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What makes a good family photographer?

Photographers specialize with every bit as much specificity as you can imagine. I’ll bet if you were to google ‘Pillowcase Photographers’ you’d pull up something useful… I mean, assuming you’re looking for someone to take pictures of your pillow cases. But, we’re not going to get so narrow here. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to break down some of the broad categories that photographer’s specialize in, and break down what makes a photographer in that context good at what they do.

This week, we’re talking about the family photographer, one of our own specialities. Family photographers come in a multitude of styles, from the highly processed and thoroughly produced, all the way to the pure naturalist, perhaps still shooting on film (we fall somewhere in-between these two). Of course, photographers of virtually every style can produce beautiful work. That’s a matter of taste. But are they a good ‘family photographer’. That question is bigger than what the pictures look like.

Lets look at some of the things that make a photographer a good ‘family photographer’. It’s a little less obvious and a lot less technical than you might imagine.

More than comfortable, they actually like kids

An awful lot of people feel awkward or uncomfortable around children they’re unrelated to. A good family photographer, as a simple matter of fact however, is not. A good family photographer feels comfortable with kids at various ages, and they aren’t ‘thrown off’ or ‘surprised’ by them. They may even derive a certain creative energy from that pure enthusiasm only kids seem to have.

And moreover, not just young kids, but they’re also comfortable with the adult kids. They’re able to identify and appreciate the nuanced relationships between siblings, and able to infuse their observations into the images they create.

They are patient, and stay positive

When a family photographer is working with small children, there is no room to get frustrated. Kids are slow at just about everything, but it’s important that they’re not rushed through. A good family photographer needs to move at the kid’s pace, and they need to keep a positive rapport going with them. That means doing a lot of waiting, and it means the photographer has to stay positive, even as otherwise great opportunities are slipping past.

Family cultures can also sometimes come with quirks and spotty dynamics—sometimes even palpable tension. Being mindful and respectful of these things so that everyone can have a great experience and actually be as happy as they look, takes time and patience, and positivity.

They have a vision, but aren’t married to it

I’d hope that virtually everyone who calls themselves a photographer would have some kind of vision for their work. And the family photographer is no different. However, a good family photographer needs to be comfortable with a somewhat unreliable relationship with their vision. A family photographer needs a vision so they can start making creative choices,  “A train on the wrong track still ends up at a train yard eventually”, as they say. But the unpredictability introduced by small children or unexpected family dynamics means a good family photographer needs to be ready to start changing their vision on a moment’s notice.

And, perhaps most importantly, a good family photographer can still be satisfied with, and enthusiastic about, their work even if they’ve had to leave their original vision miles and miles behind.

They’re diversely equipped

Family photographers contend with unpredictability a lot. From photographers who shoot outdoors and sometimes need to find a clever or stylistically relevant way to shoot indoors, to studio photographers who’s client decides at the last minute that they will wear blue instead of green. A good family photographer’s equipment is ready for a diverse set of challenges. They have somewhat longer lenses, in case the baby is so shy they can’t get within 6 feet of them. They also have wider lenses in case the kids start running around. They’ve got some impromptu lighting, in case it’s too wet outside.

A good family photographer has got some tricks up their sleeve to deal with unexpected changes in people and circumstances, and they try hard to make sure their equipped for those changes when they occur.

They know who’s ‘in charge’

The youngest person in the group is ’in charge’, or the dog is ‘in charge’, or the nebulous temperament of the group itself is ‘in charge’. A good family photographer knows they are not ‘in charge’, per se. See, basically, every family photo session hinges on the temperament that is least within the photographer’s control. If there are small children, they can’t simply be given instructions. A dog can’t be reasoned with and might not take any instructions at all. And a whole group’s temperament is made up by the individual people in that group—basically, everybody needs to be as genuinely happy, or at least as agreeable, as is within the photographer’s reasonable control, or the photographer is going to have a tough time getting good photos of them.

A good family photographer recognizes this and doesn’t lord authority in their role over anyone’s head. A good family photographer seeks to connect genuinely, and win children’s cooperation. A good family photographer plays with the dog. A good family photographer develops a rapport with the whole family, by caring for and investing in its individual members throughout their session.

In conclusion

These are not the sole qualities that make for a good family photographer, and it is not to say that there aren’t photographers lacking some of these qualities that are still doing great work with families. But, find someone with all of these qualities, whose work you also like, and you’ve almost definitely got a winner.

Next week we’ll be talking about what makes for a good headshot photographer! Stay tuned!