Top 5 Tips for Portraits

SJP's Top 5 Tips for Portrait Sessions

1) Choosing a Location

Traveling to locations in Southern California is always an adventure!  Within the TMZ (Thirty Mile Zone of Los Angeles) you can find everything from sandy beaches, urban cityscapes, rural wilderness, and everything in between.  If you're stuck on ideas where to go, here's a few of my favorite spots:

Outdoor Ideas

Griffith Observatory is an iconic landmark of Los Angeles and one of southern California's most popular attractions. Built in 1935 with classic Art Deco style, it lays on the southern slope of Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park, just above Los Feliz. It is 1,134 feet above sea level and is visible from many parts of the Los Angeles basin. The Observatory is the best vantage point for observing the world-famous Hollywood Sign among mountain tops and even sometimes a peek of an ocean view on the luckiest days.  For more lush trees and trails, the bottom of the park also offers beautiful spots near the Trails Cafe.  Notes: free parking on the street leading up to the top of the hill and paid parking available in lot at the top, also public restrooms on site.  No permit required.

A modern masterpiece located in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles designed by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry.  Exterior walls are made of brushed metal and some are mirrored, full sized trees with lush greenery, and a beautiful rooftop garden with large blooming lotus sculpture.  This location provides a perfect neutral background for modern portraits.  Notes: paid street or lot parking.  No permit required.  Suggested time for shooting at this location is during the daytime.  No permit required.

Giddy-up! In 1927, Paramount Pictures purchased approximately 2,700 acres of land in the Malibu Hills to create a "movie ranch." The land served as a focal point for several films, including MASH, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, and most recently HBO's Westworld with the addition of the "little white chapel."  Even though you can't actually go inside the buildings, the textures and colors make fun backgrounds for portrait sessions.  Additional features in the ranch include bridges, tall California Oak and Eucalyptus trees, grassy fields, and a babbling brook.  Note: pet friendly- dogs must remain on leash.  Restrooms on site.  Travel and permit fee +$175.

Solstice Canyon is a beautiful park within the Santa Monica Mountains in Malibu, California. Located off Corral Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway, the canyon runs north-to-south about a mile east of Point Dume.  In 1865, Matthew Keller built a stone cottage in the canyon, believed to be the oldest existing stone building in Malibu.   Some of my favorite features of the park includes hiking trails, waterfalls, creeks and big trees. Travel and permit fee +$175.

One of the most beautiful beaches in Malibu, with sea caves and large rocks on the beach, El Matador State Beach attracts many beach goers on hot weekend days. A steep dirt trail goes down some stairs with breathtaking views from the upper cliffs.  Along the beach, there are large boulders and deep blue water filled with kelp forests.  A very popular spot for photography at sunset and on the weekends.  Paid parking lot is available from 8am to sunset or limited free parking on PCH. Portable restrooms on site. Travel fee additional and can range from $60-120 depending on time of day.

This is one of L.A. best-kept secrets. It is a unique 127-acre botanical garden and historical site located in the city of Arcadia, at the foothill of the San Gabriel mountains.  Some highlights include a wide variety of flora including large agave, a bamboo forest, and citrus grove with lots of walking trails, waterfalls, and peacocks.  Parking is free and admission is $9/person.  Photo Permits are +$50 available from 9am-3:30pm at the front office or directly to candace.wanzo@arboretum.org.  Please arrive dressed and ready to explore the grounds.  Subjects are not allowed to do outfit changes.  The garden is open from 9am-5pm with the last admission at 4:30pm. Groups over 5 subjects will incur a +$200 refundable security deposit.

City Hall was designed by John Bakewell & Arthur Brown who were influenced by the early Renaissance style of 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio.  The location offers grand hallways with tall arches, a beautiful rose garden, and romantic winding staircases. Recently featured in NBC's Parks and Recreation as the exterior of Pawnee City Hall and also shown in the background of the window of Leonard and Sheldon's apartment in The Big Bang Theory.  Notes: metered parking and lot parking at 330 E. Union Street. No permit required.

A great beach location at the end of Historic Route 66 with sandy beaches, chilly Pacific views, the Pier with light up Ferris Wheel and roller coasters, the original muscle beach, and lots of shops a couple block away at 3rd Street Promenade. Photography is allowed on certain parts of the pier, other areas off limits.  Paid parking available on both sides of the pier.  Travel fee +$50.

The Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden encompasses 1.3 acres on the campus of California State University, Long Beach. A perfect romantic setting for weddings, portrait sessions, and special events. The site’s privacy and impeccably maintained grounds attract discerning couples seeking a unique outdoor setting surrounded by tall trees, a lush green landscape, arched bridges, shimmering koi pond, and sparkling waterfalls.  Permit fee +$200 per hour.

Indoor Studio Rentals

  • FD Studios -  A great indoor space in the heart of downtown Los Angeles with MANY different sets to choose from.  Art 3 , Art 1 are a couple of my favorites, but feel free to explore their website to see all of the different options.
  • Peerspace: Unique and Creative locations.


2) What to Wear?

The more time you invest preparing for your photoshoot, the happier you will ultimately be with your portrait results.  Waiting until the last minute to throw something together will cause stress and takes the fun out of your day.  Here's a few of my ideas to help guide you in outfit selection.

  • CHOOSE 3: Limit your color selections to 3 complimentary colors.  I suggest taking inspiration from your location or thinking how you will be displaying your images.  For example, if decorating your wedding reception with engagement pictures you can incorporate your wedding colors into your wardrobe.
  • COLOR PALETTE: Bold and bright colors look lovely.  For couples and families, try choosing outfits with colors that complement each other rather than exact matches.
  • ROMANTIC: Flowy long dresses, like maxis, elongate the body and brings a romantic element to engagement sessions.
  • Create textures and layers with jewelry, textured scarves, faux furs, knits, bold prints, and interesting fabrics.  These things always look great on camera!
  • THINGS TO AVOID: wearing large loose clothing and items that detract from the scene like solid white on white outfits, logo tshirts, tank tops and shirts exposing the upper arm, running shoes, and shorts/capris as they tend to make the legs appear shorter than they are.


  1. I suggest laying out all of your outfits together a few days in advance.  Also try them all on and look at yourself in a full length mirror.
  2. If you have new outfits, they may require additional steaming or ironing before wear.
  3. Body Shapers can be your best friend.  At least for me they are!  Make sure to get proper undergarments.

Where to shop?

  • Anthropologie
  • Nordstrom / Nordstrom's Rack
  • Rent the Runway (Great for special occasions- you can try on outfits at their shop in Topanga Canyon!)

3) Golden Hour

I just love all the colors of a California sunset.  The periwinkle blues, candy pink, and soft purples.  It definitely sets a mood for romance, with soft lighting and a warm glow.  Golden Hour is my preferred time for natural light portrait sessions.  To capture this kind of lighting, you will want to end your session 10 minutes after sunset or start 15 minutes before the sun rises.

Click HERE to check sunset/sunrise times for your session date.

Note, feel free to ask me about your specific location for suggested times as some locations will be best before sunset (including gardens and some interiors).

tandem yoga

4) Professional Hair and Makeup

For your session you'll want to look and feel your very best.  One of the biggest things that will make a huge impact on your portraits is professional hair and makeup.   It can do wonders to highlight your best features and help make you feel super confident putting your best face forward!  Save money by scheduling your wedding makeup trial with your artist the same day as your engagement pictures or visit an artist at your favorite makeup counter.

Preferred Vendors

All of these hair and makeup professionals specialize in special events and offer services on location for your convenience.

hair and makeup by something new

5) Personalized Props

Personalized props can be a great way to express your personality, gives you an activity, breaks the ice of awkward posing.  You can also use the opportunity to show off your hobbies and talents!

  • PETS- if you choose to bring a pet please also bring a friend to help wrangle them after the first 30 minutes of shooting.
  • FOODIE LOVERS: wine / champagne / cupcakes / candy / s'mores / cotton candy / ice cream / popcorn
  • SPORTS: football / surfboard / yoga / bikes
  • GAMES: board games / lawn games / picnic / bubbles
  • THEMES: movie inspired - dress up as your favorite character
  • TRENDS: smoke bombs / jumbo balloons (like the 36" ones with streamers!)
  • LIGHTING: lanterns / candles / chandelier  / sparklers (location pending) / video lights
  • MIGHT NEED A TRUCK:  furniture / chairs / sofas/ full size bed / XL picture frames
  • NUMBERS: like your wedding date or how long you've been together

Some of my favorite places to find cute props

  • Etsy - for all things handmade and crafty
  • Aaron Brothers - also a great place to buy frames!  They have a buy one, get one for a penny sale on frames two times a year.
  • Homegoods
  • Hobby Lobby