I think practically every family would like to have some nice portraits taken at some point—whether that’s hiring professionals like us, or just working with a friend who likes to take pictures. But, it seems that even where very low-cost options are available, relatively few actually do. I don’t think money is the reason more families don’t follow through with their desire to capture the family in a slightly more formal fashion. I think it’s something else—I think the mind is playing tricks on mom and dad.
I think the real reason is something closer to the fact that when you’re a parent, right now rarely feels like a good time to plan almost anything that doesn’t actively keep the kids alive, or at least keep them on-time for softball practice.
A family portrait session, especially the first one, represents what feels like a lot of unknowns. You might not have thought about what those unknowns are yet (there actually aren’t all that many of them). But, that doesn’t really matter because it’s not what the unknowns are, it’s that they’re unknowns in the first place. You have enough of those already, and at any given time you’re trying to work out a half a dozen of them as you go. It’s easy to see how adding one more unknown might seem unappealing, or even impossible.
If you’re one of those folks who would really like to do some family portraits, but feel a little at the end of your rope and don’t think like you can pull it together, read on. I’m going to try and demystify some of those unknowns, and clarify what kind of challenges you’ll face depending on the ages of your family. I think this is important because if you’re someone who cares about these images, one day you’ll probably end up regretting not finding the energy or will power to do it.
Feel free to just scroll on to the part that’s relevant to you!
Newborns can be a challenge for a portrait session for a number of reasons. The most common one seems to be that most people don’t know when exactly their baby will arrive, or how quickly they’ll recover after childbirth, so most people don’t get a session set up when they should. And then, when the baby is born, most people underestimate how much there will be to do and how tired they’ll be trying to keep up with all of it, and so then they fall into that trap of putting it off again and again, until they no longer have a newborn on their hands.
Additionally, parents tend to have a lot of questions about how the photographer is going to work with their baby. It can be hard to conceptualize, and adds to the list of unknowns that might keep you from even picking up the phone. What if the baby is just crying the whole time? What if our house doesn’t look pretty? What if it’s not possible to get good photos of my baby?
Lets clear up the first challenges right away. You should work out the photography plan before you have your baby. You can sort out pretty much everything with your photographer, except for the date, before your baby is born. With most photographers this will be something like a retainer, where you’ll vet them out, discuss everything and pay them in advance, and then once your baby is born, actually schedule the session on relatively short notice. Once your baby is born, you don’t want to be asking any who or where questions, you just want to quickly get to the when question. We suggest calling in your final trimester, about one month out from your due date.
As for the session itself, breath easy. Your baby will do just fine on the portrait session! You’ll just want to let the baby eat as much as he or she wants before the session, and turn the heat in the house up to about 85 degrees. In all likelihood, they’ll sleep like a rock for the entire session and the photos will turn out beautifully.
Babies & Toddlers
Many parents find that it can actually get a little easier to bring themselves to set up a family portrait session once their child crosses that imaginary line between newborn and baby-hood. For many parents, although life is certainly still a hectic adventure, some routines are typically starting to emerge and expectations are beginning to take shape, while new responsibilities born from the child’s growing sense of individuality have not necessarily amped up yet. But, while on paper it seems like this would make it easier to get that portrait session going, it’s also the time when many parents start trying to figure out how to have some semblance of their own lives again.
Additionally, those unknowns from before about how a newborn will do during the portrait session, well those get turned way up at this age. Babies, especially once they become independently mobile, have so much more energy than us adults ever expect and they can really be all over the place. They’re also usually starting to experiment with their tantrum game, and that leaves a lot of parents thinking a portrait session just isn’t plausible.
Okay, so lets deal with these challenges. First, this really just boils down to a priorities thing. If you want to do a family portrait session, you’re just going to have to decide in one of those sporadic and fleeting moments without immediate responsibility, to pick up the phone and talk to a photographer, instead of catching up on Facebook (although, you can actually do that on Facebook too). At this stage in the life of your family, you have 5 minutes here, 15 minutes there, and you just have to decide to use them on this instead of something else that might be more instantly rewarding. If you want to create family portraits while this kid is still a baby, that’s what you’ve gotta do, but of course, you could be forgiven for just wanting to zone out for a while.
The session itself is going to have to contend with who your baby is becoming, and that is probably going to be a bit of a challenge. But that’s okay, that’s mostly your photographer’s job! But, you can set things up to go as smoothly as possible. In the weeks leading up to your session, just pay attention to what your baby is paying attention to, and make sure you bring those things along. That could be their favorite toys, treats and snacks, or even a favorite person (*ahem* Grandma). The place also matters—Babies respond differently when introduced to new stimuli, so holding the session in a place they’re already familiar with will help. At these ages, babies are beginning to develop some predictability and your photographer will lean on however much of that they can to create beautiful photos. So questions about what and where are among the most important at this age.
Adolescent & Pre-Teen
By the time kids get into the adolescent and the pre-teen ages, you’re probably starting to get pretty good at making and executing plans as a family in the midst of intermittent chaos. I don’t mean to imply that it’s easy, but the constant every day pressure of figuring out what to do and how to do it is probably mostly subsided and given way to the more practical challenges of making sure everyone is where they need to be and when. The challenge becomes more like tossing a ball to someone already in the midst of a juggling act, than it is a juggling act in itself. The kids are probably starting to do after school activities, homework is becoming a bigger deal, the kids are making some friends that aren’t just the offspring of your friends, and you’re starting to have some more expectations for your own life as well. By this point, if you want to set up a family portrait session with someone, you probably will.
The good news is that once you’re actually out there shooting, kids at these ages are usually pretty easy to work with, provided they’re not given reasons to resist participating in the session from the start.
That is really the most important challenge to overcome for a portrait session at this age. While you shouldn’t give kids this age too much agency over whether you do a family portrait session, you shouldn’t make it into something they dread, either. Don’t give them a bunch of rules, don’t make threats around their behavior. In fact, I would suggest you don’t even bring it up until a day or two beforehand, and when you do, help them feel excited by being excited yourself.
Positive reinforcement is the name of the game here. Give them reasons to look foreword to the session by doing it someplace they’d like, or by having a reward to look foreword to during (popsicles?) or after (their favorite restaurant?) the session. Don’t worry too much about the kids behavior—hire a good photographer and let them work their magic.
Teenagers come in every possible variety. They are thoroughly into the swing of figuring out who they are and who they want to be. Some are reclusive and shy, others boisterous and outspoken, some are shockingly mature for their age, while others still have a ways to go. Our teenage years are also when we make friends, keep secrets, and get overwhelmed with our feelings. It’s an age when we’re old enough to dislike living under someone’s authority, but too young to live under our own.
Setting up a session for your family when your kids are in these ages is going to mean contending with extracurricular schedules and with the social lives and personal values your kids are discovering for themselves—and that is the challenge.
We all tend to get angsty as teenagers, as we test our own autonomy against our parent’s force of will. Many parents might not set up a family portrait session just because they don’t want to force a conflict with a moody teenager. Your plight is real, but don’t give up. Ultimately, nobody likes being bossed around, and teenagers are old enough to fight back in a ways that can really ruffle your feathers. So, if you want a family portrait session to happen, and you want it to happen well, you need to practice treating your teenage children with the respect and dignity you’d provide a peer. I know that might sound crazy, but you’ll have to start sometime, and teenager whose decided they’re going to get back at you by ruining your family portraits is going to succeed at that.
You don’t have to ask them if they want to do it, but you need to give them a lot of room to influence how it unfolds. At this point, you’re probably so used to controlling their schedules that this might seem uncomfortable, but doing it almost any other way (especially if they don’t really like the idea to begin with), is going to start a battle of wills that won’t end. So, set down your pride and ask them when and how it would be convenient for them to do a family portrait session. They might not know how to answer the question, or might just shrug it off, but as long as they don’t throw up a massive wall of resistance, you’ve started off on the right foot.
Keep that going as the session approaches. Let them pick what they want to wear. Ask their opinion on where the session should take place. Ask them to find cool family pictures on the internet. Whatever they do to contribute is a good thing.
Congratulations on getting children to adulthood and still wanting to capture everyone together! You must still like each other quite a lot, and that was no small feat. You deserve a pat on the back! But, of course, making a portrait session happen still comes with its challenges, only now, in some ways they’re multiplied. It’s all about the schedule. Where there were once just one or two complicated lives to factor in, it’s become three or four or five or more lives that are each complicated, and each marching onward on their own paths.
The good news is that these kinds of sessions are not only easy, they’re a lot more fun than they are stressful. A parent is scarcely free of stress until their children are grown, and even then a parent usually can’t help but worry. A family portrait session with adult children is more like a family get-together than a corralling of people. Everyone has signed up on their own, and hopefully sees the value in the session for themselves. The trick is figuring out when and where everyone can get into the same place at the same time.
To this end, I’d suggest looking for natural opportunities to piggyback on everyone being in the same vicinity at the same time. Family weddings, birthdays, holidays, reunions—whenever everyone will be in town at the same time. Try using a free service like Doodle to sort out everyone’s schedules and easily pick a date that works for everyone. Or, invent an unrelated reason for everyone to get together. Throw a barbecue or a anniversary party, and hold the session right there in your back yard. In fact, if you can get your family together, do it whether there’s a portrait session in the balance or not. Photos or not, those are not the kinds of decision one regrets.
Let us help
We’d love to help you navigate the waters of a family portrait session. Go ahead and check out the Family Portraits page here on our website to learn more, and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like to talk to a human being. We’re friendly and patient and understand that this process can feel daunting. We want to make it as easy, comfortable and fun as possible. We can’t wait to hear from you!