Senior Photos: the Awkward, the Embarrassing, and the Retouched

Written and Media by Katie Wallace


 

Two words exist in America that can make any high school graduate cringe: senior photos. We look back on our twenty-some photos and say things like “what was I thinking?” or “that doesn’t even look like me!” Often times, we end up regretting senior photos by the end of our junior year of college. We look back on these portraits and finally see how truly awkward the poses are, and how much retouching the photographer did to make us look “smooth” and “beautiful.” But what’s the point? Why pay $300 for portraits that don’t even look like you, or that you’ll regret in a few short years? Photographers who specialize in senior photos have taken their editing too far; they have lost the art of portraiture to Photoshop actions and retouching to make people appear different than they actually are.

Photo by King Street Studios
Photo by King Street Studios

Senior photos these days are simply awkward. Retouching has become far too common and easy with Photoshop and an endless sea of actions readily available to anyone with a credit card. Senior photographers pride themselves on being able to make a girl’s face look smooth by zapping her acne clean off. However… That’s not the real her. So why aren’t photographers trying to capture the real personalities of these people? Senior photos are supposed to be about showing who a person is through images; not attempting to fool the world into thinking every 17-year-old girl is a model.

 

Retouching on photos has become much easier throughout the years. Photographers sell Photoshop actions that automatically can smooth a person’s face and adjust the lighting so the photo looks light and airy. Light and airy photos aren’t the problem here. The problem is, photographers edit their models to look completely different. They’re only worried about making a model look beautiful and desirable as opposed to who they really are. That’s not to say that these seniors aren’t beautiful; they are (although, let’s face it… high school is a time of awkward trends) are uniquely beautiful. Every person has their own unique feature that makes them beautiful. But that one unique feature can often times get lost in retouching.

 

Photo by Urban Willow Photography
Photo by Urban Willow Photography

One of the biggest offenders of retouching I have seen is actually the photographer who did my own senior photos (yes, they seemed like a good idea at the time). When I got my photos back, my face was almost washed out because of so much retouching. I liked my photos for a little while, but as I looked at them more and more, I realized that the girl in the photos didn’t even look like me. To this day, I still regret putting that one photo my student I.D. I felt like my real personality wasn’t shining through these photos. I looked like an awkward child; but I’m over it. Really. I have learned to embrace my awkward senior photos. However, that doesn’t make extreme retouching okay, especially when a high school senior can’t recognize herself. I continued to follow this photographer and her work, to see what else she would come up with; I wasn’t a huge fan of what I saw. Don’t get me wrong – she took excellent photos. Her framing was great, and she could capture natural lighting like no other. It was the posing and the postproduction that got to me. The awkward arm on the head and hand in the hair just weren’t cutting it. No one poses like that naturally. No one. And these models I saw were gorgeous… way to gorgeous for a high school senior. I thought that this photographer had taken retouching too far. Their eyes obviously weren’t that big and sparkly, and their skin was definitely not that smooth.

Images by Urban Willow Photography
Images by Urban Willow Photography

With that said, not all senior portraits are bad. If done properly, it can actually look pretty good. For example, earlier this summer, a Missouri teen took her senior photos at Taco Bell to break away from the mold of awkward senior photos, and to poke fun at them. In my opinion, these photos were done quite well. Her face hardly looks retouched, if at all, and the posing is (mostly) natural.

Photos by BRENDAN BATCHELOR/BRENDAN BATCHELOR PHOTOGRAPHY
Photos by BRENDAN BATCHELOR/BRENDAN BATCHELOR PHOTOGRAPHY

Another photographer that I have recently come to admire is Elizabeth Messina. Although she is not a senior photographer, she more often than not uses natural lighting to illuminate a subject’s face. This provides a soft, airy photo while naturally removing shadows on a person’s face that normally get removed in the postproduction process. Her book The Luminous Portrait talks about how she uses natural lighting, posing, and much more to capture the real beauty of a moment with a bride or mother.

Senior photos should not be awkward; seniors should not have to look back on their portraits and want to erase any trace of them from the internet. Senior portraits should capture the natural beauty and personality of a high school senior instead of making them into something they’re not. Retouching just isn’t the way to go for any type of portrait when you’re trying to make someone look completely different. There’s no point. So instead of trying to digitally mold a teenager into America’s Next Top Model, let’s capture the real beauty of a person. Let’s capture their humor, their talents, and what really matters to them.

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