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Getting great results with family portraits

Of all the different types of photos I shoot, family portraits are the most challenging. It’s the one type of shoot where the outcome is uncertain, the participants may not want to be there and there’s group photos involved.

A few weeks ago I spoke at a high school career day and asked a room full of students if they enjoyed their family’s portrait sessions – all but one said they didn’t like them. If you asked me the same question I’d be in the same camp; I’m not a fan of having my picture taken. Why? I feel awkward, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to stand, I don’t know what to do with my hands, I don’t know how to smile, do I look goofy, do I look fake? These are the same thoughts going through my client’s minds.

When I began shooting family and children’s portraits I made a decision to not shoot the family portraits I sat through growing up;  all dressed up, stiff, in a studio. If that’s what you are looking for there are better photographers suited for the job. My goal is to document the family dynamic and come away with natural portraits that are true representations of the family, kids and the relationships. I’m about fun, I’m about moments, I’m about capturing photos that they will look back and say “we had fun and we looked good”. Sounds simple enough but how? My first order of business is to have a discussion with my clients before the shoot and talk about their goals and describe how I work and what to expect.

Plan ahead– Pick a location in advance and go on a location scout to know what to expect. Will it be too sunny on the beach, will the grass be wet at the park if we shoot early morning, will it be too windy to shoot at sunset?

Think about and choose wardrobe at least a week in advance. Some families like to wear matching outfits, others don’t. My suggestion is to wear something classic that doesn’t date the photo. If you aren’t in to wearing matching khakis and white shirts pick a color palette. Stay away from logos and bold patterns. If you do plan on wearing matching outfits The Gap and Old Navy are great places to round up similar outfits for the family. Want to save yourself a headache trying to match clothes from the closet? Just go to Target, The Gap, Old Navy, et al and buy new clothes.

Time of day. It’s tough getting young children fed, dressed and out the door, doing so at 8AM on a Saturday can be brutal. The reality is that the best light is a few hours after sunrise and a last hour leading up to sunset. Take my advice, it’s worth the hassle to get up early. And if you are local to southern California, we know it’s not always sunny at the beach but keep in mind that June Gloom often leads to great photos.

Manage Expectations – Kids are unpredictable and when it comes to following direction they often have their own interpretation and time-frame for following instructions. Bribes often help. Plan on doing something fun after the shoot or in the case of a lot of my beach shoots plan on setting them free. I was amazed at how many of my clients ended up soaking wet last winter. Despite the cold water the kids and parents had a blast.  It’s great to have goals and plans but if you can be loose about your expectations and allow things to flow you’ll often be pleasantly surprised with the results.

A recent conversation with a client, who was able to describe what she liked about my photos, helped me quantify what my children and family portraits are about. If you look at my wedding and family photography site you won’t find a lot of static (safe) family portraits. I always start the session with those types of photos, but those types of shots don’t resonate with me as much as the captured moments. When the kids let go of their rehearsed school-photo smiles and mom and dad forget I have a camera I get the type of photo my clients love.

Here’s a handful of shots from recent family and children’s portrait sessions.

Holden - Manhattan Beach

Holden – Manhattan Beach

Holden, Cyrus and Michelle - Manhattan Beach

Holden, Cyrus and Michelle – Manhattan Beach

Kate and tutu - Manhattan Beach Pier

Kate and tutu – Manhattan Beach Pier

Connor - San Jose

Connor – San Jose

Collin - San Jose

Collin – San Jose

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