When I was a kid growing up in northern New Jersey in the ’80s, family photos were taken at Sears, maybe once every year or every other year—and my parents were never, ever in them.
We’ve come a long way since those days. Today, lifestyle photography sessions are increasing in popularity, and America’s photo shoot game has been upped enormously thanks to the advent of Instagram and Pinterest—fulfilling all our creative, photographic fantasies.
Modern “shoots: (engagement, maternity, seniors, family, etc.) often involve multiple outfit changes, props, and sometimes even include several locations. The options are limitless–which can be both exciting and daunting to someone about to head to their first family session.
Because photo shoots with young kids pose their own set of unique challenges, it’s best to go into them prepared for anything. Kids have short attention spans, their own agendas in mind, and they don’t always take to following directions from someone other than their parents or teachers. Trying to get a toddler and baby to smile in the same take can feel like a Herculean feat.
But by keeping an open mind and having some tricks up your sleeve, you can not only survive a session–but have some awesome pics for the grandparents to kvell about.
We’ve been working with the same photographer – one of my best friends – for nearly seven years. She has captured our family since my oldest (now 6 ½) was in my belly, and roughly every six months since then. She’s watched our family grow from a nervous couple taking maternity pics to a family of four – which means at this point, I consider myself an expert in the “surviving family photos” arena.
So if you’re considering doing a family photo session, here are some tips for making it a great experience for all parties involved. And here’s a bonus: these tips work for almost any outing, not just a photographic one.
1. Have no expectations. I say this as someone who is a control freak, but the truth is kids are completely unpredictable, and this is one of those (many, many) instances where having the bar set at a baseline zero is probably a wise idea. From my son, who was wide-awake during most of his newborn shoot, to my daughter, who had a full-on meltdown at her 4-year shoot because I asked her to wear a jean jacket on a freezing day—Heaven forbid!—you never know what you’re going to get. Have faith in the fact that–thanks to a trained professional–the photos will still come out great.
2. Feed your kids beforehand and pack reinforcements. Even if they just ate. Even if the plan is to eat after the shoot. Even if the shoot is just 20-30 minutes long. Someone will inevitably get hungry or thirsty and begin to kvetch, threatening to ruining your shoot. Feel free to get creative and practical: if it’s a birthday shoot, offer your kids a cupcake or cake pop as a prop. Your photographer can capture a sweet moment, and your little ones get a snack. Win-win.
3. Bribery works. Recently I’ve started letting my kids pick out a small toy (a Matchbox car; Shopkins) that they can have if they have behaved, when the shoot is over. A sticker or bubbles or a lollipop work well, too. Of course, bribes are not necessarily foolproof, but knowing they have something to look forward to can be a win for everyone.
4. Good lighting is key. You may think your living room or nursery has great light–and it very well may–but ask any photographer and they’ll tell you: there’s nothing as beautiful or flattering as soft, natural daylight. If your kiddos can venture outside and brave the elements–definitely do so. In addition to fresh air being good for everyone, being outside offers little ones a variety of things to do as well as to stretch their legs and (Case in point: at our most recent shoot, my kids found “walking sticks” and pretended to be old, hobbling along). Think shady parks and nature trails, playgrounds, beaches that are not in the glaring sun.
5. Timing matters. There’s nothing worse–for the parents or the photographer–than a photo session with a cranky baby or toddler who missed a nap. After six years of doing these shoots, we’ve found the sweet spot for our kids: late afternoon–after my toddler’s nap and snack, but before dinner. If afternoon doesn’t work for your family, early mornings work well, too. As parents of small kids, you’re up anyway–may as well make use of your kids’ peak hours! Head to lunch afterwards as a reward for surviving.
6. Dress comfortably. Comfortable clothes and shoes are key when you’re making your kids do something they don’t necessarily want to do. Be sure they’ve broken their shoes in and that they have a jacket or sweater in case the temps drop mid-shoot.
7. Keep it simple. Full disclosure: I love props and used several when the kids were smaller (ex: a giant wicker basket, a small bench, a rocking chair, a vintage suitcase) but I’ll be honest: they can be cumbersome to move around when you’re schlepping a baby on one hip and your husband has the other kid on his shoulders and is lugging a bag of props. Of course, if your kiddo has a favorite stuffed bear or doll, bring it. Just leave the giant Barbie Dream House at home. Two props you’ll probably want to bring: a blanket to sit on and bubbles (which always bring smiles to antsy kids). Just keep in mind that no matter what crazy, intricate set-ups you see on Pinterest, the focus of the shoot will be your family. There is beauty in simplicity.
8. Follow trends with caution. I’m totally guilty of falling for creative trends. Pinterest and Instagram can be an ideas-hungry mom’s best friend or worst nightmare. Last spring, for my daughter’s 5-years-old photos, I was hell-bent on getting some pics of her blowing glitter, like I’d seen on various blogs and around Pinterest. It was super windy that day, the glitter was a hot mess to clean off our photog’s lens, and I found glitter in my hair for ages. Cool pics, yes. Easy to pull off? Not so much.
Of course, no matter how many of these we have done, my kids inevitably stop listening at a certain point and we end up getting frustrated and calling it a day. As a mom who is always behind the camera and is our family’s unofficial documentarian, these shoots are also deeply personal. When I see the finished product, I know that’s all that matters: sweet, real moments, captured on film by one of my closest friends.