Correction:

An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Chris Steuble. This version has been corrected.

High school senior portraits are getting more elaborate — and expensive

Video: Long gone are the days of laser backdrops in pop-up portrait studios. Now parents are investing serious money in senior class pictures taken by fashion photographers.

Back in September, Kayla Chernof had her school picture taken. It was the usual scholastic photo op: Sit. Awkward smile. Click. “Next.”

But the 17-year-old from Potomac, Md., wanted something more for her senior portrait.

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Something like this: “Oh, gorgeous. Oh, that’s stunning. I love that head-back thing you’re doing,” cooed photographer Brooke Daniels as Chernof preened and pouted in the October sun, her salon-coiffed hair and professionally applied makeup aglow in the reflected light held by an assistant. Daniels’s Canon click-click-clicked with high-speed, high-fashion intensity. “Good. Hands a little higher. Gorgeous!”

Chernof is among a growing number of 12th-graders who are thinking well outside the frame for their senior shots. The Instagram generation, devoted to “selfies” and bombarded with digital imagery, is increasingly forgoing the time-honored cap-and-gown pose in front of the blue-mottled screen for portrayals more elaborate, personal and, of course, expensive.

By the end of Chernof’s two-hour photo shoot ($300 before a single print gets made), the softball player at Bethesda’s private Holton-Arms School was arrayed in a spectacular Bollywood outfit of her own design. The sari and bangles paid homage to her mother’s Indian heritage and, furthermore, promised to pop dramatically off the yearbook page.

“I love it. This is so much more individual than the school picture,” said Chernof, who figured that about half her classmates were opting for customized portraits this year.

Portrait photographers in the region have noticed the uptick in families paying hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars for senior pictures. Some photographers are devoting their whole business to seniors eager to be photographed with their dogs, their cellos, their pickups and their motorcycles.

Daniels, who is based in Stafford County, Va., has shot senior portraits in barns, churches, laundromats and boxing rings. Underwater, too. One of her subjects made her dress entirely out of newspaper.

“It’s growing every year,” said Daniels, who has largely dropped family and baby work in favor of high-concept senior portraiture, which pulls in an average of $2,200 per package. She has a waiting list of clients. “When something becomes popular with teenagers, it just spreads,” she said. “They see these pictures on Facebook, and they want to do what their friends are doing.”

For most seniors, the glam shots will never make it into the yearbook. Many schools still demand uniformity on those pages, with the academic drape around female shoulders and the faux tux front for the guys. Often, the school’s contract with a photo company grants exclusive rights to shoot the yearbook pictures.

But that hasn’t stopped the growing demand for a second sitting.

“Teens today don’t want to settle for being uniform, like when we had our senior photos taken,” said Vickie Black, editor of Senior Style Guide, a trade magazine and Web site tracking the trend as it has spread from the Midwest and South. “They want their own look.”

Yes, Aoife Leogue donned the drape and sat, briefly, for her mandatory school shot at James Madison High School in Fairfax County. And she got to choose one of the four poses — all in the same folding chair, all before the same background — for the yearbook at no charge. But when it came time to buy the optional prints from the national school-photo vendor, her family decided it was worth it to spring for a private portrait.

They found a Vienna studio, Flashfire Photography, that spent two hours with Leogue in indoor and outdoor settings and produced more than 500 images for them to choose from. She and her parents haven’t picked their final prints yet, which will add several hundred dollars to the $400 cost of the shoot, depending on how many and what sizes they order. But they plan to frame one, send a bunch to family (many in Ireland) and exchange copies with other seniors at the end of the year.

“Even though it’s more expensive, it’s worth it,” Leogue said. “I look more like me.”

Chernof plans to feature one of her pro shots on her personal yearbook page, the space given to each senior to design as they wish. But months before the yearbook is printed, her senior picture has already made a satisfying splash on the Web. Within days of the shoot, Daniels posted proofs on Facebook. Chernof has been relishing the “likes” and the “Wow!” comments ever since.

“It usually becomes their profile picture right away,” said Chris Steuble, the owner of Flashfire, who shoots almost nothing but senior portraits. “A lot of what’s driving this is so they can post gorgeous pictures of themselves on ­social media.”

For some families, the senior portrait has emerged as a new milestone, a moment to be frozen as the young adult emerges from the grown child, and then hung on the wall between the baby and bridal portraits.

Shelly Hendrix of Falls Church framed her daughter Jenny’s standard school-shot senior picture, but she also wanted a “piece of art” to really capture her child’s last year at home. They hired Daniels for a shoot that included five outfit changes in five settings, including on a beach, in a tree and in a winter cap.

“We probably won’t have another picture done until she gets married, and then she’ll be doing it herself,” Hendrix said. “This was my last chance to have my baby photographed. I’ll have this forever.”

Like many teens, Jenny Hendrix was at first uneasy with the glaring attention of a professional shoot, which usually includes time in the makeup chair and striking a series of artificial poses.

Daniels, a former model, comforts them with tricks of the trade, creating curves with their posture, angles with their limbs, teaching them to look only obliquely at the lens.

“Then I show them a few images on the camera, and they’re, like, ‘Oh, my God!’ and their confidence soars,” Daniels said.

Even conventional senior portraits can cost families far more than they paid for school pictures in the previous grades. Prestige Portraits, one of the country’s largest vendors, charges more than $500 for some deluxe packages of multiple prints in various dimensions. And the big-volume companies are offering more customized options of their own — in-studio shoots with additional poses, more outfits and props — for extra fees.

But the professional portraits are still the premium.

After the $300 session fee (and the optional $120 hair and makeup service), Daniels’s minimum charge for prints and other products is $850. One Fairfax family dropped $7,000 recently for a deluxe senior shoot that included multiple prints of the daughter on canvas, suitable for filling a living-room wall.

Steuble said his customers usually spend between $300 and $1,300, with the average being $700. He offers a “photo safari,” during which he and the student’s family set out to shoot in a range of settings, “some brick-and-
mortar, some nature, some urban street scenes,” he said.

(Railroad tracks have grown so popular as a venue for senior portraits that Operation Lifesaver, a consortium of rail carriers, has launched a warning campaign directed at professional photographer associations.)

Like other photographers, Steuble recruits 12th-graders to act as models — and trendsetters. He offers his senior reps — other photographers call them senior ambassadors or senior stars — free portraits in exchange for bringing in clients.

“What matters is they are outgoing and popular,” said Steuble, who has reps at Madison and Marshall high schools in Fairfax and reports that he’s having a banner year.

Parents may be in for greater senior picture sticker shock in the future, Black warned. The next big thing in high school photography? Destination senior sessions.

“We didn’t see this even two years ago,” Black said. “But now they’re going to New York, Miami, Chicago.”

 
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