Just tonight, I received a private message from another photographer saying that she had just endured an absolute nightmare of a family photo session. It’s not too difficult to imagine. Screaming kids, an uncooperative dog, frustrated parents…the works. She wanted to know what I do when faced with a seemingly impossible situation. Every session is a little different, but I’ll try to speak generally and this beautiful family gets to illustrate this blog post on some different things that a photographer can try against all odds.
First, don’t go into an hour long photo session expecting to do one pose after another. This is the #1 reason I don’t like doing family pictures in my studio, where it’s really difficult to get fun, candid pictures. Even the adults won’t likely have the patience for constant posing. You have to keep things fun. Get the poses out of the way early before the kids lose interest in you. And make yourself interesting! Be silly and fun and energetic and let your crazy show. You might get away with simply telling the kids to pose a certain way and smile a couple times, but more than likely, you are going to need to make a game of it at some point. Get those posed shots and then tell them to forget the camera is there and have some fun.
Okay, now that the general plan is laid out, what do I do when those initial attempts at getting the needed family pose doesn’t come together? That’s what I’ll focus on here. Most parents LOVE the great candid shots, but they still want that perfect family picture to frame and slap on their holiday cards.
We got a late start to this session and the kids were done before we started. A lot had to happen and I have plenty of red-eyed, snotty outtakes to show for it. With five kids under the age of 7, there really was no point when all of the kids were happy and cooperative. So, here are some tips for photographers struggling to get that one great family picture.
- Take A LOT of pictures and don’t stop just because one kid is unhappy. As long as the parents are willing to stick with it, you stick with it. There will usually be a moment or two where the unhappy child stops crying and you want to make sure you’ve captured that moment! I tend to be fairly conservative with the number of pictures I take, carefully composing each image, But, with larger families, I want numbers on my side.
- Learn how to composite (combine) images. You’ve heard of head swaps, right? Become an expert at that because for large groups, it is usually a must if you want a good picture of everyone. Even the best photographers shouldn’t be able to tell what you’ve done, so get really good at this. Can you tell which child needed a little Photoshop magic in this family picture?
- Take some pictures before perfecting the pose. You may very well miss the opportunity to get a good picture while you are trying to fill in the gaps, get clothes straightened, have dad mop up a snotty nose, etc. Pile them all in there and take a few shots and THEN adjust.
- Don’t be scared to say naughty words. You’ll want to feel the parents out, but when push comes to shove, a little potty talk can make a huge difference. A lot of times, the parents will get that started, but if they don’t, I’ll usually ask permission to use potty talk. Some favorites seem to be poop, chicken butt (or really anything that includes the word ‘butt’), fart (and fart sounds), and so on. There may be some fall out for the parents later for this, but it’ll be forgiven when they see the awesomely genuine smiles in their pictures.
- Build Trust. Make sure you appear confident even when things are a disaster. Your calm confidence is the glue that will keep things from totally falling apart. Reassure Mom and Dad that there is plenty of time and you aren’t worried. You’ve got this! That will help them relax, which will keep the family from spiraling out of control.
- Help the parents out. Don’t JUST be a photographer. Be a part of the family. Help shoulder the load whether that means carrying a diaper bag or even a baby. Offer to wipe a nose and put in the extra energy to make it a silly game. I’ll often turn my hands into a pillow for the baby during a diaper change and play peek-a-boo during an outfit change to keep a child distracted. Give the parents a hand and make the experience as easy for them as possible. I think this all helps create an atmosphere of camaraderie and trust.
- Speak up. If you see something that is complicating the situation, don’t be shy…address it! Did they bring a pet and she is all over the place? Get that picture out of the way and then remove the pet from the equation. Are you too close to a road and the cars are stealing the kids’ attention? Move to another spot. Do the parents seem concerned about a muddy area or some other hazard? Don’t ignore that! You are the professional. Take a good look at all of the factors that may be adding to the insanity and start eliminating them. Take charge. Make it work.
- As mentioned before, be bold, loud, energetic, and fun. Keep that attention on you! Tell the parents not to worry about whether the kids are smiling. They should just relax and smile at the camera (even if they are just laughing at the disaster at their feet) and trust you to herd the kids. For that posed picture, you want the attention on you, so it doesn’t do any good for the parents to be checking for real smiles and inadvertently redirecting attention to themselves in an attempt to guide or discipline their children. Tell them to just laugh at the madness and you will do the rest!
- Take a break. Let the parents take a breather, have them give the kids a snack or treat, and give yourself a chance to slow down and form a new custom plan for this particular family. Consider taking a little walk with the family. You can get some nice candid pictures during this time, or just walk with them and chat. A lot of times, somebody will be holding a diaper or prop bag. Sometimes I’ll carry that so I can take pictures, but often, I’ll just let the camera rest. Let the kids see your face without the big black box covering it. Strike up some idle chit chat. Sometimes I’ll be silly with them, but other times I’ll have a very nice, mature conversation with them. Find that reset button and you may find yourself with a whole new start to a great photo session.
Fortunately, these parents were easy going and that little detail is always super important. When the parents are frustrated, the kids pick up on that negative energy and don’t respond well. So, kudos to this beautiful couple and thank you for trusting me!
You sure make some beautiful babies!
And when all else fails, take a silhouette picture!
You’ll just have to take my word that at least one child was NOT a happy camper in this picture.
I’ll take it!