In all forms of photography there are elements that make or break an image, some elements are required, some are optional, and some while required, vary in strength and play lesser or greater roles in the context of the image, depending on their use. Clothing in photography falls under the optional or required elements and often photographers take clothes for granted and forget that clothes can set the entire tone of the image.
This makes clothes a strong element of a photograph and it’s probably why the most common questions a photographer of models receives are, “What do I bring, what do I wear?” The simple answer is, “Bring your favorite most worn-out clothes and don’t buy anything new.” But there’s other things to consider too.
But first, let’s explore a person’s worn out clothes which are usually their favorite and your subject obviously feels good in that ensemble — that’s why it’s worn out and their favorite! And low and behold, just like they say, if you feel good in it, you look good in it. When it comes to clothes in photography it’s about the subject and you must ensure that your subject will look their best your photos as you want your subject’s happiness with no self-doubt.
One reason your subjects shouldn’t purchase new items is because as humans we’re compulsive and usually purchase what looks good on a mannequin, especially before a scheduled photo shoot. There’s a great chance once your subject tries on their new clothes at home or on location for your shoot, they won’t feel it’s as beautiful on them as it looked on the store’s mannequin — and of course not, your subject has life!
Avoid White at First
Another factor to consider with clothing in photography is color and it’s best to avoid white because the rule is simple, pure white reflects 90-percent of the light that hits it. Most subjects are probably darker than pure white, thus your subject absorbs more light, than reflects it and in photography you normally expose for your subject’s skin tone, not pure white. This fundamental means your whites will probably be blown out unless you use some type of light modifier like black cards, or black V-flats to reflect tone back into the clothes.
In digital photography, if you blow out any highlights, especially white, there is no digital information that you can recreate, it’s data that is lost and unless you’re one heck of an artist and an image editing guru, chances are you will not recreate white garments with detail, much less white lace. The smartest move is to have your subject wear darker shades, something darker than your subject’s skin tone.
Additionally, if you get a chance to help your subject choose their clothes, look for garments that are complimentary to the predominate color or color temperature of your background. For example, down in Cozumel where the beach waters are blue-green, avoid cool-colored swimwear and stick to warmer tones such as red, orange or yellow. This makes your subject stand out through contrast in your photos.
You’d do the opposite if your background screams warmth, like a brown leather couch. In that scenario you’d have your subject wear cool-colored clothes in blue, green or cyan tones. If you’re shooting with a seamless paper background in a low-key situation, such as black background paper, have your subject wear lighter colors and with high-key backgrounds, like white paper or cyclorama walls, have your subject wear darker colors.
Break the Rules
Now these are fundamental concepts about backgrounds in relation to your subject that can help your subject stand out with contrast between colors for impact, but once you’ve mastered these concepts, go and break these rules and photograph something like red on red, or yellow on yellow or even white on white. Some of the best photographs ever created were the ones captured by photographers who knew how to break the rules.
One quick note, black and white are not actually colors in photography per se, they are tones and the gray tones in between are more commonly known as mid-tones. The beauty of this fundamental is that black or white or any shade of gray can work with any background color, cool or warm. Also, white on white photographs can be great just like black on black, but ultimately, clothes in photography help set the tone of the image.