After an extended holiday break, I’m back to blogging, coming at you with the latest in my series on how to get the most out of your portrait session. I already shared about my approach to working with newborns and toddlers in previous posts, so now it’s time to talk about family sessions.
Ok I’ll be honest. Shooting families is hard. Really, really hard. In fact, a year or two ago I contemplated moving into just shooting newborns and children, avoiding family portraiture all together. Walking into a family session, I have just 1 or 2 hours to connect with this set of strangers, try to capture their personalities and unique relationships, keep the kids engaged, make sure everyone is posed and lit in flattering ways, and get enough shots that even with all the inevitable “someone blinked!” ones, there are still plenty of ‘keepers’ to deliver to the family. Even with the most wonderful clients, that can be a tall order. Throw into the mix an energetic family pet, inclement weather, an emotional toddler, or a wardrobe malfunction, and the perfect family session can seem next to impossible. Still, I absolutely love the challenge and I have found that it is so worth it to me… because of how important family is. Your family members are the people who stay with you through thick and thin, who help shape who you are and love you unconditionally. There’s nothing more meaningful to me than giving a family beautiful images to immortalize those precious relationships, even if it isn’t always easy.
Here are my tips for making your family session as stress-free as possible and getting the most out of your portrait session:
1. Decide ahead of time on the look you want, to determine the perfect location.
After booking your session, I generally suggest a few possible locations and ask what kind of “vibe” you’re going for to help determine which will be best. Are you a casual, fun family who likes urban settings? A downtown spot like this shopping area might be just right.
Are you more comfortable in a green setting, like a local park?
Sometimes a rural setting like a field can be a better fit. (Think about the decor in your home, too, if you plan on hanging prints – what will look best in your home?)
I’m also happy to work with any requests for locations that are meaningful to you. This dad specifically asked to use this barn for a photo with his newborn son. He loved the idea of introducing his little boy to things like John Deere tractors as he got older and wanted this location for their images together.
We can work with any location, even if it’s not ideal. It rained through this entire session, and the only dry spot we could find for the family was inside this barn. The wide angle shows that it was a little run-down and not quite perfect for portraits.
But by coming in tight we were able to minimize distractions in the background and still get a nice family photo.
(I looked like a drowned rat at the end of this session, but that’s another story.)
The most important thing is that you choose a location that suits you and your family.
The only other considerations I have are safety (especially if young kids are involved), access to restrooms for kids, and areas where we can be away from other people. This photo was taken in a busy shopping area, but by finding a quiet corner with a clean background we were able to avoid getting the crowds in the shot.
2. Dress in comfortable, coordinating clothing
I’m planning another blog post on this topic, so I’ll just outline the basics here. I recommend dressing everyone in coordinating, but not perfectly matching, outfits. Start by choosing a color scheme, and choose pieces that fit into that scheme.
This family chose a bright, springy color scheme and tied it together by mixing floral prints and solids.
Here, mom and dad played off the colors in little Jonah’s shirt, picking up on the grey and blue for their own outfits.
Don’t be afraid to throw in patterns like stripes and argyle. It helps to break up the image if you use lots of color, texture, and pattern rather than having everyone be too matchy.
I also recommend using layering and accessorizing to add dimension. For a little girl, for example, rather than just a plain shirt and skirt, think more along the lines of tank top, cardigan, scarf, skirt, leggings, flats, headband, and necklace. The image will “pop” much more and there will be more contrast and dimension to the finished picture.
3. Give everyone an idea of what to expect.
It helps to prepare your kids (and spouse) ahead of time for the session by giving them an idea of what we’ll be doing. The kids may be picturing a boring, painful experience with everyone telling them to hold still and say cheese for hours on end. Your spouse may still be picturing the Sears Portrait Studio with canvas backdrops painted like trees. Try to put their minds at ease by preparing them for a fun, stress-free experience.
We’ll start out by chatting for a few minutes, to get to know each other if we don’t already. During this time, the kids can run around and explore the area if they want. Once I start shooting, we’ll keep things fast-paced and casual. I’ve gotten good at shooting “from the hip” so you may not even notice I’m snapping candids as we talk. My goal is to get images that are uninhibited and natural, so I generally have everyone talking all through the session to avoid any awkward “cheese!” moments.
I try to get lots of shots to highlight the interaction between family members. Lots of laughing, hugging, and being silly if there are little kids.
The moments can come and go quickly; I have to be fast to catch them sometimes. I loved the way this little girl reached out to touch her brother’s shoulder briefly, so I grabbed a quick shot of that moment when I saw it.
I have to admit, my favorite is watching dads interact with their little ones. Look at the delight in these dads’ eyes… so sweet!
Of course, I do make sure to get some more traditional posed portraits as well, but I do like to keep a casual feel to them by using relaxed posing rather than anything too stiff and formal. (P.S. Make sure you wear clothes you’ll be comfortable sitting in – I’ll most likely ask you to sit on the ground at some point.)
Oh, and one additional note about preparing your kids: I don’t prefer for parents to ‘bribe’ their kids with promises of a reward after the session (“If you’re good we can get ice cream when we’re done”). That kind of implies that the photo session is going to be this terrible experience they have to endure, and then they’ll get a treat when it’s finally over. I’d rather you try to get your children excited about the experience itself (“We’re going to go to the park and run around and play while our friend Miss Rachael takes some pictures… won’t that be fun?”). And remember, if you’re relaxed and enjoying yourself, rather than being stressed about everyone looking and acting perfect, they’ll relax and enjoy themselves too.
4. Understand that we’re aiming for a variety of images.
It’s important to me to get a variety of pictures for you to choose from.
Here, I was looking for eye contact and a smile from everyone – even the dog!! (I am so proud of this picture because I think Leo’s expression is hilarious.)
Other times, I aim for photos with a more candid feel, where there is no eye contact at all but you get a sense of being a fly on the wall as the family interacts.
I always make sure to get pictures of the various combinations of family members.
Mom and Dad with each child individually:
Each child alone:
Mom and Dad without children (because most couples haven’t gotten pictures together since their wedding):
Sometimes I’ll intentionally focus on the kids but include parents in the background:
There’s a variety of images I’m looking for, so if something’s not working (ie. your toddler is wiggling off your lap and trying to take off) we’ll just change directions and get a different kind of shot for the time being. In the end you’ll have a nice selection of pictures to choose from.
4. Relax about the kids
The other thing that’s important to me is letting kids be kids. I want to get genuine expressions from them and really capture their personalities – that’s not going to happen if I’m forcing them to sit still for long periods or making things too serious. I generally give them lots of opportunity to be goofy, to give me their ideas for silly photos, to make choices about where to go or what to do next, and to interact with me in a casual, personal way. (I don’t have them call me “Mrs. Boer” or require them to be formal or polite – the quicker I can go from “stranger” to “friend” the quicker I can get genuine expressions which translate into great photos.)
5. Make this a regular part of your family life
Families come in all shapes and sizes. Whether you’re getting pictures of just the two of you,
perhaps with a furry companion,
or a little one on the way,
or pictures of multiple generations of your family,
or the little ones you have at home,
capturing the love you have for each other is so important and the results will likely be treasured for generations. I know I’m biased, because photography is my business, but I truly believe families should take the time to schedule pictures together regularly, especially when their children are young. You can never go back in time to relive those years; all you’ll have once they’re gone are pictures to remember them.
Whether it’s with me or another photographer, make it a priority to get family portraits taken at least once a year if at all possible… I don’t think you (or your kids) will regret it.