You’ve done your research.
You GET what family photojournalism is. Natural expressions, real connections, your family’s authentic story. But the day of the session arrives and you simply can’t help
yourself. You eye your wardrobe with distaste and give your kids a lecture about “being good for pictures” while stuffing your purse full of sugary bribes.
Before you do any of that, I want to let you in on a little secret: Unruly children don’t mess up family photos. Grown-ups do.
You know what forces me to toss an “almost great” image in the digital trash bin?
Adult faces with pursed lips and exasperated expressions.
Forced smiles and clenched jaws.
Pointed fingers and annoyed glances.
So before you let yourself go down the path of candy coated promises and perfectly pressed oxfords, here are some tips for making your family session easy and fun. Bonus: your pictures are gonna be amazing to boot!
1. Whatever pictures you have in your mind, let them go
I know that’s much easier said than done. You’ve likely looked at the featured galleries and blog posts of your favorite photographer and thought “I want our pictures to look like that!”. But even those families whose images you’re envying… they didn’t imagine it exactly that way. Because life unravels the way it wants to and really, no one can control it. No matter what happens during your session, the photos are going to be unique, beautiful and full of life – just like your family.
2. Let the photographer do the work
You don’t need to worry about where the kids are standing, whether or not they’re looking at the camera, that they’re not doing the activity they’re “supposed” to be doing. Kids do whatever the heck they want. Photographers who document families know this, they expect it. Chances are they depend on it! The “imperfections” you think you see; that’s where all the magic lies. Rowdy kids jumping on beds or throwing sand at their siblings? That’s family photojournalism GOLD. Besides, most children are bad actors. Kids who are obediently pretending to read a book or hug one another look like they’re faking it. And it shows in pictures. Kids who are interacting with their environment in an authentic way are actually the easiest to photograph. But if mom is in the background frowning and looking annoyed – that timeless, authentic portrait of little Johnny with mud on his face is going to get tossed out.
Along similar lines, don’t try and direct your family or tell them to move even if it appears that they’re in the photographer’s way. Sometimes when it looks like something is obstructing my view, it’s actually part of the composition I’m working to create. A good photographer will move THEMSELVES and if they need you to move, they’ll tell you! Your job is just to enjoy your family and be yourself. Leave the hard stuff to the person you hired.
3. Wear what makes you feel good
So many photographers share Pinterest boards with their clients showing them what they should wear. Those are just fine if you want or need some help. But don’t forget the most important element of your wardrobe: it should make you FEEL good. That go-to outfit you have, the one you always choose when you want to look nice but not too dressed up? The one that makes you feel great? Wear that! Pick something that looks like YOU. How about your kids? Do they wear matching clothes most days of the week? If not, then they shouldn’t wear matching clothes at a photo session. Does your husband love wearing his Captain America t-shirt on the weekends while grilling hamburgers? Well, if I’m photographing you and your family at a cookout, the answer to “what should he wear” is “his Captain America t-shirt”. Ultimately it is completely up to you, but I would suggest choosing clothes that represent your personalities. Are you a bright and bold, loud and boistrous family? Wear colors and patterns that showcase that. Are you laid back and mellow? Soft neutrals might be more your style. There is no wrong answer. Just be yourself.
By the way, don’t suck it in. “Sucking it in” makes your chest look wider, your arms look thicker and your neck look tense. And it actually doesn’t make you look thinner at all. Plus it’s very hard to act naturally without breathing. I promise you (and this comes from someone with plenty of physical insecurities), you will look the best when you feel comfortable. And the only thing that truly can’t be helped in Photoshop is a pained expression. (As a side note, I do not regularly “Photoshop” clients – instead I focus on capturing people in the most flattering way possible. But if something is really bothersome to you, I don’t mind giving it a try.)
4. Interact with your family
If you aren’t sure what to do, just talk to each other and play with your kids. Want photos of you looking happy and natural? Be happy and natural. I know it’s strange at first to have a camera pointed your way and usually the first 15 minutes of a photo shoot are a little awkward and unnatural – that’s okay. Everyone will warm up eventually. Your photographer will likely chat with you while shooting (I always do during a session!) and give you guidance if they see you struggling with what to do. So try not to worry that you’re not doing the right thing or that nothing exciting is happening. Nothing exciting has to happen! Building a sand castle, making dinner, or even just sitting around talking and laughing are perfectly acceptable activities and can result in extraordinary photographs. Smile at each other, have fun and your pictures will reflect that joy!
5. Let the kids take the lead
Kids have got the documentary photography thing nailed. They don’t fake it for anyone and they always know how to find an adventure in the most ordinary places. While I highly encourage letting your kids explore and play and “do their thing”, you’ll ultimately still want some pictures where you’re all in the frame. Be patient, it will happen. If you have a child who really wants to go their own way, just follow them. Trying to convince a 3 year old to come stand in the perfect light next to mom and dad is just not gonna work. Even if it does, the results will look forced. It’s much easier for mom and dad to join the 3 year old. Besides, children have a fantastic sense of adventure. Just keep calm and follow the toddler. Usually with a little time and patience everyone will come together for a beautiful and honest family portrait.
6. Don’t tell your children to smile
And for the love of God please don’t tell them to say “Cheeeeese”! I mean, you probably wouldn’t anyway since you’re looking for a documentary photographer but I have to throw this in there just in case! There is nothing that ruins a picture like sweet little Susie looking directly at the camera with soulful eyes and a natural expression while Mom is looking down at her angrily begging for a smile. Remember: that scrunched up face and worried body language can’t be fixed in Photoshop. If you want your kids to smile, then YOU smile first! Most kids look adorable no matter what face they’re making. Cranky kids look cute, cranky adults look…. well, just cranky! And even the most stubborn of children will eventually smile and laugh all on their own. Just give them time, embrace the chaos and be prepared to love your photographs.