The Photographer’s Wardrobe

The Photographer’s Wardrobe

Every photo gig has it’s own requirements when it comes to clothing. Sometimes the choice on what to wear boils down to simple logistics. No-brainers like warm clothes for shooting wildlife, night, or winter photography. Maybe swimsuits and sandals for beach and water shooting so you don’t have to worry about soaking nice clothes and shoes. But most of us photographers spend our time photographing people. Those people hold events they need captured by us, and that is where the major gray area is, as far as selecting attire for these events. So, this article will focus on portrait photographers and my perspective on what makes sense for a few different situations you may find yourself in while working for various clients. That is key… “what makes sense.”

Dress to impress, dress to perform, or somewhere in the middle. Does the event even call for you to fret over this? What’s the weather like? What’s your gear situation? What’s expect of you? Know your client. It always helps asking the client some details about the event just to get your head wrapped around the basics, get the feel for things, and you can more confidently make a call. There are a lot of other questions that you need to ask yourself from the perspective of your job tasks which will drive your attire as well.

Of course we always want to look nice, but do you see cable guys, professional athletes, or landscapers working in business suits? Obviously not, and that is because they have a job to do. We all know why a professional wears what they do, attire is almost always driven by the job. It would be completely silly to intentionally hinder your work performance by making clothing choices solely based on the idea of trying to visually please other people. These people, who by the way, are not being asked to perform your same job, so let’s not lose that perspective. First and foremost, you have a job to do, a job you’ve been paid to be there to capture to the best of your abilities. This, above all, needs to remain as your primary driving factor for your clothing. I couldn’t imagine finishing a photo shoot and thinking I could have done better if it weren’t for clothing that got in my way, slowed me down, or made me lose focus.

Let’s start with the simple stuff. Casual photo shoots for a family portrait, senior photo, or other work that you might do in your studio or out at a location. Pretty much any other photo gig aside from an event where you might be concerned about guests and formal wear. To me, this is a no holds barred situation, anything goes. I can tell you this, the last thing you’ll find me sportin’ is formal wear. Why, why would I just bluntly toss that statement out there? Let’s look at a typical on-location photo shoot situation for myself, and everything that goes into it, then the answer will be as blatantly clear as my statement.

Trash the Dress shoot – Beach in Maui – shorts, no shirt or shoes

It’s the day of a photo shoot, I’m off to the studio to snag all of the lighting gear needed for the shoot. More or less, that typically ends-up being a full car load (a minimum of 4 lights, stands, cables, power packs, light modifiers, sandbags, oh, and my 60 lb. camera bag). My typical gear set will hover around 200 lbs… fun, right? It all gets bagged-up, packed out to the car, and we are off. By the time my car is packed and loaded, I’m already at least 15 minutes into my day of weighted bends, curls, and lunges (let’s call this the warm-up). Arrive at location, a brisk walk around the location, checking all options. Now it’s unpacking all of that lovely gear, trekking it sometimes up to a quarter mile from the car to the photo spot, and setting it all up. Another 30 minutes of unpacking, setting up, lifting, squats, and I’m ready to shoot. If I’ve made it this far without having busted into a full body sweat, I’m super pumped that I get to meet my clients without giving them a sweating handshake (but this is rarely the case, and I’m sweatier than Shaq after playing a full basketball game. Well, maybe not that bad, but still…). Photographing people at eye level, it’s critical for creating engaging and visually pleasing portraits. At 6’2″, I’m typically taller than my average subject. This means I maintain a squatting position for the duration of my shoot to get eye level with my subjects. When I’m not squatting, I’m usually stomping through bushes, rolling on the ground, climbing on things, whatever I can do to get interesting compositions and angles. When I’m done with a shoot, I usually look like 3 year old who just spent the entire day out on the playground. I’ve got pine needles in my hair, twigs hitchin’ a ride on my back, and God knows what on my knees and shoes. I’m effectively a homeless-looking mess. Oh, but wait, there’s more. There’s all that gear… oh boy… it’s packing time. I sure hope you didn’t think being a photographer was anything close to “glamorous.”

Middle of the horse field, stepping in God knows what

I don’t want this to come across as if it’s a total gear issue. You should be hustling regardless of your gear situation, even if you are only shooting ambient light situations with a single camera and lens. Ducking, squatting, lunging, laying, climbing… give me an action, and I’ve probably done it with a camera stuck to my face. The packing of lots of gear just adds to what should already be a very active job. If you are any good at photographing subjects and events, you should be in the same boat. You know those people you see with a camera, casually walking around with a client, always shooting while standing straight-up, never working the camera or burning one extra calorie to mix-up their composition? Yeah… contrary to popular belief, those are not photographers. These are probably the same people wearing formal clothes for every shoot…

You should be hustling regardless of your gear situation, even if you are only shooting ambient light situations with a single camera and lens.

More often than not, I am wearing shorts, even in the colder months of the year. This allows me to conduct my usual acrobatics without having to pull, adjust, twist, or any other form of correction of pants that tend to happen after only a couple minutes of activity. Ever run more than like a hundred feet in jeans? Yeah, it’s gross. You feel like you need to take a shower asap. I’m not going to knowingly force myself into this situation shoot after shoot. Most importantly, shorts keep the sweaty-Shaq-action to a minimum, and maximize my comfort level so that I can focus on my work. Accompanying my shorts are sneakers and an unrestrictive cotton shirt. I’ll layer the top half with jackets if necessary, but they don’t last long, I’ll be sporting only a t-shirt and shorts outside in December during the middle of a shoot, no joke. There hasn’t been a single portrait shoot where I’ve said, “gee, I wish I had more clothes on.”

Laying in the middle of a downtown Tacoma street

None of what I wear is solely choice, when it comes down to non-formal events, it’s purely a function decision. It’s important that I can work fast, efficiently, and keep focused on my job. I can’t do that in slacks, a dress shirt, and a tie. Aside from the obvious heat issue, the last thing I want on my mind are my slacks and shirt when I go to lay down on the ground or kneel, and if I’m going to ruin nice clothes. It’s a negative domino effect in this situation. I will not get the shots I want, I will not be able to move and position the way I want, and I will not be 100% focused on my work. It would go down something like this… “Here are your photos, Smith family. They suck, but hey, I looked really snazzy while I was taking them, right?!”

No joke, I have jeans that I have worn holes into the knees. A direct result of continually kneeling on photo shoots.

Getting eye level with model in pool.

The photo above is a great example of how just about every shoot goes, and that is something always unexpected happens. Unexpected is always a good thing. Spontaneous ideas feed new, fresh work, and I wasn’t going to let my attire get in the way of fluid thinking. Luckily, I was already wearing shorts, albeit they were not swim shorts. The ride home was a bit on the wet side, but I got the shots I was happy with.

On to the formal events. This is where you need to find a balance between your function as a photographer and the event’s guest-wear. It’s a balancing act that will always differ in importance depending on the event. Fundraisers, performances, weddings, dinners, ceremonies… they can all radically differ in dress, ranging from tux to Hawaiian shirts. Have a convo or two with the client who has hired you about the scope of the event. It’ll probably give you a good idea on attire, but if you need to, it’s not tacky to ask specifically about clothes. They’ll probably appreciate you asking, a sign of professionalism. Honestly, more often than not, your client couldn’t care less about what you wear, cause they are far more concerned about the job you have been hired to conduct.

I tackle formal events with a “blending in” approach. As the photographer, I am there to capture the event. I need to walk around at times when every one else is sitting, duck into places of high visibility, and more or less be the only thing poking around and moving when no one else is. This will naturally draw attention, but you want to minimize that, and similar attire can help with that. I try to blend in with the environment the best I can (this also helps with attempting to capture candid portraits). I received a wonderful comment during a wedding this last summer, from the parents who threw the shindig… They praised the fact that they didn’t even know I was there capturing the event. It spoke volumes to me, as it is very important to me that during such a special event like that, there isn’t a distracting photographer elbowing their way into the middle of the ceremony. I get the photos, they have a peaceful, distraction-free ceremony, and it’s a win-win. The ultimate compliment in that type of shooting scenario.

Even at a “formal” event, I never forget the functionality in which I need to retain for my job. That means I’m sporting a fairly unrestrictive dress shirt, sleeves rolled-up. Pants are a khaki or dark khaki pant, which is cotton-based. This allows minimal motion restriction. I can bend, sit, and run around, etc, and it is a fairly breathable, light pant. Sorry, no ties or really dressy shoes. Regardless the level of dress you decide to commit to, don’t pick anything that reveals sweat, cause you will sweat if you are doing your job right. I remember attending a wedding a couple years ago (as a guest), and the photographer was dressed to the nines. I’m talking slacks, shirt, tie, dressy shoes… the guy even tossed-on suspenders. Really? Anywho, the guy was an absolute sweaty mess, like… just out of the shower wet. To make matters worse, all of his attire was a light tan, which… well, showed the whole world just how hard he was working. Now which is better? Underdress a smidge and keep your cool (literally) and functionality, or go all-out (knowing exactly what’s going to happen) and end-up looking like the poor sap who was chosen to work the dunk tank at the summer carnival? Can you manage a warmer, more restrictive wardrobe and still be effective at your job? Your call. It’s easier to say “oh well” if you wore the wrong thing for an hour-long event, but it’s a little harder to shrug it off if you wore the wrong clothes and are caught in the middle of a 10-hour marathon event, miserable and not focused.

Prone position for steady shots.

There have been plenty of events where I am in “dress clothes” knowing that I’ll be soon feeling like a neglected radiator, but I have to bend enough to the dress code to blend into the event. There have also been events where tasks required so much physical exertion from me that I almost completely disregarded the event’s dress code (knowing that going in). You must never forget the primary reason for you being there. Take photos, capture the moments, stay focused. You can’t do that sweatin’ balls in restrictive clothing. The next time you are at an event, look at what the photographer is wearing, what they are doing, and how well they are composed and performing.

Have you ever been looking at a set of photographs and thought, “hey this is a very nice set of images… but hey, what was the photographer wearing when they took them?”

Let me ask you something. Have you ever been looking at a set of photographs and thought, “hey this is a very nice set of images… but hey, what was the photographer wearing when they took them?” Pretty silly, right? The only time you are saying to yourself, “what was that photographer thinking?!” would be in reference to really bad photographs, not attire.

Here is a quick checklist that I run through my head for every event that might help you:

  • Formality of event.
  • Duration of event.
  • Environmental conditions – if outdoor, what’s the temp?
  • Amount of gear you will be packing around throughout event.
  • Anticipated level of walking/running around, squatting, kneeling, etc.

After you’ve done your checklist and feel you’ve selected the right clothes, do another check:

  • Range of motion – can you work easily in these clothes? Girls, you know a skirt really limits your available shooting positions, right?
  • Blending in – Go with the Goldilocks method here, not to flashy, not too underdressed, just right.
  • Shoes – are you wearing shoes that will leave your dogs barkin’ after only an hour or two?
  • Are you willing to get these clothes dirty, even if that just means the knees for kneeling shots?

If you are working any lengthy event which is out of town, bring at least an extra shirt and leave it in your car. The last thing I like to do is wear the same shirt I’ve slow roasted in for 8 hours only to wear it for another two-hour car ride home.

Some readers might think this post is a bit over the top, as if a photographer’s clothing is nothing to think twice about, “just wear what all the guests are wearing.” I know a lot of folks who always give-in to the pressures of fitting in. I’m sorry, but that is a very poor choice, from a professional performance perspective. The evening’s event will come and go, but your photos will last forever. You have a job to do. Wear what makes sense, and go out and capture awesome photographs.