tips for photographing a family portrait session

One of the things I’d like to blog about more this year are tips for all you other wonderful photographers out there! There’s no exact art form or approach, and every photographer will tell you something completely different, but these are just a few things that work for ME to help me get the style of photograph I want to capture. Some people prefer a much more posed look or studio feel, other people take a COMPLETELY hands off approach and just document things exactly as they are on a daily basis… and I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle of those two. The other thing to keep in mind is that these are things that I implement into my family portrait sessions where I’m photographing younger children, mostly ages 2-8 years old. There’s a different approach to babies under 2 years old and pre-teen kids that I’ll talk about in a different post, but THIS one is just focusing on how I approach photographing younger kids.

The very first thing I have my clients do is fill out a full questionnaire to help me get to know their family. It includes the following questions:

1) Please introduce me to everyone involved in your portrait session, including the name, age, and gender of all the children.
2) Children change so quickly, and even just 6 months from now might be into completely different things. What are the little things that your children do at this particular age that you never want to forget?
3) What do you like to do together as a family? What is your favorite time of day with your family?
4) What makes each of your children smile the biggest? Anything they respond particularly well to that may help me get those natural, gorgeous smiles?
5) Any family dynamics I should know about to help ensure a fun, enjoyable session?
6) Are there any objects or activities that are important to your family that we should work into your session?

I want to make sure that I’m personalizing their session as much as possible right from the beginning. People talk about photos as being “timeless”, but especially when it comes to kids, you are documenting how your FAMILY functions in that particular season of life, not just the kids physical appearance. I want to know what those things are that their kids do at this specific age that they never want to forget, and THOSE are the things I want to photograph. Those are the pictures that will lead to stories years down the road, those are the pictures that will bring up precious memories of real experiences. Its not just about getting pictures of happy kids, its about documenting their family dynamics too.

For example, with the Bickham’s photo session, they really wanted to document how Shelby’s imagination is growing every day. At this particular age she was just starting to “make believe” and loved to dress up, have tea parties, and take care of her baby doll. So those are all things that we were able to work into their session!
When you show up for their session, the first thing for you to establish is that you are there to play with these kiddos, and maintain that perspective throughout their session. I typically try and take the first 5-10 minutes and just spend it with the kids letting them show me their room, explore the park, look at some of their favorite books/toys… whatever they want! If they feel like I’m there to play with them they’re much  more likely to cooperate with me later on. Sometimes it takes kids a few minutes to warm up anyway, but if they’re distracted by a game you’re playing with them, they won’t even notice the camera! I spend a LOT of the session on my hands and knees down at their level letting them show me their world, just trying to engage them.

These ended up being some of my favorite portraits from the Verhine’s session… I positioned the blanket and the family where I thought the light was best, and then I started playing in the leaves with Olivia. I would take as big a handful of leaves as I could hold in one hand, and my camera in the other, and would count to three reeeeeeally slowly, letting her smile and the anticipation build as I counted, and then on three I’d throw them at her which made her laugh every time. She was focused on me, so she was looking at me the whole time, but in her mind we were just playing. Livi didn’t even notice the camera in my hand, she was focused on the pile of leaves in my other hand. You have to be willing to just PLAY! :)
For kids who are a little bit older, I have a list of questions I can ask them to get them to engage both with me and one another. I will ask them to go around in a circle and make up a story letting each person add a sentence. Kids are naturally silly and will come up with all sorts of things that they think will make the rest of us laugh. I will ask them if they know any funny jokes.. tell me about their favorite movie… tell me about their best friend at school… sing me their favorite song… ask them what makes their baby sister laugh, or if they know where she’s ticklish… ANYTHING to get them to talk! There are moments where I want everyone sitting in the same place, and these questions always come in handy in that moment!

With the Geberth Family, they were talking about the story of their family here… or maybe talking about their awesome Harry Potter halloween costumes… either way, the kids were all engaged in what they were talking about long enough for me to get this sweet photo below. Its not stiff or super posed and has a genuine candidness to it that I LOVE:
Along the same lines of playing with the kids, give them activities to do that will help you get great photos. One of my favorite things to do is to let them take turns playing ‘Simon Says’ or ‘Follow The Leader’. Mom and Dad always get to go first, and can ask things like “Simon Says, give your sister a BIG hug… Simon Says make a silly face for the camera… Simon Says twirl in a circle…  Simon Says everyone pile on the blanket… ” there are ways to get them to move to the spot or do what you’d like to get that photo, without just asking them to hug their sister or sit on the blanket. The key is to give the kids a turn to be Simon too, and play along! Another one that works every time is to let them play “Follow the Leader” and have everyone join hands and take a little walk, letting the parents lead the way first, and then give the kids a turn to lead too.

Another fun one is to pull the kids aside and tell them you have a “secret mission” for them, and have them come up with a plan to “sneak attack” their parents. The kids get excited thinking their being sneaky, and the resulting photo is something like this one below from the Shaw’s portrait session:
Keep in mind that typically locations that are familiar to kids work best! Check out their favorite parks, farms, gardens… where ever they have room to run and they will feel comfortable. Some kids just do better being in their own space with their own toys and things, and others like to explore new places.. those are questions to talk with the parents about before hand! My favorite locations though are ones that really mean something to the family, and typically that ends up being their own home or neighborhood! Is it going to be the most IDEAL light or location? maybe not, but as a professional its your job to take their favorite places and make them look good anyway! They will love the photos because it means something to them!

For example, Brooks favorite part of the day is in the evening when he gets to walk down the street and visit the horses that live a few houses down. When I asked Amy what their favorite thing to do as a family was, this was her first response, so I knew we needed to incorporate it into their session. I love that they will be able to look back at these pictures and explain to Brooks how much he loved these horses, how he had names and stories for all of them, and how he had his favorite horses that he loved to see every day. and on top of that, how HAPPY does Brooks look in this photo?! If the kids are happy and doing what they love, its going to automatically result in those natural, gorgeous smiles! The main thing to keep in mind is to let the kids set the pace. If you try one thing and they’re just not having it, abandon that plan and move on for the moment. If the kids just want to run and play, let them do that and run and play with them, and try and work in a few games along the way. I use my zoom lens at almost every portrait session, sometimes kids move WAY too fast for my 50 mm! Like I said, if they are happy and having fun they they will naturally dish out the smiles for you! You can’t always be worried about the EXACT perfect lighting or the perfect background, but do your best to engage the kids and make it a fun experience for them!

I tried to do a little mini portrait session with this kiddo, and all he wanted to do was bounce on the trampoline. If I had forced him off of and tried to make him cooperate with my plan for these photos I would have ended up with a stiff, forced smile. Instead, I grabbed my camera and decided just to play on the trampoline with him for a few minutes first, which resulted in this shot, which is one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken of this little man over the past 7 years… just because I was willing to play and let him set the pace. TOTALLY worth it! 
Hope there was something helpful in there for a few of you! If there are specific topics, questions, or FAQ’s you’d like me to blog about PLEASE feel free to leave them in the comments or email me and I’m happy to add it to my list for this year! :) Happy Wednesday!

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  1. Anna Grace says:

    This is such good advice! I am definitely going to try simon says next time I do a family shoot! Thanks Jessica :)

  2. Kari Tench says:

    Oh this is so wonderful!!! I don’t see a lot of posts like this! I am a portrait and lifestyle photographer. I just dropped weddings. So this was great info to add and for me to try out at sessions! I love families!!!!! :)

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