I love family photos.
As a kid, I spent hours poring over the photo albums in our living room, studying the Olan Mills and JCPenney Studio pictures of me and my sisters.
Each photo has little memories hidden inside. In one, we’re all wearing button-up Hawaiian print shirts and plastic day-glo headbands, and for reasons I cannot fully explain, sitting in front of a backdrop displaying a field full of bright yellow tulips.
My little sister sits Indian-style in the front of another group photo, her little brown shoes clearly on the wrong feet. Back in the 80s, that’s how they ‘fixed’ duck-footedness. All of us wore our shoes on the wrong feet at some point, but she’s the only kiddo whose ‘foot training’ was captured in a studio portrait.
In a third photo, featuring just me and my two older sisters (in the happy days, before I was relegated from ‘baby’ to ‘third child’), I sit happily in my older sister’s lap. I have a goofy 15-month-old smile on my face, and my hair looks like a 7-year-old cut it. Because she did. A budding hair stylist in training, my oldest sister took the scissors to my wispy little bangs.
My own love of family photos is probably why I have invested so much money in photos of my own babies. Both kiddos got maternity pictures, newborn pictures, 4 month, 8 month, and 1 year pictures.
In those early photo shoots, I was miserable. I got super tense and worried before — and during — each photo shoot. I was so concerned about getting the PERFECT PICTURE.
I’ve learned a few things through all those ‘cheeses.’ These days, I’m much more able to relax and let go. Amazingly, despite not controlling everything, I still get that perfect frame-worthy picture.
For other Type A moms like me, I’ve written up a few tips that might help you make the most of your next family photo session.
Hire a photographer who is experienced.
This, I have found, is the most important part. If they are a professional, they’ll know it’s their responsibility to keep working until they get the shot. That’s why paying them is important. It creates a specific dynamic — they are providing a service in exchange for your dinero. No ambiguity there. Talk with them beforehand and tell them what you want. Describe how you envision The Mother of All Frameworthy Shots. Tell them your expectations and priorities, so they know where to focus their time and energy.
For example, at our last photo shoot, #1 priority was Squeak. He had changed a LOT since our last photo shoot in November. I told our photographer that my priorities were: (1) Squeak alone, (2) Squeak and Peanut together (sibling shot), and lastly (3) Peanut alone. Because my toddler loses her patience easily, the photographer knew to get the sibling shots early, and it’s good she did. Peanut started to throw a tantrum just after the sibling picture. We may not have a gem of just her, but it’s okay. That wasn’t the priority this time.
Hire a photographer who is experienced with children.
That means your husband’s buddy, no matter how many weddings he’s photographed, is not an option. This is particularly important for newborn photos, where expertly handling the baby is the key to great pictures and maintaining a sleepy, oblivious model (news flash: pissed off babies are not cute).
Perfect pictures shouldn’t be your goal. Real pictures should be.
It’s time to adjust your perception of what a good photo looks like.
It’s not the perfect, everyone-looking-at-the-camera picture where your smiles are symmetrical and every hair is in place. You might think those are the good ones, but you’re wrong. The best pictures, especially with kids involved, are the ones where your personalities shine through. Where the real shines through. These are the pictures that, when displayed, will draw the eyes and smiles of your guests, collecting praise from friends who wish they had such a great photo to hang on their wall.
These are the photos you’ll cherish most in 20 years, because when your college-student daughter sits down to flip through photos, she won’t have to stare at the faces wondering what kind of people are hiding behind those Stepford smiles. The picture will be worth a thousand words.
Don’t hover threateningly.
If you follow my advice and hire a photographer experienced with children, then cut them a break and back off. Let them do their thang with the kiddos. The worst thing you can do is to hover behind the photog as she attempts to elicit a smile from your 4 or 5 year old, threatening them to smile OR ELSE. That will get you everything but a smile, and nobody wants that. In fact, even if you’re not threatening, just back off.
She can make goofy faces and raspberries just as well as you can, and baby could smile faster for her (he’s seen all your funny faces before anyway — hers are new!). With an exception for babies with stranger danger, allow the photog to freely interact with your child — sans interference from Mom.
Choose your bribes carefully.
Let’s get real here. When toddlers are involved, bribes are almost always necessary. And that’s cool — nobody’s judging. But choose your bribes with care.
Ice cream after the shoot? Cool beans.
Blue raspberry suckers, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fruit snacks that turn their lips and tongues blue? SO NOT COOL.
It’s a dick move to expect your photographer to do that much photoshopping. She’s prepared for a drool spot on your shirt, and a booger on kiddo’s face. But expecting her to Photoshop 60 pictures with blue lips due to something that was TOTALLY preventable? That’s not only unrealistic, it’s just plain mean.
Photoshopping isn’t magic. It’s hard work and takes forever, and sometimes it’s just impossible.
They aren’t Gremlins. Ignore the feeding schedule.
Make sure the kiddos are fed and well-rested at picture time. If it means spoiling dinner with a big late-afternoon snack, suck it up. Maybe the baby goes down for his nap 30 minutes earlier than normal. Do it anyway. (Type-A Mom, I know this is killing you with your rigid schedule, but today can be an exception. It’s good for you.)
Your kids are not Cher.
You might be a clothes horse, but I guarantee your baby isn’t. Wardrobe changes are not a good idea, especially for very young babies. Newborns should be photographed in two outfits, and one of those should be their birthday suit.
Face it — wardrobe changes are just going to piss off the kid. Two to three is fine. One is even better. Fourteen is just ignorant. You might as well pay someone to stand there while your kid has a major melt down.
Don’t get up in a tizzy about coordinating outfits.
This is so hard for me. I see these beautifully coordinated “oh we all just happened to dress this way!” families with their layered-yet-dapper outfits, matching hats and clever little shoes. Shit. I don’t dress on trend normally, how am I supposed to pull it off for photos?!
I finally had an epiphany. My kids are really frickin’ cute. So long as they’re wearing clothes that fit, they’ll look good. If I’m able to find clothes in the same color family, good for me. If I can’t, that’s fine too.
Nobody’s going to look at the picture of your wonderful family and say, “Ugh, she should have coordinated their outfits, they look lame.” Well, maybe they will. But do you care about those awful people anyway?
Pinterest in moderation.
Bringing ideas of poses you’d like to try is a great idea. A Pinterest board of 20 poses you want to exactly replicate down to the teeny details is not. Too much pressure for your photographer, it’s unrealistic, and let’s be honest here… it’s stealing. Let your photographer find her own artistic expressions — not someone else’s.
Most importantly, try to relax.
I say “try” because I know this one is hard. Force yourself to roll with it. Breathe deep, and be Zen. All you need is a couple of good shots.
If you’re tense, your kids will be tense. If you’re fighting with your spouse, the camera will rat you out. Don’t forget your manners, especially with your spouse, and especially if he’s pissing you off and not taking it seriously enough. Pick your battles (actually, pick no battles), or you’ll miss that blissful feeling you’re looking for in your images.
Corollary: Finding a Great Photographer
Great pictures almost always hinge on a great photographer. Maybe you’re new to a city, or a new mom, and need to find one. Where do you start? A few ideas:
- Ask your coworkers and Mom friends for recommendations. Try to stick to moms with children the same age, or only slightly older, than yours. You don’t want to get stuck with someone who hasn’t upgraded their equipment or studio since 1992.
- Post a request for photographer recommendations on your local Nextdoor site / Facebook garage sale site / Mom’s Facebook group / etc. Anywhere moms congregate online, you can ask. You’ll get lots of recommendations that way.
- When you get a recommendation, spend time perusing their website. (Not having a website is a bit of a red flag… if they take good pictures, they will know the value of a good website.) Look for them on Facebook too, as many will post their most up-to-date work there rather than on their website. Look for lots of baby and toddler/child pictures!
- You don’t have to spend a fortune. Talent doesn’t always equal a high price tag.
(Side note: I wrote a post about this exact topic on my photography business site, which I launched about five years after writing this… It just kinda happened. Check out these tips on How to Find a Local Photographer.)
Now you know what to do. All that’s left is to say CHEESE!