Tight clothing also affects the subject’s ability to pose comfortably. I have had some subjects turn beet red because of tight pants as they try to get into a pose. For this reason, we ask all of our clients to bring in a comfortable pair of shorts (or, in the winter, sweatpants), to make it as easy as possible to get into the poses that won’t show areas below the waist.

If women have a frequent problem with tight jeans, guys (especially young guys) have the baggies. This cool-looking (so they think) style has the crotch that hangs down to their knees, while at the same time revealing undergarments to the world. Just try to pose a client in a seated position when there are three yards of material stretched out between his legs! Try to have him put his hands in pants pockets that are hanging so low he can’t even reach them.

In general, clothing that is loose-fitting on a person who is thin or athletic will add weight to the person in the portrait, especially if it is loose at the waist or hips. Tight clothing will add weight to those people who are heavier. With tight clothing on a heavy person you can see tummy bulges, cellulite, lines from waistbands, and every other flaw that weight brings to the human body.

Wrong Undergarments. Many women forget to bring in the proper undergarments. They bring light-colored clothing, but only have a black bra and underwear. They bring in a top with no straps or spaghetti straps and they don’t have a strapless bra. In this case, they either have to have the straps showing or not wear a bra, which for most women isn’t a good idea.

Advise your subjects to bring the correct undergarments for each outfit. For example, strapless dresses require strapless bras.

Guys are no better. I can’t count the number of times I have had a guy show up with a dark suit and nothing but white socks. Some men (okay, most men) tend to be more sloppy than women, which means that the clothing they bring often looks like it has been stored in a big ball at the bottom of their closet for the last three months. Many show up with clothing that used to fit ten years ago when it was actually in fashion.

Ever since I first started learning photography, I’ve been told to separate my subject from the background. “Only mall studios or underclass photographers let a person blend into a background!” is what many people will tell you.

To some degree this is true; you won’t sell portraits that appear to be two eyes and teeth coming out from a dark background. On the other hand, creating complete separation between the subject and the background is just as wrong—at least when you’re trying to correct the flaws that most of our paying clients have.

Instead, you should separate only what you want the viewer to notice, then coordinate everything else—allowing the problem areas blend into the background and disappear from view.

When the clothing and background blend tonally, the emphasis is on the subject’s face.

Let’s consider an example. A young lady comes to you for portraits. She is in perfect shape and wants an image for her husband to show her perfect curves. What do you do? You contrast or separate her entire body to focus attention on every one of those curves she wants her husband to see. If she were in a tight white dress, you would contrast it with a dark background; if she were in black, you would contrast it with white, drawing the viewer’s eye right to the dress and the outline of her body.

Your next session also wants a portrait for her husband (it must be close to Valentine’s Day!), but this young lady is overweight. While she does have a small waist, her hips and thighs are very large. To create a salable full-length pose for client number two, you will have to separate her very small waist while coordinating the area of the hips and thighs. This would be achieved by having her dress in black (or another darker color), then photographing her against a dark background. You would use a very small background light at her waist level to separate only the outline of her waist, while allowing the background to fall off to back to black behind her hips and thighs (so the dress and the background blend together). Of course, you would also use separation light to define the hair and probably the shoulders—unless there were any other problems to hide.

Increasing the contrast between the background and the clothing puts more emphasis on the figure.

The single biggest hurdle in the concept of separation or coordination is the client’s clothing. If it’s right, amazing corrections are possible. The black sweater or shirt is to the corrective photographer what liposuction is to the plastic surgeon. It’s amazing what’s possible! You can put an overweight woman (or dear old Dad, who looks like he’s nine months along and expecting twins) in a black shirt and pants and create images that will impress them.

Controlling separation lets you keep the viewer’s eyes right where you want them.

At the heart of this matter, the issue is control. Without control of the session, you cannot control the outcome of the final portraits, which means you can’t control making the sale, which in turn makes it impossible to control not living below the poverty line.

I’ll say it again: without control over your session you have no control over your business—and most people leave this profession, one that they dearly love, because their business is out of control. So this is important stuff!

To realize how far outside of the normal business world many photographers are, let’s apply the practice of many photographers to another profession. You show up on the morning of your scheduled surgery. They have shaved your head, your wife is crying, and your family and friends have filled the waiting room as the head surgical nurse comes up to you and says, “I bet you’re hungry after not eating since last night! No worries—you’ll wake up to some great hospital food.” (She’s a real joker!) You respond, “Oh no, my wife made me a big breakfast this morning. She says it might be my last!” You see your nurse’s face become a little tense. She says, “Didn’t they tell you not eat before coming in? Those idiots always forget! We are going to have to reschedule your surgery!”

Now, you might be thinking that this is big leap—from a life-and-death surgery to a simple picture—but is it? People take time off work to come to your studio to create an image that, in most cases, will be handed down through the generations. This “simple picture” is what people will go running into a burning home to save. Failing to inform your client properly of what they need to do to prepare for their session is irresponsible—just like the failure to tell the patient not to eat before surgery. This would never happen in medicine, but it happens every day, in every city, in our profession.

To control the clothing your client brings in, simply make a brochure or a few well-designed sheets with images showing what to do (a nice portrait in the proper clothing) and what not to do (a bad choice of clothing and a bad portrait as the result). I guarantee you that if you show your clients a woman with large arms in a sleeveless top and that same woman in a black, long-sleeve blouse or sweater, you won’t have to worry about sleeveless tops anymore. Women, when they are shown what to do and are able to see the difference the correct clothing can make in their appearance, will listen to your suggestions.

Without control of the session, you cannot control the outcome of the final portraits—or the sale.

These photographic illustrations of correct choices and incorrect choices in clothing photos should include: long sleeves vs. sleeveless (make sure the lady has very large arms); proper-fitting vs. too-tight shirts (showing rolls and bulges); solids vs. horizontal stripes; dark clothing vs. light clothing; skirts/dresses vs. slacks/pants; heels (three-inch or higher) vs. flats; and proper-fitting vs. too-tight jeans(cutting into waist). I’d also include a series of photos with the client in a black top (coordinating with a darker background and contrasting with a lighter background) and in a white top (coordinating with a white background and contrasting with a black background). You should include every common problem you have seen and had to deal with in your past clients.

This is the first step to controlling your session. You and your clients want the same thing: a beautiful, final portrait that they will happily hand over a big stack of money to own. Once you educate your clients—and quit blaming them—you can start enjoying the process of creating their images.


  1. Thank you for this post I have learnt so much!

  2. Great Stuff! I have learned the proper Studio lighting for portraits and group photos.

  3. Very well written post. I like the content of the blog very much. Thanks for sharing this information.
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