Refreshing Senior Portrait Photography

by Jacqueline Tobin, Jessica Gordon and Libby Peterson

August 07, 2013


© Kristin Sweeting

As the summer light becomes more golden and backpacks emerge from closets, it’s only appropriate that our Back to School issue features some of our favorite images and marketing ideas for high school senior portrait photography. In the following section, we feature three senior portrait photographers: Leslie Kerrigan, who funds the majority of her photography business with seniors; Kristin Sweeting, who shoots senior portraits in addition to her business as a music industry photographer; and Charleton Churchill, who is just tapping into the senior market. Each has a distinct approach to senior photography that’s setting the bar high for youthful, fresh shots! 

Leslie Kerrigan: The Art of Seniorologie

Leslie Kerrigan of Greenville, South Carolina, markets herself exclusively to high school seniors in her area who want a colorful, on-location second shoot with a private photographer beyond the boring, black-draped background of typical yearbook photos that many schools in her area require.


© Leslie Kerrigan

Kerrigan is such a specialist in her field that she was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal this past May as part of the feature “Best High-School Pictures Ever” along with several other photographers about the ever-growing genre.

“Many teens pressure their parents to spend more for a fancy photo shoot,” Kerrigan explains, and in that shoot the kids want to go all out with hair and makeup and new outfits.” One teen quoted in the WSJ article, decided to—after striking a deal with her mom—use the money she would have spent on a class ring to instead purchase a session with Kerrigan. “That story really warmed my heart and has stayed with me,” says the photographer. And when something like that does occur, the word-of-mouth referrals that ensue from that one client, she says, are priceless.


© Leslie Kerrigan

Two years ago, Kerrigan started a blog, seniorologie.com (separate from her lesliekerriganphoto.com website), to educate other senior photographers on posing, lighting, marketing and editing. She wanted to share her experience of growth in the senior market, but also give other senior photographers the opportunity to share their work, advice and insight. Kerrigan also hosts a Seniorologie Tour around the country with speakers and workshops, and always shows a video she made of teens speaking about their own preferences. “They talk about what they want in a senior portrait and shoot, what their likes are, their expectations, what products they like and what makes them want to book a certain photographer,” she explains. “And after all, they are who we are photographing. It helps to hear directly from them exactly what they want.”

On her local turf, Kerrigan’s name gets around in several ways. In addition to online marketing, she has a senior rep/spokesmodel program. “I like to recruit seniors through an application process, and then I go through and pick between seven and ten girls, and give them a styled photo shoot with a concept or theme that provides them with fun, unique photos to share with their friends.”


© Leslie Kerrigan

She also gives them rep cards with the girl’s actual photo on it, along with a description of Kerrigan’s business that the rep can pass out. “I also give them a Sticky Album—a digital album for your iPhone or Smart Phone—that has photos of them that they can share,” Kerrigan says. “That’s how I get my name out…and in return, if they get one referral then they are going to get their own specific senior photo session. If they get five referrals, they will get more things.”

“Seniors come to me for something different than what the school provides, and I try to get to know each one of them,” Kerrigan says. “That, in turn, makes them become comfortable in front of my camera, which also gives them an experience that makes them want to share the results with their friends.”                  

—Jacqueline Tobin


Kristin Sweeting: Anything But Square

Although she markets herself as a music and wedding photographer in her home-base of Nashville, Tennessee, Kristin Sweeting is inevitably sought out every year by high school seniors with a creative vision.
That could be because Sweeting shoots her portrait sessions (which typically last about two hours), strictly with film, and the resulting images take on a youthful, natural, editorial look. “I shoot a lot of creative seniors who have a funky style and want something different,” says the self-taught photographer who’s been shooting professionally for three years.


© Kristin Sweeting

After an initial consultation with her clients, Sweeting typically sets out on location with her Mamiya 645 medium format, Polaroid Land camera, Holga and Mamiya 6. “I’ll do a couple shots with double exposures on the 645, the Polaroid is really fun because it has bellows and looks really vintage; and then the Mamiya 6 and Holga are square format,” she says. “I try to make it a fun experience for the seniors on top of having some traditional portraits for the parents.”

With so many teens in love with the look and popularity of Instagram, Sweeting is giving seniors what she calls “the legit Instagram.” “I do feel like people are more excited about square format because they’re familiar with Instagram,” she says. “But I don’t crop digital images or try to make them look like Instagram. I use Holga cameras or a medium format that shoot squares, and the kids get excited that their pictures are shot on film.”


© Kristin Sweeting

For one senior who wanted an adventure/nature themed shoot, Sweeting had the idea to hike out to a swimming hole with a huge waterfall. “It was in the fall, so we used lots of yellow outfits and she got in the freezing cold water at the base of the waterfall and all the fall colors reflected in the water.” Sweeting says. “I think every shoot should have at least a glimmer of adventure in it. The ‘imperfect’ and unplanned moments usually end up being my favorite to capture, and you usually get that when you ask people to push out of their comfort zone.”

Because so many of her senior clients are excited about art and photography, Sweeting says, “I want to be an encouragement to seniors…I try to see parts of their personality and talk about that during our shoot because it’s a pivotal time for them going out to college. It’s all about seeing the unique parts of them and encouraging that. What you say to people during a shoot can be as important as the photograph.”                

—Jessica Gordon

Charleton Churchill: Editorializing the High School Senior

Charleton Churchill hasn’t been in the wedding and portrait photography business for long, but since going full-time in 2009 as Charleton Churchill Photography out of Sacramento, California, he’s already marketed his senior portraits in a way that few photographers have dared to attempt: shooting portrait sessions in the style of a teen clothing print ad or catalogue.


© Charleton Churchill

“If you want to get noticed,” Churchill says, “you’ve got to do something different.” For a recent group session, Churchill played with the idea of “cool,” a concept he says “is worshipped in high school, and clothing companies bank on it through their marketing and branding.” He became fascinated by the images on the walls of stores like American Eagle Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch. “I stare at the images and see ‘cool,’” Churchill says. “It’s time we up our game to at least the standard that these clothing stores have on their walls.” Roaming the clothing racks, the colors he saw over and over were red, white and blue. He went with it, naming his own session “American High School.”

The nine rising and graduating seniors who volunteered for the shoot came from four different Sacramento area high schools; the three guys and six girls who modeled donned one casual and one formal outfit throughout the shoot. Churchill’s philosophy is to step away from the classic senior portrait; he shoots for atmosphere instead—some of the photos don’t even show the faces of all (or occasionally any) of the teens. Churchill wants to convey the identity of these teens by their interactions with one another. “Individual shots are nice, but having a group session where they all feel part of a community makes the design even stronger,” Churchill says. “The images feel more important.”


© Charleton Churchill

An adventurist at heart, Churchill was inspired to learn more about photography while preparing for his climb up Alaska’s Mt. McKinley, where he knew he’d want to capture the mountain’s pristine beauty. Two years later, he started his studio and was named Sacramento’s Best Photographer in the 2010 KCRA 3 A-List contest.

After the portrait shoot, Churchill and the teens had a pizza party where they watched a slideshow of the session three times. Everyone loved it, he says, and they couldn’t wait to share it on social media. Though he’s busy shooting nearly 40 weddings each year, Churchill plans to shoot and market more American High School group sessions every other year. Until then, he’s hopeful that the concept will generate additional buzz for his photographic offerings.

“For me, it’s all about experience and great photos,” he explains. “If people have a great experience, they are going to tell their friends; if you have great photos, they are going to show their friends. If you have both, you’ve nailed it.”      

—Libby Peterson

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