Client Guides

June 22, 2023

Three Styles for Photo Outfits: Formal, Dressed Up, Casual

lincoln memorial reflecting pool family photoThree Styles for Photo Outfits: Formal, Dressed Up, Casual

You’ve scheduled your next portrait session, and you are so excited to start planning. After you choose a location (I’ll help you with this), wardrobe is next! The very first step is to decide which level of “dressed up” you want to be.

Over the years I’ve noticed three distinct levels. These are broad in the sense that it’s not about the type of fashion you’re interested in (boho, romantic, preppy, classic, etc.). Instead, it’s how dressed up you want to be in your photos. Think of it like a wedding guest dress code. The invitation may say black-tie, semi-formal, cocktail, casual. Each one informs you what type of outfit to wear. From there, you look at options within that category, making it a little easier to get started.

As I often tell my clients, the most important thing is making sure you’re all on the same “level.” For example, if you’re in a ballgown but your husband is in shorts and a t-shirt, that’s going to look out of place in the photos. To avoid that, you’ll decide on which level works best for you, then plan outfits that match your individual style within that level.

Overwhelmed? Don’t be! This guide will help you get started. And if I’m your photographer, I provide a hands-on approach while picking out everyone’s outfits. Style boards, included!


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Formal outfits include gowns (often midi or floor length) and a suit, dress pants + jacket for parents, and similar options for the kids. There are more options, this is just the most common one I see. I often tell clients it’s like attending a black-tie or semi-formal wedding. The goal is to feel extra dressed up and beautiful! See examples below.

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This is the category most of my sessions fall into. It’s when you’re dressed up more than usual, but you’re not quite as formal as the options above. This means that your dress may be a little more relaxed with a soft fabric or a shorter length. Men often dress up by wearing khakis, chinos, or jeans, but with a more casual shirt instead of a full suit jacket or blazer. Button up dress shirts without a tie, for example, or a soft linen button up shirt or henley fit in nicely here.

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Casual outfits are the most relaxed and laid-back out of these options. A few ideas: going barefoot on the beach in a loose, flowy maxi dress, wearing jeans and a blouse or sweater or relaxed shirt, the kids are sometimes barefoot in relaxed shorts or jeans or rompers. For in-home sessions I always recommend going barefoot – it looks the most relaxed and natural!

The one caveat – you don’t want to be so casual you don’t like the look of the final photos. We still want to curate this look. You want it to look effortless and relaxed, but still photograph nicely and look put together.  Trust me – you will love your photos more if we capture that casual aesthetic without going too far into the “didn’t bother to get ready” category.


  • shirts with logos, sayings, or graphics on them.
  • tennis shoes or athletic shoes (getting shoes that are a bit more dressed up always look good. And men, please avoid sandals or flip-flops. If we’re on the beach, barefoot is better. If we’re in a field or location we don’t want to be barefoot, dressier sneakers like these always photograph nicely).
  • Kid’s shoes that have bright colors on them

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The best part is you usually have wiggle room between categories. For example, if you have a gorgeous formal gown you want to wear, your partner can wear something on the nicer side of the dressed-up category and it will still look wonderful. Here are a few visual examples to get your creative ideas flowing.

DRESSED UP + CASUAL | In the example below, mom is in a beautiful sundress and dad is wearing khakis and a relaxed button-down shirt. The boys are running around barefoot and in adorable overalls without a shirt underneath. Their outfits are more on the casual side, but when paired with mom and dad’s outfits, you end up closer to the “dressed up” category. This is a great way to bring in some of those casual elements while still dressing up a little more than usual.


FORMAL + DRESSED UP |  The session below is still considered formal, but dad softened the look by going with a sweater instead of a suit or blazer. Mom is in a stunning gown with heels, but the look is still balanced.


FORMAL + DRESSED UP | The example below is similar. Mom is wearing a flowy blush gown (this one can be found in the client closet!). Baby girl is in a beautiful dress from Noralee, with adorable socks and boot to match. Dad’s dresed up in a blazer, yet the khakis soften the look compared to wearing a full matching suit.


FORMAL + DRESSED UP | In the example below, Mom and Dad are on the more formal side. Dad’s khaki pants and the kid’s outfits soften the look so you’re right between formal and dressed up. The littlest one being in soft shorts and a textured t-shirt is a great way to keep your baby comfortable but still match the overall look you’re going for in your wardrobe. The oldest boy is a bit more dressed up, but still comfortable in khaki pants, a casual button down shirt, and sneakers.



DRESSED UP + CASUAL | This example is still dressed up, but adding in the denim brought a more casual, relaxed look. The sweaters and mom’s beautiful dress tie the look together.



First, think about location. Formal outfits fit in well with manicured gardens (like Oatlands), formal wedding venues that allow portrait sessions (like Tudor Place, Meridian House,  Anderson House, or Airlie), or iconic locations like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. They may, however, look out of place in an open field with tall grass. (And you probably don’t want to wear stilettos in the tall grass, either!)

Most locations work well for the middle category, and it’s always a great idea to be a little more dressed up than usual for outdoor or studio portrait sessions. If you’re in the field, you may find a blend of dressed up / casual works for you. Mom may be in a maxi dress in a softer fabric or tone so it’s not quite as dressed up, dad may be in khakis and a henley tee, and kids may be in rompers or sun dresses or khaki shorts and a linen shirt.

Casual works well for in-home sessions or outdoor locations that lend itself to that style. If you want to play in the water at the beach, you’ll want something cool and comfortable that allows for that!

Next, think about the season. If you’re having a fall session, sundresses may be too cold. In the summer, you don’t want to be in sweaters or a long-sleeved dress outside. Finding a happy balance that matches the location, the season, and your personal style is best. And like I said – I’m here to guide you in this, so you don’t need to stress!

More questions? I would love to plan a portrait session with you and take care of all the wardrobe details!



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