A smiley beach and city senior session in Milwaukee

A smiley beach and city senior session in Milwaukee

I won’t forget my high school senior photo session with Zahra anytime soon. 

She was a graduating senior of the class of 2021 at Alexander Hamilton High School in Milwaukee. 

Right from the first moment I met her I was excited to take her portraits. With her bright red hair and infectious smile, I immediately started to imagine the bold and colorful portraits we could make. 

We started at my usual spot in The Third Ward Historic Neighborhood of Milwaukee. With its teal lampposts, wooden boardwalk and red bricked buildings the background colors are all some of my favorite backdrops in Milwaukee

I like to start on the boardwalk that runs along the Milwaukee river. For any non-Milwaukee native, the Milwaukee River is an absolute gem that makes the Cream City unique and fantastic. 

This is actually part of the boardwalk that is a famous place to walk, stretching all the way from The Third Ward to downtown and past the Old World Third Street area.

It can be pretty busy even on weekdays in the summer, but if you start at the southern most section you can pretty much have the whole boardwalk to yourself apart from joggers that will run by every 5-10 minutes.

After the boardwalk we ventured to a closed off street that has a small park on one side and then the beginning of one of the iconic Third Ward Streets on the other side. I think of this street as iconic, because it has the boulevard in the middle of the street, the teal lampposts with Third Ward signs and some of the prettiest brick storefronts of the neighborhood.

This is where I focus on getting the iconic Third Ward money shots.

After that we took a couple portraits in an alleyway and then went back to the park I mentioned which had a fun sculpture that served as a fun prop in our portraits.

We then went back to the place that had a rugged and industrial look. This is one of my first places I’ve ever taken portraits at in Milwaukee and it’s still a favorite. I don’t use it every time, I’m in the Third Ward, but sometimes the mood strikes me to go back there. It has a rusty looking metal staircase and rough red bricks on the walls beside it.

It always gives off such a grunge industrial look and I absolutely love it.

A helpful father

Bar none, the most important part of portraiture is connecting with your clients. Not only is it the most important part of the session, there’s basically a gulf between the importance of connecting with your client and everything else on the list. 

With seniors, I love the portraits that carry a fun-loving carefree and laughing vibe. To get these authentic moments with absolutely gorgeous smiles I really have to establish a lot of trust and connection with them.

If they start to like me and start to have fun during their session, then I’ll get the smiles that really shine.

Sometimes there are shortcuts to this process and Zahra brought a shortcut with her, her dad.

Zahra’s dad, Garold, decided to tag along with us while Zahra’s mom stayed behind with her baby brother.

Garold is one of those life-of-the-party type of characters. At the drop of a hat, he could have Zahra go from ‘I’m nervous because I’m getting my picture taken’ to being in stitches. 

It absolutely makes the photo when Zahra is standing in the middle of a street and there’s nothing much going on around her or behind her, but she’s smiling with a huge smile that’s disarming and open to the world.

As a photographer, I’ve been with people that can really bring the energy and life to a session and even though this is super helpful, we will be dialing it down as the session goes on to a more relaxed and comfortable vibe.

If there are too many jokes, and too much energy then it’s easy to get burnt out really quickly on the session. We also may not nail down a portrait because we’re too busy laughing and running from scene to scene.


What do I do with my hands? That’s the joke about getting your portrait taken that you all hear right? I love that joke too and it’s always a tricky situation.

I have several tricks to get those pesky hands looking confident and natural.

My easiest solution is to hold on to your clothes.

If you’re a boy and you have shorts or jeans with pockets, you can put your hands in a pocket. Or, in Zahra’s case, she also wore jeans so that’s what we did a lot of the time. You put your hand in your pocket with your thumb on the outside. That’s the confident look and it allows us to still see your hands in the portrait.

I also really like to put one hand in a front pocket and one hand in a back pocket. It gives your torso a bit of a twist and it’s really flattering, creating a nice shape for the girls and a strong posture for the guys.

Another thing we can do is get you off your feet, either sitting on the ground, popping a squat on your calves or leaning back against a wall, lamppost or something. 

What about when you’re wearing a dress and standing. After all, standing shows off an entire outfit if you put a lot of time into it. 

This is where it gets tricky, but one thing we can do is hold on to your hair. 

Zahra did a wonderful job of this. 

She would put one hand on her hip and with the other hand she’d gently push her hair up against the side of her head. 

This is something that you can even practice at home in the mirror so you can really nail it.

The other thing you can do is to hold on to some strands of hair around ear height and lower.

With either of these poses, I tell clients to keep their hand in motion while I take portraits. This makes it more natural rather than freezing it in place.

South Shore Park Beach

After the Third Ward, we finished with a park and beach scene at South Shore Park in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee beaches always have some rocky crags to prevent Lake Michigan waters to sweep inland, so for a couple photos Zahra sat on those. They also have a large anchor sculpture we used as a backdrop and then finished with a couple pictures with the park in the background.

Even though this final grouping was pretty simple, it really gives clients a variety so they can pick and choose their favorites later.

For more senior portraits in The Third Ward, check out my senior session with Sam.

Or, for a different side of the Historic Third Ward see Josie’s session.

And, if you want to book a senior portrait session with me, fill out my contact form and let me know a two-week span you’d want to schedule your session and I’ll get back to you with which days are available!

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