Surviving a family photo session with your happiness intact

When I'm not editing Offbeat Mama, I work as a photographer. Something I have learned in this field is that family portrait sessions can be many things: unbelievably perfect ways to document where you are in your life as a family, awesome gifts for family members and grand-parents, and fun. They can also be chocked-full of stress, nervous energy, and have more than once been the source for many a family squabble–or even all out fight.

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You know what's cute about this photo? The baby! You know what's awesome about this photo? The drool all over his shirt. Just roll with it. Photo by Stephanie Kaloi.

It makes sense: most of the time, you've set up the session weeks, if not months, in advance. You've paid a hefty deposit, sitting fee, and possibly a way-too-gigantic print credit–there's quite a bit on the line. In your ideal photo world, your family looks exactly how you see them. They all smile at the right times, laugh at others, and everyone gets along and is in a great world. In reality…this doesn't always exactly pan out.

Here are a few tips for what to ask and what to keep in mind during your session. It is by no means all inclusive, and I'd love to hear from other parents who have weathered the family portrait session storm.

Ask to shoot in a familiar location

courtney cooper rosen | out of focus studios
The beach=comfy place to frolic in the sand and take photos for Mom. Photo by Athens photographer Courtney Rosen.

I love to shoot family sessions at the home of the family. Most of the time, this is perfect–kids are always happy and comfortable at home, and it's easier on the family as a whole. However, if you don't want to do this, see if your photographer will meet you at the playground you guys always visit after school, the dog park, wherever you guys all feel comfortable.

Kids are going to be kids. Most of them are not going to sit still for more than two seconds, and they certainly don't give a rip that you are paying $350 for this nice photographer to take their picture. Does this mean you should forgo having your kids pictures made until they are high school seniors? Absolutely not!!! You just have to out smart your children by choosing a photographer & location that fits their personality–find a lifestyle photographer that does location sessions. Pick somewhere like a playground or park where your child has the freedom to be loud, crazy & just have fun. This will give your photographer plenty of chances to capture lively full face smiles, and much to your delight you don't have to worry about him tearing apart someone's studio. – Courtney Rosen, Athens (GA).

For those with children under 2

This is an absolutely sweet moment. Two seconds later, Harper started fussing to be let down, but you would never know it! Photo by Austin lifestyle and wedding photographer Lindsey Baker.

If your children aren't yet old enough to follow a lot of direction, you're probably going to be a bit more stressed than parents with a seven year old that will sit and smile when asked to. This can be your mantra: "Cameras can't hear." You know those twenty minutes your 15 month old spent screaming? If your photographer is good (and I bet he or she is), there will be at least one shot in which it looks like your child is grinning his or her fool head off, even IF the opposite is true. As stressful as it can be for your child to decide that the family portrait session is the perfect time to have a tantrum, just remember that sounds aren't recorded in digital or film photography.

Part of our responsibility as photographers is to be attentive to everything going on around us so we're able capture meaningful images in the midst of a stressful or chaotic moment. That's one of the great things about photography: it literally takes less than a second to capture a sweet moment. You should work with a photographer you trust and feel comfortable with because it's important for the family to relax! and have fun! In the end that's what will come though in your photos. – Lindsey Baker, Austin (TX)

Your photographer has done this a zillion times before

It's Tavi! And, you know, Ariel. She's awesome, too. 😉 Photo by Seattle lifestyle photographer Jenny Jimenez

One thing we hear repeatedly throughout a family session gone awry is "I'm sorry." Parents, you have nothing to apologize for. I'm assuming you've picked your photographer because you've seen a sizable children and family portfolio–and this is your first hint. Your photographer has been there, done that, and has probably encountered families that behaved a zillion times worse than yours. If not, he or she will at least act like they have. Also, keep in mind that while your photographer is probably awesome, YOU are paying him or her–not the other way around. So, they do kind of have to just deal with whatever the day brings. Constantly apologizing isn't necessary, but if it was particularly stressful session, a nice thank you card or email is never a bad idea.

Photographers have seen it all when it comes to children–please don't worry or feel like you have to apologize if your child isn't cooperating. Bribery rarely works for long, so don't do it unless you absolutely have to. I know it's tough not to tell your child to "Smile!" or do this or that, but try to let your photographer direct and work with your child. The most important job you can do as the parent is look like you're having the time of your life (even if your child isn't). It really helps to increase the chances of catching that perfect image of everyone looking happy! – Michele Anderson, Austin (TX)

The goal is to capture all of you as you are–right now

A smile and a smashed nose? Perfect! Photo by Seattle lifestyle photographer Jenny Jimenez.

Basically, if all your child wants to do is look at flowers and pull leaves off the trees, let him or her. The best sessions are the ones in which the parent(s)/caregiver(s) relax and let the child do the leading.

I tell my clients that our photo session is a time to let their kids be kids. Let them run around and be crazy, let them throw leaves at me, let them be free. All of this action allows me to document their true spirit and capture fun, dynamic images. Hell, let them be moody if that's what their feeling. Anything as long as it's authentic (no forced or phoney smiles!). I have a way of warming them up and getting them to trust me and my honkin piece of black plastic. When a parent corrects or scolds their child during a shoot, the child closes up, becomes more self aware, inhibited, static,and I have to start over again to bring them back to a place of freedom and fun. Letting children go for awhile usually allows the parents to relax, play around and enjoy the session too. – Jenny Jiminez, Seattle (WA)

So, Offbeat Mama fam: photographers and parents alike–what tips and tricks do you have?

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  1. loveLoveLOVE Jenny Jimenez!!! So fun to see her photos here.

    I agree 100% with the shooting in a comfy location thing. It's easy to imagine that the photos will be better in some exotic location but in reality the people are the stars, and kids are happiest in familiar locations! I also love seeing my usual haunts through the lens of a good photographer's camera. It makes my wee home, or favorite park or coffee shop seem like a brand new and more beautiful place.

  2. I think this is a great post. I always tell parents, let the kids be themselves, I will happily run around after them. No need to apologize! I think the biggest thing is don't force your child to sit still and smile if they don't want to! It only makes everybody stressed and unhappy. It's so much better to capture everybody playing and having a good time. Wouldn't you rather remember your family laughing instead of your little one with a tear stained face? I think so! 🙂

  3. I shot in a studio, but the underlying truth remains that the parents just have to relax and go with the flow. People would always say to me that working with kids must be really tough because they never listen and I always tell them the truth: the kids aren't the problem, it's the parents who are trying to control them and turn them into perfect little models who are the problem. Yelling or threatening kids doesn't make them smile. Remember that drool happens to babies, toddlers would much rather play with toys than pose for a camera, kids get pretty goofy expressions sometimes.

    Oh yes, and I can't count the number of times a perfect family pose is ruined because the parent is so concerned with what the child is or isn't doing that it is the parent who isn't looking/smiling.

    Trust your photographer and relax.

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    • I hear you on that one – I used to work in a photo studio, and I vividly remember one shoot that took so much longer than it needed to and was 100% more stressful than it needed to be because the mother refused to allow her 4-year-old to hold her teddy. I'm sure the mum was a lovely lady but her obsession with having a 'perfect' picture of her kid had us all on edge, and made our jobs soooooo much more difficult.

  4. My dad has been a professional photographer for the past 35 years and loves to shoot kids. One trick of his is to do little kids in the morning because they are generally better behaved/in a better mood then and you aren't interrupting the afternoon nap. His other trick is that he has a collection of puppets and squeaky toys that he'll pull out a just the right moment to catch a toddler's attention. Finally, he always says that bribing kids with treats never works.

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  5. Agreed… its usually the parents who are overstressing – and I have to throw out alot of good pics of the kids b/c the adults are making an aweful "scowl-y" type face…. remember why you are having pictures done in the first place – b/c you want to remember your family as they are right now – not who you forced/posed them to be… have fun!

    – oh, one more tip…. skip the all-white shirt combo (its ok for the beach) – its starting to look very dated/fake… let everyone wear what they are comfortable in… if you have to be matchy, then pick 2-3 colors and stay within that range, it will look much more fun and natural (oh, and please avoid super busy prints – it takes away from the kids!)

  6. I am also a studio photographer, and same problems! its my job as the photographer to get the kids smiling and looking where they should be. i recently had a mad shoot with 4 kids oldest was 7 youngest was 3. so it was organized chaos! The thing that ruined the best family shots… mum and dad not smiling or fussing with kids hair. The biggest thing is make it fun. I have lots of games to play them that make them smile or relax. ( blow raspberries behind the camera, normally it make the parents laugh more than the kids! I even dont pick up the camera for the first 15 mins if thats what a shy kid needs! I live and work in Dubai, its a great big cultural mix here including lots of language barriers, but a good honest and real photograph of your child transcends any language.

  7. Shooting on-location or especially at homes is certainly my preference, but because I have a studio, about 20% of my sessions take place there (including the 5% being rain backups for those without flex-schedules). One thought,in or out of the studio, either hide those favorite, hard to let-go-of toys until the very end if you must include them at all, or if it's a desperate situation as defined by the parent, having a way to elevate the child, such as a box, bench, chair, is hugely helpful since kids look down at this favorite object. DOWNWARD does not reflect the joy and optimism most families are going for. Having the ability to be beneath the child using a reflector or mirror to instantly light the child face from the floor, helps create adorable (super-closeups to avoid the cherished snugly) face shots; always a favorite. Lastly perhaps ask clients to only bring the most subdued-colored, small toys which are far less obtrusive than the orange/red, gigantic gorilla but to please keep them hidden. As always, there are always exceptions, particularly when the snugly is actually part of the "image" you're trying to achieve. Thanks for the insightful post- No matter where we shoot, sure seems many of our experiences parallel each other.

  8. This article is the reason I learned that lifestyle photography was an option after I earn my BA in photography.

    I just wanted you to know that, and I'm citing it in my "What I want to be when I grow up" paper for class.

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