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Published May 29 2011

From posed to personalized: Senior portraits have come a long way from wearing your Sunday best in a studio

Mike Hansen’s mom wanted her son’s senior photos to match the formal head-and-shoulder shots of his older brothers, dad and grandpa.

Photographer Michael Miller dutifully posed Hansen, who was dressed in a jacket and tie, for a series of formal shots.

But it just didn’t feel right. The Fargo South senior was a skateboarder who sported rocker hair and red Converse sneakers.

Finally, his own mom stepped in. “This really isn’t him,” she said. “He’s his own person.”

The suit and tie were replaced with skinny jeans, a favorite hoodie and a studded belt. Hansen moved from the confines of a studio to a gritty parking garage. Miller captured him sitting on a curb next to a parking meter, with his skateboard leaning against one knee.

Everyone, including mom, loved it.

The story perfectly illustrates the new era of senior portraits. Tradition, static studio shots and rigid purchasing packages have been replaced by casual dress, “real world” backgrounds and digital rights so seniors can share their shots on social networking sites. Customers no longer want the standard “wicker chair” shot. Instead, they prefer highly individualized photos that might capture an impish sense of humor or a love of hockey.

“That’s what we’re trying to get out of a kid – who they really are,” says Miller, who works for Best of Times Photography in Fargo.

At the same time, the conscientious shutterbug doesn’t want to take overly trendy shots that overshadow the subject. “We keep it simple. It’s about your personality. If you want a big ‘2012’ or a pillar, we’re the wrong place,” says Dave Arntson, owner of Milestones Photography in West Fargo.

Anthony Masseth owns Best of Times. His dad is George Masseth, a veteran photographer who took thousands of senior photos in his Mandan, N.D., studio throughout his career. That exposure to traditional portraiture, coupled with Anthony’s experience as a photographer/graphic artist, has given the younger Masseth a unique perspective.

“Your senior picture is your legacy,” he says. “It’s the longest-lasting photo which will hang on a wall in your mom and dad’s house.”

Britta Trygstad takes many of Milestones’ senior photos. She says the studio’s documentary approach produces portraits that are fresh and fun – yet classic. “If you pose someone the way they really are, that’s the way they are,” Trygstad says. “And that really never goes out of style.”

Getting to know you

At one time, most seniors met the photographer for the first time when they showed up for the photo session. Nowadays, more photographers want to get to know their clients before they snap the first shot.

They’ll schedule pre-photo meetings so they can coach seniors on the session, find out what they like and develop a rapport. “We’ll take guys out to lunch to loosen them up,” Miller says. “We’ll talk about football, get to know them a little bit. By the time we have their session, we’ve already met with them a few times. It’s a process.”

On the other end of the spectrum is the senior who has grown up photographing herself with her cellphone and is extremely savvy about what she wants. “Girls are watching ‘America’s Next Top Model’ and are looking for something edgy,” Trygstad says. “They don’t want to just smile at the camera. They want personality.”

A classic example is Chelsey Engelhard, who graduates from Magic City High School in Minot. Trygstad’s photos of Engelhard would fit in a modeling portfolio. They include a street scene with Engelhard’s dark hair blowing in serpentine strands and a “jumping” shot that looks like she’s levitating.

It helps that Engelhard was so at ease with the photographer. She’s Trygstad’s niece and has posed for her aunt for years. “I decided I didn’t want pictures like anyone else,” Engelhard says. “I feel like a lot of senior pictures look the same, so I wanted mine to stand out.”

Mission accomplished. “Some were a little bit too glam. I didn’t know if I could put some of them in the yearbook or people would say, ‘Who does she think she is?’ ” Engelhard says, laughing.

Digital changes all

In efforts to be one-of-a-kind, seniors will also ask to be photographed in surroundings that are special to them. Trygstad has photographed clients at their lake homes, in dance studios and on basketball courts to help reflect what their lives were like at 18.

Best of Times started out specializing in sports photography. Today, many of the seniors they first photographed as fifth-grade soccer players have returned to them for distinctive portraits. They’ve shot seniors surrounded by surfboards, peering through the sight of a drawn bow and wielding a hockey stick that was set on fire for the occasion.

Much less common are the formal head-and-shoulders shots, although local photographers sometimes get requests for them. “We call those ‘photos for Grandma,’ ” Arntson says.

As always, the goal is to strike a balance between too traditional and too trendy. Arntson says they try to stay away from gimmicky backgrounds and excessive Photoshop work – factors that can date a photo faster than a 1980s star filter.

And they want students to express themselves in their clothing but to do it simply and tastefully so they photograph well. They may diplomatically suggest a fresh clothing change if a girl’s outfit seems a tad skimpy. Overall, however, most seniors opt for more traditional wear, Masseth says.

Today’s seniors not only have more posing options, but they also have more ordering options. At Best of Times, that includes musical slide shows, glossy coffee-table books, collages and photo graduation announcements (which have all but obliterated the fancy, engraved kind).

Another big change is digital rights. Seniors want to share their photos via Facebook and the Web. Arntson views the online exposure as excellent marketing, so he allows students to use low-resolution images for that purpose.

Best of Times has also received more requests for digital rights. They’ve developed an interactive portal, botpix.com, from which people can view proofs, share photos and download images. Customers can also use the site to order photos printed and mounted by a professional lab. The idea is to give people options beyond just handing them a disk, Miller says.

“It’s giving them their own place and space and helping them to manage their images rather than handing them something and saying, ‘See ya later,’ ” he says.

WDAY/Forum employee senior portraits

It’s nice to know that no one was immune to mullets or Member’s Only jackets.

Check out the following senior photos of longtime Forum employees, a couple of WDAY personalities and even a certain publisher.