What to Wear for Your Photo Session

The question  “What should my family wear for the photo shoot?”, is the one question all photographers are asked, as a client prepares for the holiday card photo or that special shot ready to be displayed on the family gallery wall.

    Below are common questions asked about wardrobe for a family photo session. 


      Usually one of these four decisions will inspire your look: location, color, theme, or a special outfit for one of the family members (no shame mamas in showing off in your new dress).  Once you find your inspiration (you can find many ideas on Pinterest or Instagram), the direction of the remainder of the outfits will fall into place.  Sometimes, you only need one or two pieces to complete the look you already have in your closets!


      Before considering the location, ask yourself these questions:

      • Will I want to hang this photo in my home?  Will it complement my décor and colors?
      • Is this photo purely for a holiday card?
      • Is there a season more important to me than another season?  Do I want fall leaves or spring florals?  (I wish I had more risk takers during the winter months.  Snow photos with fun hats and colorful sweaters are so much fun!)

      The location could be anywhere really!  If you like a studio setting then you have little to think about and can consult with your photographer about a background.

      For an outdoor location, think about the comfort of your family.

      • Will the kids be too warm or too cold (here is when you need to think about the type of outfits for the season)? 
      • If you are breastfeeding or have a newborn, will you need amenities such as a place to breastfeed or the use of a restroom? 
      • Depending on where you live, is parking an issue? 
      • Will your family be willing to walk to a location from a parking spot? 
      • Do you have elders, who will need a place to sit? 
      • Will the time of the shoot coincide with nap time?

      When you ask yourself these questions, you will create a calm and fun environment for the family to engage in the photo shoot experience.  Of course, I am proponent of bribing the kiddos…and the dads.


      Before I advise you on the choice of colors, let’s start with what happens when you wear the colors white or black.

      White as a color is fresh, airy, and looks serene especially in a beach setting.  You can also mix in light pastel colors (think pink, beige, grey or peach) or bright colors (coral, red, green, or blue) with white to add more dimension to your photos.  White as a color choice can also be a nightmare color for a photographer when your location is anywhere green!  If you are planning a visit to the park, or a woodsy area, the color white or a pale blue will pick up the green colors around you.  In the editing process, removing greens from whites can be very time consuming. So, when in doubt, you are to be around lots of green, don’t wear white!

      Side note: the color green actually looks great in a green setting. The key is to break it up with another color like dark blue or brown.

      Oh, the sophistication and drama of black can be so chic! Go for it, but try to not let the color dominate the entire wardrobe, unless you are paying homage to The Addams Family (I better see you in Morticia’s eyeliner if you do).  Think about adding an accent statement to someone’s wardrobe, like a leopard or Burberry print, splashes of one color in a tulle skirt, shoes, or accessories like Converse sneakers, colored pumps, newsboy cap, or a hair barrette. 

      The most important point to note about black (besides it making you look slimmer) is to wear a black fabric, which is not washed out or has pilling like some sweaters usually accumulate.  Bring a fabric roller brush with you (a tip for all wardrobes) to remove any strings or excess particles.  Your photographer might just kiss you (I would for sure) for saving his or her time in the editing room.

      Ready to choose your color? Start with the one color, you want and build around that color, picking out up to 2 more coordinating colors.  Another option is to choose 2 colors and softer tones to bring out the two colors.  The key is to choose coordinating colors.

      One year, I knew I wanted burgundy as a color, and decided on grey and black for my additional colors. Adding layered clothing and accent pieces (more on that below) broke up the colors and added fun details like my open toe pumps, and Luca’s tie (and I am all about the details – ask my husband about that).  I do not consider the blue in jeans as a color, but rather an accent piece to the look, as you can always get away with someone wearing jeans (dads love this, less for them to do).

      Photo credit:   Kathy Santelli Photography


      I began creating our holiday cards a few years ago with a theme in mind to communicate our love and appreciation for what enriches our lives and makes us who we are.   One of the years we paid tribute to Abbey Road on our street.  (Enjoy this video of Paul McCartney Carpool Karaoke.)


      Photo Credit:  Josh Sears

      Photo Credit: Josh Sears

      Another theme I chose was the Art Institute of Chicago as art is like eating in our house, essential and nourishing to our beings.   For both of these themes, the location was the most important factor.  Outfits and poses fell into place and I was not too concerned mimicking outfits to every detail, but incorporated pieces like the top hat in the Seurat painting.

      I had added an action in Photoshop to mimic the Pointillism technique of Georges Seurat whose work,  A Sunday on La Grande Jatte hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago .  Photo credit:  Josh Sears

      I had added an action in Photoshop to mimic the Pointillism technique of Georges Seurat whose work, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Photo credit: Josh Sears

      Location:  Steps inside the  Art Institute of Chicago .

      Location:  Steps inside the Art Institute of Chicago.

      When choosing a theme, it's best to plan ahead and have an idea in mind on how you will execute your creative process. 

      • Think about what represents your family.  Ask yourself what are your interests?  Do you spend your days at sporting events?  If so, plan a photo shoot at the baseball diamond or in wardrobe of your favorite sports team. 
      • Location is important because it will set the stage for the photo. (Unless you are planning to use wardrobe to tell the story).  Search hashtags like #chicagomurals to find an urban location for a shoot or ask friends and family and your social community groups for ideas.
      • When choosing wardrobe, a few key pieces will do the trick to mirror your idea. (I knew that the top hat for my husband would be a focal point and communicate the idea of one of the characters from the painting.  When planning the Abbey Road card, I used a suit I had for Luca, but not having him wear shoes is what solidified the outfit.  I could have easily put him in a grey t-shirt and pants and the idea would have translated just as easily).  No need to stress about looking for exact clothing pieces.
      • Ask a friend who is skilled in graphic design or look for someone on a site like, Etsy, to create a look to your photo or give you ideas of a special font which can add to the look and feel of a holiday card.



      The most cost efficient places to look for outfits are your closets!  I bet that if you have a little girl, you have a million dresses, and if like me and you have boys, you will have fun accessories like vests, bow ties, and blazers.  Before you run all over town and drain your phone battery looking for outfits, take a breath (pour yourself some chardonnay), and go browsing in your closets.  Seriously, step back and pull out the pieces you love on your kiddos or yourself.   Think about comfort and fit.  Fit is so important!  As photographers, we can do only so much magic in Photoshop and believe me there is nothing worse during holiday gift card time when I have to edit a puffy blouse in every shot (you are only allowed to wear one if your theme is The Puffy Shirt episode from Seinfeld). 

      Have your children try the outfits on prior to the photo shoot.  Take a photo of them and look at the photo.  Do you love what you see?  Great, then you will love how they look even more in the photos we take during our shoot. 

      Why not borrow?  Talk to your mama tribe and you will find outfits without paying a dime.  I need to do this more often. 

      Stay away from these kids’ clothing challenges.

      • High collars and bulky turtleneck sweaters.  Your kids are like worms and they will move and so will the fabric covering up their faces.  I will be running up to you pulling down on their tops for every shot.
      • Oversized shirts, which cover their hands.  Rolling up the sleeves will not work!  If the sweater or shirt is too long, you will not be able to see their cute sticky little hands.
      • Too large of shoes.  Yes, you found the most amazing flats for your princess, but if they fall off every time we opt for an action shot, we are losing precious time for memorable snaps.
      • Hair accessories that will not stay on.  Some headbands will not stay put.  Save your sanity because you will be fixing it for every shot.
      • A new outfit they will not be comfortable in.  They will be miserable, and we all will too.
      • An accessory or outfit look whose time is to retire.  The suspenders looked cute when he was 3 but will he want to wear them again at 10?

      Unless your hubby loves to engage in outfit planning, finding most of his pieces in his wardrobe will make him happy.  You can always suggest a new shirt or bow tie to go with pants he already owns.

      If duty calls to shop, I suggest looking around early enough so that you can find the right sizes and maybe swap for something more inspiring you might find later. My go to places for the boys are Zulily (I look year round for inspiration as they will feature many brands at reasonable prices), Nordstrom, Zara, Gap, Janie and Jack, and H&M. Know of a children’s boutique in your area?  Support local business and find pieces you might not anywhere else.  Below are some of my picks in Chicago.

      Chicago's Kids Boutiques


      Once you have your colors and have an idea on the style of clothing, you need to think about who in the family is wearing what color or accessory.  If you like the matchy matchy look, then you’re done.  Personally, I like to complement but not match.

      For example, if you have more than one boy, dress one of the boys in a different shirt color than dad.  Then add a layering piece (vest, bow tie, hat, undershirt) of the same color or the third color on the other boy.  For the father and son photo, you will have a nice mix of your 2 or 3 colors.  The key is to not match outfits but to bring out the different colors choices in different wardrobe items and accessory pieces.

      • Stay away from logos and think about your choice of prints (a floral dress pattern will look pretty), but stripes and  herringbone are too distracting.
      • When choosing shoes, select shoes, which do not look too worn or dirty.  Have fun with this accessory.  If your photographer likes to be creative (like myself), your shoes might become a focal point in a photograph (I can’t resist shooting cowboy boots, or a great pair of heels and sneakers).
      • When you have selected your wardrobe, lay it all out.  By doing so, you will have a visual of what you want to add, change, or keep.

      I hope these suggestions will help to guide you in choosing your wardrobe selection with more assurance and clarity, while making the process inspiring, fun, and stress free!  Feel free to share your tips below.