Melissa Erickson, a writer with GateHouse Media News Group, contacted my portrait studio wanting child and family photography advice from a Los Angeles photographer. I am always happy to share my experience in the photography industry with others especially tips for taking great family portraits. Below is the entire interview that I had with GateHouse Media News Group.
Can you offer some tips for taking family portraits?
Hire an experienced photographer and make sure that they have images on their website that are similar to what you want. Too often most people will hire someone who is not experienced and they will not get what they want.
As far as taking family portraits yourself, you have to be patient. And you have to be direct about what you are seeing. Usually one or two members of the family are reluctant to be photographed so it takes a bit of humor and a bit of honesty. I will often say something to the effect of, “Hey, that smile looks so fake, let’s try it again.” Often I will model for everyone what I want them to do.
Preparation is important. What should people do before hand? Outfits? Locations? Time of day? How important is the arrangement of the group?
Preparation is very important. Talk with your photographer before the session about where you will have your portrait session and coordinate the outfits for that location. Matching tones of clothes (not necessarily matching colors) are important so that no one member of the family will stand out, unless they are the kids. Kids are the stars so it’s okay for them to stand out!
The golden hour right before sunset is a great time to photograph, as everyone tends to look warm toned. However, I tend to like photographing early in the morning because here in Southern California the sky becomes a big softbox of even light before our fog layer burns off. Plus you tend to have more time. If you don’t get that perfect image in that golden hour then your portrait session will be mediocre. But frankly, if you have a good photographer, any time of day should be fine.
The arrangement of the group can be important. I prefer something loving that shows how a family is close and affectionate. I ask everyone to hold each other. But then another twist is to do something that shows the independence of the members. I like to play around with all sorts of arrangements. It takes talking and understanding their comfort levels and their personalities to know what to capture.
During the shoot, what advice do you have? How do you handle unruly kids? How close should you get? How many photos should you take?
I prefer not to call portrait sessions shoots because as Ruth Bernhard told me, “Shoots are for guns, not cameras.”
My advice during a portrait session is to ask questions and converse about the world. That way everyone can relax and kids get to see that I’m cool.
With kids, I make sure to act like one. However, with unruly kids, I usually will have to tone down my kid to get them to behave. I often ask the parent to leave the room when I have an unruly child because usually they are acting out for the parent. I also will show them the back of my camera so they can see themselves and understand that they affect what I’m doing.
I don’t stop a session until I know I have at least 20 excellent portraits to choose from. You can always tell an inexperienced photographer from an experienced one by how much they are pressing that shutter. The inexperienced ones are doing a crap shoot, hoping to get something good. The experienced ones know how to do it and they don’t waste the client’s time doing it. I usually take 1-2 hours in session but most of that is talking, trying to put a relaxed vibe on the session. I’ve actually heard of some photographers who take 5 hours! My gosh, how exhausting for the client to waste their time on inexperience.
Do you have any ideas about location options? My editor is interested in photos outside of a studio.
I prefer to photograph in a studio where I can control light and bring the simplicity of human emotions to the foreground. One of the reasons I prefer not to photograph on location is that the background becomes a distraction from the real reason to create a family portrait—to celebrate the bond of the family.
If you want interesting locations, look at the world around you because I think what is relevant to your life is what would be the best. If you love your home, why not photograph at home? If you are cosmopolitan, then why not an urban background? I do tire of the typical family in white on the beach which is ubiquitous in Southern California.
Lastly, how do you bring the family’s personality in to the photo?
Over the many years I’ve photographed families I have come to believe that although the family is a unit, there are individuals in that family that have a variety of relationships. I try to understand those individuals first and foremost. I ask a lot of questions since everyone in the family has an opinion of each other. Then I joke around quite a bit, but that’s just because I see everything as humorous. A family portrait should extol the family unity and yet respect the individuals.