Revisiting “What’s Too Sexy for High School Seniors?”

Andy Bondurant, AvatarThis guest blog is by Andy Bondurant, co-founder and director of Senior Portrait Artists (spa) an organization dedicated to equipping and inspiring senior portrait photographers. spa holds an annual Event that will be held this year in Palm Springs, California, in February 2011. Feel free to follow Andy on Twitter (@spartists), Facebook or the spa blog. Find out more about how spa and spa Event can help your senior portrait business by visiting www.spartists.com.

One of the problems that confront photographers who create high school senior portraiture on a regular basis is the question “What’s too sexy?” It seems like every time I get together with a group of photographers, this discussion comes up. Everyone deals with it. I’ve posted on this question several times over the past year, and it has been one of the most viewed blog posts on the spa Blog to date.

In short, there is no real easy answer. You may please the senior, but not the parent or the parent but not the senior. Or you may be able to please both the senior and mother, but totally miss on the father. It’s a fine line to walk no matter how you approach it.

Quite a few years ago we learned a great tip from fellow senior portrait photographer Gary Box. He says there are three things that make up a portrait that may be viewed as too sexy.

1. Outfit
2. Pose
3. Facial expression

His rule is that you can get away with using any two of the above three at one time. However, once you combine all three, you will have an image that has crossed the line and officially become too sexy. So if a senior brings in an outfit that will expose quite a bit of cleavage be careful with either the pose or expression (as well as being willing to talk with the parent and senior about the outfit chosen and how it may look).

Now, here may be the bigger and more important question – even though you’ve pleased the client how do you choose an image for your advertising? It was a question that was raised in the spa Talk membership forum just the other day – “Is this advertisement too sexy?”

I recently read a great article about branding and marketing about how a funny image or advertisement is good but it does not compete with an image that creates shock. Both engage emotion, but the one that shocks causes movement in the viewer more often than the one that is funny. In all honesty, if you aren’t getting an email, phone call or letter every year or so that says you’ve crossed the line, you may not be close enough to the edge.

Again, it’s a fine line. A really fine line. When working to attract clients and potential clients to your studio the reality is that sex sells, but at the same time too much sex repels. The same three rules apply in advertising, like they do in shooting an image for a client.

It’s important to remember that in the end, high school seniors are kids. Many times they aren’t even 18 years old. They aren’t models, how you project them in your advertising can change the image they carry in their world (both for good or bad).

So, what do you think – have you been told that your work crosses that line? Do you agree that none of the images of high school seniors are “too sexy”, just right or completely inappropriate? Comment below. A dialogue is usually a spark for bigger ideas. Your voice is heard here!

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  • http://twitter.com/FundySOS Fundy SOS

    My personal opinion is that it is better to err on the more conservative side. Kids are being pushed to grow up faster and faster.

    The one photo above that really goes to far is the one with the girl in the hotel robe. Like she just woke up after having a one night fling. Very bad.

    Fundy

  • http://twitter.com/FundySOS Fundy SOS

    My personal opinion is that it is better to err on the more conservative side. Kids are being pushed to grow up faster and faster.

    The one photo above that really goes to far is the one with the girl in the hotel robe. Like she just woke up after having a one night fling. Very bad.

    Fundy

  • Nicole

    Great article. I find my seniors want what a lot of looks that they are seeing in fashion magazines. I feel I’m serving two clients, the senior and the parent so I accommodate both. I give my senior what is envisioned in their mind and give mom nice smiling conservative poses/clothing choices so they have nice art to hang on their walls for years to come.

  • Jesse

    I think this is an interesting conversation, and I agree with much of what was said. However, I disagree with the notion that we should consider pushing the line in our work and advertising as a marketing consideration. I believe in serving the needs of customers and understanding marketing trends, but I think we have to maintain our own compass in terms of what we think is appropriate for a teen girl.

    Exactly as you said at the end, “how you project them in your advertising can change the image they carry in their world (both for good or bad).”

  • Andy Bondurant

    Fundy – the hotel robe shot was done during our annual spa Event at the Hotel del Coronado. Not a typical senior shoot in the sense it was done at a hotel. Point well taken though.

    Jesse – I don’t think you should push the line any further than you would push it in a normal shoot, but I also don’t think you should hold back. The adage is true – “sex sells” – the question is what does that look like for a high school senior (in my opinion much different than an engagement, but also different than what you would use to sell children’s photography).

    Nicole – thanks and good points.

  • Todd

    I don’t have any real issue with any of these except perhaps the next to last one. I love the image but the stripper socks and cami push this one pretty close to the edge.

  • Lisa

    If your ad has a sexy senior in it, then seniors who want sexy photos will be coming to you. You will attract what you advertise for and possible repel seniors who think (or whose parents think) it’s too sexy. Personally, I don’t think senior pictures is a time for sexy. It’s a very fine line. There’s also a line between slightly sexy and hooch. The way the media sexualizes children, some of these little girls mistake one for the other. I meet with all my seniors before and have them bring their clothes in and edit with them to the best outfits. If they want sexy, I just tell them it’s not really the time for that but when they turn 18 if they want to come have a boudoir session, we’ll totally do sexy there. I think their mothers appreciate me talking to them about it vs. them having to tell them what they can and can’t wear. The session is fun and fashion inspired and they are excited to do it. I send them home with a few homework in the mirror assignments and when they come back to shoot it usually works out great and no sexy struggles. Obviously, most of my clients are girls so this is mostly directed towards them.

  • NVP

    Maybe its just because I am a younger photographer (20’s), but I really dont see anything wrong with any of the pictures that were shown. None of them show an access amount of skin, cleavage, or leg.

    Just for sake of discussion on the pictures that others have found not appropriate Ill throw in my 2 cents.

    The one with the girl that has on the “stripper” socks, I guess I just dont see it. You only get a hit of breast. Nothing here seems wrong here.

    The picture of the girl in the robe, again, the only thing you see is her face and her arm. As the author stated above, the shot was for the spa that is clearly defined by the logo on the front of the robe.

    Again, I really dont see anything wrong with these pictures.

  • Gimagesdp

    Of course you don’t see anything wrong, you are 20 and not a parent of a 16-17 yr old and you obviously don’t make your living from senior photography. Photogs who are shooting and selling senior portraits need to understand the point of view of the parents since they are usually the ones with the checkbooks.

  • Gimagesdp

    Perception is reality. If you are perceived as the photographer with the sexy pics, then you are. If you create great photography, sexy doesn’t come into the conversation. The word SEXY never enters our studio and we create very cool photography with great color,posing, lighting that our seniors love. We are also in southern California which has always been very conservative. I don’t see too many sexy senior images created in this area. Usually because if you do, a negative reputation will be created. We are also 50 miles from the middle of the porn industry and have been for many years. All the parents and seniors know that and will recognize the style of the pics if they see it. I have been photographing seniors for 15 years and see it all the time because I ask why a parent doesn’t like a pose or image. The answer is always that it looks like Playboy. (Personally, I love every image shown, but my business would be dead if I did that style.)

  • Billie Garner

    So adore the one with the “Flirty Schoolgirl Anklet Socks”, plan to add a pair of these socks to our studio props! The girl in the robe reminds me of how girls like to look, as if she just stepped out of a spa treatment and feeling gorgeous! The most important thing I do in defining what is appropiate for my Senior is to have that clothing consultation with the Senior and her Mom!

  • Andy Bondurant

    Good point on you shoot what you show. That is true, so if you show something you don’t want to shoot (whether that is sexy images or a favorite background) don’t show it.

    I think it’s funny when they specifically say they don’t want sexy, but bring in a super sexy outfit. Ummm…

  • Andy Bondurant

    I’ve heard that before – So Cal is conservative – which totally surprises me based solely on what I see on TV. You are 50 miles from the porn capital, but conservative. Just always blows me away.

  • Andy Bondurant

    I think this is a good point of interpreting what is and isn’t sexy. I totally didn’t see stripper socks in this image, but there were others from these same shoots that I didn’t post because of what I saw as too sexy.

  • NVP

    Just to clear up a few things, Im in my 20’s, 27 to be exact, and I do make a living shooting seniors. Even being located in the Midwest, none of these pictures make me think sexy. I see fun, hip, youthfulness when I look at this set.

    As with any photo session, you have to see what the client wants. Then it is up to you to give it to them. Clients also know, or should have an idea of, what kind of photographs that you take. If they see your work from a former client, seeing your work by some means on the internet, or even when they walk into your studio. They have seen your work somewhere and they have chosen you out of the long list of photographers for some reason. It may be anything from how the like your work to how much you charge for a session/prints.

  • Joey Jones

    Hahaha I love how photographs get interpreted. I created the image of Kristine in the robe. What we were doing through parts of the shoot was acting the part of a hollywood starlet on vacation and having to deal with paparazzi. (we had 20 photographers following us around during the educational shoot) She had just left the spa and was having a coffee on the balcony. Yes, there is an actual coffee in her left hand out of camera. Totally innocent actual situation.
    In President Bush’s new book, he writes about the photograph of him looking out the window of Marine One while flying over New Orleans after Katrina. Most of the public viewed the image as him being detached from the misery on the ground. He is a deeply religious and spiritual man and that perception couldn’t be farther from the fact. But once that perception took hold because of the photo – it stuck. The same will always be true with our portraits of seniors. We should just enjoy the art and not mis-read into the ‘image’.

  • Leah Bowman – Soul Fusion

    I have to say that I am very impressed with all the images… the only one that felt “too sexy” too me was the “stripper socks” shot. It kinda has that fantasy feel to it… still it didn’t have too much flesh, just the overall feel was a bit eewy. :) We do mainly seniors and they all read fashion magazines and want to look like those models, the trick is, like you said, to do the model poses and expressions in the “shopping with Mom” outfit. They have a GREAT glamour feel with out the need for being overly sexy… when they come in the door with the mini skirt that barely covers their undies… I always have them laughing and smiling with their ankles or knees crossed! LOL

  • Andy Bondurant

    I wonder sometimes if they have no clue as to what they are wearing/doing with the outfits they choose for a shoot. Other times you know they do.
    Part of the job of the photographer is to help the client understand what they are presenting…

  • Athena Bludé

    I like how I’m not the only one thinking about this. I’ve left sessions with teenagers thinking how I could have made them look more youthful. As they’re the ones that automatically go into those sexy facial expressions on their own. I totally agree with Fundy too – better to err on the conservative side. I’d rather not get an email saying I’ve pushed the envelope with a teenager.

  • http://athenablude.com Athena

    I like how I’m not the only one thinking about this. I’ve left sessions with teenagers thinking how I could have made them look more youthful. As they’re the ones that automatically go into those sexy facial expressions on their own. I totally agree with Fundy too – better to err on the conservative side. I’d rather not get an email saying I’ve pushed the envelope with a teenager.

  • Anonymous

    I totally agree with Fundy too – better to err on the conservative side. I prefer not to receive an email saying that I pushed the envelope with a teenager.

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  • Anonymous

    I have been photographing seniors for 15 years and see it all the time because I ask why a parent doesn’t like a pose or image. The answer is always that it looks like Playboy.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a fine line to walk no matter how you approach it.
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