By: Aimee Tafreshi
There is a key phrase that can make my usually level-headed husband quake with fear and face off against his other half in a heated discussion about money, stress and the need to preserve memories for when we are two cranky old farts in an empty nest…
“I think it’s time we took some family photos.”
Don’t get me wrong; my husband enjoys seeing the product from these marathon photo sessions, likes the charm the framed portraits add to our home and proudly shares them with his friends on Facebook. What he does not enjoy, however, is the actual photo session or the hemorrhaging of cash to acquire these beautiful images.
What my husband may not realize is that I don’t particularly relish these family photo sessions either, but I have to be the cheerleader for them, or we would be a home with no pictures. I have a particular need to document our family (on the beach, in an urban setting, in a woodsy setting, etc.) once or twice a year, and after much psychoanalysis, maybe this need is rooted in a fear of time passing, children growing up, death, mortality, who knows?! Or perhaps I want to be able to look back at my family during various stages of our lives to bring back fond memories and to make sure our children (and their children) are able to see how we lived and what their ancestors looked like.
Apparently I take after my great-grandmother – she was obsessed with taking pictures, and one of my favorites is a large black-and-white professional portrait from my grandmother’s childhood birthday party, with all the children dressed in their Sunday best, and my grandmother looking miserable at her own fete. Her mother also subjected my grandmother, an only child, to many formal portrait sittings. Making people miserable in the pursuit of preserving memories is in my blood.
Throughout my seven years of motherhood and sitting for family portraits, I have amassed some tips for making these sessions more bearable.
First off, when it comes to choosing the right photographer for your family, choose very carefully. You will be spending a good amount of money, effort and time to capture these images, so you don’t want to necessarily choose the least expensive option or hire your best friend’s cousin. When looking for a new photographer, I usually seek recommendations from friends, while also conducting my own search. Once I have narrowed down the candidates, I study their online portfolio. I meticulously examine their gallery of family photos. Do the pictures look like snapshots I would take in my backyard, or is there something magical about the moment she captured?
There are many good photographers out there; the great ones are harder to find. Photography is an art form – you either understand lighting, composition and the elements of a great photo, or you don’t. I am not an expert photographer, but I would say I am an expert at hiring those who are artists with their cameras.
I like a photographer who has a good mix of traditional portraits and candid shots. Some of the best pictures are taken between more staged portraits, where everyone is acting naturally and not trying to force a smile for the camera. I like a photographer who keeps clicking even between poses. Some of my favorite photos are completely unscripted, spontaneous and capture the real moments of a family.
Next, you may fall in love with a photographer’s work, but her prices may be in the stratosphere. You usually do have to spend a decent sum of money for quality photos, but you may not be able to hire your dream photographer. Find several suitable candidates in your price range and compare and contrast their packages. I am a fan of those who offer a reasonable price for all of the digital images, as opposed to those who prefer to sell you only prints. With the digital files, if I don’t have the money to buy a bunch of prints right away, at least I can go back later and order some enlargements from a quality online photo lab.
Also, you want to think about timing. If you are planning to do family portraits once a year, the early fall might be an ideal time. I like October because the weather is cooler and it’s before the craziness and huge expenses of the holidays have crept in. Plus you can take these fall photos and use them on your holiday card, as well as use some as gifts for your family members. This is one of the justifications I always use on my husband – “oh but we will save money because we can give these away as gifts!” The autumn lends itself to fun themes like pumpkins, cowboy boots or a more rustic setting. And in the South, football season weather is more tolerable, so you won’t have to ask the photographer to Photoshop out sweat stains.
Another note on timing – there is also the time of day to think about. If you are taking photos outdoors, you really have two choices: before the crack of dawn, or right before sunset. I prefer evening shoots, because I don’t want to look half asleep in our portraits, but others with small children may prefer the sunrise option if you have already been awake for two hours.
For indoor sessions, the timing should revolve around your children’s eating and sleeping habits. Do not schedule portraits during nap time or mealtime! Earlier in the day is usually better when everyone is still fresh.
For newborn sessions, those are a whole different ballgame. I always feel sorry for parents going to a newborn session for the first time. To me they are the most grueling photo sessions I have ever endured. Parents of newborns are usually sleep-deprived, still hurting from the delivery and often look like the walking dead (or that was just me). You have to go into the session and steel yourself for the possibility that your baby will not sleep for the peaceful sleeping baby photo, will cry incessantly, will want to eat the entire time and will poop and pee all over you. The photos are usually worth it in the end, but I wouldn’t wish a newborn session on anyone.
Regarding style choices, before you spend an arm and a leg on a new coordinating wardrobe for everyone, check your closet to see what you already have. Try to match the colors to the season or location (think pastels, blues and greens, khakis and whites for the beach; warm colors, denim and plaids for the fall). Try not to dress everyone identically – white shirts paired with denim on everyone is not particularly original. I like to pick two or three coordinating color families and mix them up with different prints, patterns and solid pieces. You want to complement each other, but you want to avoid the dreaded “matchy-matchy” look (I will make an exception for twins here).
Also, I wouldn’t recommend doing a wardrobe change mid-session if you have small children. You have maybe an hour at best before the session goes seriously downhill. If you must change outfits, wear your favorite picks first, so if your little ones lose it, you will get your must-have photos.
As far as hair and make-up goes, if you have the time, money and desire, channel your inner diva and enlist a style team. In the professional photos where I have not opted for a make-up artist’s steady hand, I looked half dead. I don’t choose to have my make-up done because I am vain or wanting to look like a supermodel, I have it done so I look awake and human. I figure these photos are going to grace my walls for the next half-century, and perhaps they will get passed down the generations. Most of our photographs will outlive us, so think about the impression you want to leave your future great-grandchildren.
And the last tip – booze. My husband becomes a lot more tolerable at family photo sessions after a shot of whiskey. If I need to get some whiskey in him to grease the wheels and get him to smile nicely for the camera, I will happily be the designated driver that evening. And for the children, I have found ice cream to work as an incentive (okay, bribe) to behave and smile during a photo session.
You can control many variables during a family photo session, but you can’t control your child’s temper tantrum or your spouse’s reluctance to indulge your love of photos. You can only minimize these risks, not eliminate them. For these reasons, I advise you to always keep smiling as the camera is clicking and know that like all stressful things, the photo session will eventually end, and you will have a snapshot in time to hang on your wall.
Aimee Tafreshi is a mom of five, freelance writer and attorney who also contributes to