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Samantha & Extended Family’s Portraits at the Bel Air Mansion

A family of ten, including adults and children, strolls across a grassy field with trees in the background, creating a picturesque portrait reminiscent of timeless moments at the Belair Mansion.

You know what moms love? Photos of their kids. With Mother’s Day not far off on the horizon, I thought the story of this session would be a good one to tell.

Samantha reached out because her mother, Rebecca, had been asking for photos of the whole family, which, in actuality, was three families — two of which had sprouted their own kids, 5 children in total. It can be tough pulling a whole family together, especially when the kids are all adults and have busy lives of their own, but even more so when those kids have their own kids with their own busy schedules. Samantha was up to the task though, and she and her brothers really wanted to make this happen for their mom.

Given the existing complexity of life, one of the priorities was simplicity: Keep it close by, make it easy to park the car to get the kids in and out, and keep the walking to a minimum. The location that met all of these needs, and then some, was the Bel Air Mansion, just down the street from all of us. Of course, this was all happening during a unique time since Samantha and her family would be coming in from out of town. It would either be now, or maybe not again until the kids were another 2 feet taller.

I arrived on the scene right about the same time Samantha and her subgroup were climbing out of their van. She was fixing hair and straightening sweaters and skirts, while Rebecca was playing with one of the children. In my usual custom, I met briefly with Samantha to review our priorities for the session and then immediately turned my attention to introduce myself to the kids, hoping that I could get them on my team before we got started. Not long after, Samantha’s brother David, his wife, and their two kids showed up, and I repeated the process. Samantha’s brother James, along with his girlfriend, were the last to arrive. This was apparently characteristic within the family dynamic, and it was fun to observe the interplay of personalities as the rubber hit the road.

Before we got started, I pulled everyone’s attention for some boilerplate information about what we were going to do together — “whether we like it or not, the kids here are in charge; we need to help them have a good time, which is the only way we’re going to get nice photos of them,” I say, to understanding nods.

Since kids’ attention spans and willingness to participate in big group photos tend to wane over the course of a session, we started out front of the mansion with the whole group together, which was one of the family’s top priorities. The afternoon light speckled shadows over the teardrop lawn from behind. We had very nice, albeit somewhat windy, weather and mostly clear skies. After capturing a nice round of warm-up shots with the whole family, we quickly pivoted 45 degrees to the left and right for photos with individual families, some including photos of Rebecca, which was another priority.

We wrapped up on the front lawn and moved onto smaller groups, making our way gradually around the north side of the building. We stopped for photos of Rebecca with each of her adult children and stepped away from the building for a shot of James and his girlfriend.

At this point, we were starting to lose the youngest member of the entourage, who had decided this was a scary situation and did not want to be without her mother — not at all unusual, but challenging nonetheless. Our attempts at a photo of all of Rebecca’s grandchildren together were beginning to come apart at the seams, even as four of the five children were ready and willing. Using one of the staircases to the right of the mansion’s main entrance, we played a game with the kids in an attempt to create a split second of acquiescence from the child in protest. It didn’t work, but was a funny experience nonetheless and with a bit of photoshop magic during editing, I wiped our failure from the record books. Well, kind of, anyway. They’re all in the photo, just maybe not looking as happy about it as anyone had hoped.

Since we were on borrowed time with our light, we didn’t spend too much time trying to make the impossible happen. Instead, we continued around the side of the building and revisited previous arrangements in new environments. We captured Samantha and her family playing with the autumn leaves, David playfully teasing the children, and we stopped for another photo of James and his girlfriend. Much to her chagrin, Rebecca’s kids convinced her to pose for a nice shot between twin trees that turned out very nicely — she looked great in her orange sweater against the turning leaves. The older children had also thoroughly gotten into the experience by this point, and they played along great, allowing me to capture some striking solo portraits. One of David’s kids loved playing facial expression games that produced an adorable “gasp!” photo — a tradition of mine I’ll have to tell you about later.

We continued our march around the building. At some point, a fedora entered the mix and got passed around. Everyone wanted a piece, probably because it kind of looked great no matter who wore it.

As we entered the rear lawn, we did a sweeping long shot of the whole group walking hand in hand. Walking photos are a staple of portrait photography, but when you do it with a dozen people, it takes on a striking kind of drama. That became one of our standout shots. On the back lawn, we captured a few photos of individuals, James and Samantha especially, who thought this might be a good time to get a new LinkedIn headshot. Through this we learned that James does not have command of his eyebrows independently of one another, but does look quite a lot like a prohibition-era gangster when he puts on a fedora.

Before we started to make our way around the other side of the building where the cars were parked, we stopped on the back lawn for one more dramatic, yet traditional, shot of the whole gang together.

Just before we were going to wrap things up, I noticed my youngest subject, the one who had decided not to participate, was seated by herself on a stone wall. The nature photographer in me snuck up on the situation and was finally able to get a nice photo of her — almost smiling this time! Success!

We finished up with a few more shots of the kids on their own, sitting on the stone path that cuts through the butterfly garden. They each wanted a turn with the camera and the fedora, and I was more than happy to oblige.

This session was really a lot of fun. Ups and downs, challenging seas, and smooth sailings. It was a great example of how an extended family session can shift its focus from one thing to the next to create a lot of diversity in a short span of time. It also holds up as a good example of how hopscotching around from one group to another can help little kids both feel engaged, without wearing them out too quickly. And, not to be understated, it demonstrates how the Bel Air Mansion is a truly fantastic place for a portrait session of this kind, providing lots of variety without many of the typical complications.