How to Plan a Family Photo Shoot

December 6, 2012

by Margaret Cabaniss

The weekend after Thanksgiving, my sister Karen set out to have some professional photos taken of her family. It’s something that she’s always wanted to do but (understandably) never found time for, in between being a crafty, homeschooling mom to twin five-year-olds, a three-year-old, and a particularly adorable one-year-old. I tagged along to help out behind the scenes and get a sense of what kind of preparation is involved in pulling something like this off.

There are, of course, some tips that always apply, regardless of whether you’re taking wedding photos, family photos, or pet photos: Find a photographer you like, for starters, and make sure you’re both on the same wavelength about the style of photos you want in advance. (Karen loved working with Sara of Sara Davis Photography, who kindly let me reprint her photos here.) But beyond the basics, we found a couple of things that were particularly important to keep in mind when trying to wrangle a family of six — or whatever your numbers may be…

Timing is everything.

If your baby takes a morning nap, don’t schedule a photo shoot for the same time; ditto if your younger kids tend to unravel in the late afternoon. Find a time (preferably after they’ve been fed) when they’ll be content, cheerful, and (hopefully) a little more open to following instructions — or will at least look like they’re having a good time.

Also, bear in mind that, when you’re small, sitting still and following instructions is still work, so try not to let the shoot go on for too long. In their one-hour photo session, Karen’s kids were great for about 30 minutes, manageable for the next 15, and practically mutinous by the end. Figure out in advance what kinds of pictures you want, and where you want to take them, so you waste less time setting up the shots when you’re finally on location.

…well, almost everything.

The day that Karen made the call to set up their photo session, her darling three-year-old daughter decided to play barber — on herself — and ended up with two-inch bangs and some pretty sweet bald spots. With a few weeks’ worth of growth and some careful combing, Karen was able to hide the worst of it for the photos (though you can still see evidence of the choppy bangs above), and Ana still looked as adorable as ever.

The point is, there will always be a reason to delay taking pictures — you want to lose the rest of that baby weight; your kids can’t sit still yet — but try not to let it keep you from getting pictures of your family now — bald spots and all.

Don’t match; coordinate. And don’t wait till the last minute!

Gone are the days of kitting out your entire family in matching denim — but even for casual photos, it’s a good idea to have everyone roughly coordinate (or, at least, not clash horribly with their siblings). Go through your family’s wardrobes and see if any color scheme emerges; for Karen’s family, that meant browns, blues, neutrals, and a pop of pink for the girls. No one is wearing matching anything, but by keeping outfits in the same general color palette, the photos still look pulled together.

You don’t need to buy entirely new outfits for this, either: Karen and I shopped her kids’ closets first, seeing what items they had, what things they could borrow from their siblings, and what we needed to pick up at the store. By the end, we only had a few holes that still needed filling in — but be sure to leave yourself some time to pull it all together.

Above all, make sure your kids try on everything before picture day. Karen didn’t discover until they were walking out the door that her son’s shirt was several sizes too big, and she had to scramble to find him something else to wear. Fortunately, she had another shirt on hand that worked — which might be an argument for having a few pieces in reserve, just in case (especially for spit-up prone babies).

Bring supplies — and backup.

Beyond whatever items you may want in your pictures (like a picnic blanket, etc.), bring some emergency supplies, too: water, a comb, tissues or wet wipes, a non-messy snack for the kids, etc. Having someone on hand to assist who’s not going to be in the photos can be a lifesaver, too: I helped tote the supplies and played kid-wrangler — something that came in handy when four kids wanted to dash off in four different directions.

The one item you shouldn’t leave home without? Mini marshmallows. Every kid loves them; they don’t make a sticky, chocolate-y mess between takes; and they came in really handy when the kids needed a little…incentive to stay focused.

…alright, fine: I straight-up bribed them with the marshmallows. And it worked, too: I had the kids performing like trained seals in no time, just by tossing them a couple marshmallows after each take. Maybe not the best long-term parenting strategy, but it was a lifesaver in those last 20 minutes when the kids started getting antsy. (The cherubic smile Addie’s wearing up there? It’s all for sweet, sweet marshmallows.)

Let them be kids.

Get your posed family photo for the Christmas card and grandparents’ gifts, but as much as possible, let the kids be themselves and have fun. You’ll get more genuine smiles if they’re enjoying themselves, and the pictures will look more like them than any starched-and-pressed posed shot.

And don’t forget at least one outtake, just for posterity:

For more tips and ideas, check out my post on how to take great pictures of kids, as well as these guides from Design Mom and Say Yes to Hoboken. Any tips of your own to add? Horror stories from family photo shoots past? Do tell!

All images © Sara Davis Photography

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1 Abby December 6, 2012 at 11:21 am

Wonderful pics of a beautiful family!! Fun, Mags! Congrats, Karen!


2 Alissa Lively December 7, 2012 at 3:16 pm

These pictures are gorgeous! What luck that they had such a willing marshmallow briber- Way to go you.


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