Never Go Against the Family, Part 1: Planning

How to do a family portrait that won’t cause a meltdown, Part 1: The planning stage
by Jessie Parker
Family portraits… oh my, family portraits. Few theoretically benign prospects send a shiver down one’s spine like the idea of having one’s family portrait taken. The stress, the tears, the fighting. What should be the document of a moment in the life of a happy family is all too often created in one of the most stressful moments they’ll ever experience together without anyone actually being in real danger. Sometimes it’s only slightly less stressful for the photographer! As a long time photographer and now the mother of a small child, I see it from both sides. In my unbiased opinion (ha!), I think being a mom has changed and improved my thought process when it comes to family photo sessions, particularly when they involve children under five. Here are a few of my personal guidelines for planning a successful family portrait session with as little stress as possible for both the family and the photographer. A session that will create the professional photo prints so desired.
1. Set a Date.
This sounds simple, but finding a day and time that works for all members of the family AND the photographer can be a challenge. For bonus points, pick two just in case weather gets in the way or someone has to cancel.
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2. Choose a Location.
Find out what kind of feel the family is looking for. Just because you live near a beach doesn’t mean everyone wants their portraits done there. Maybe they have a special park they like to visit together or a Little League baseball field where the children play. Any activity they do as a family could be an inspiration. Think outside the box. Finding out about their shared interests can lead to really interesting locations. If they aren’t sure, be prepared to make a variety of suggestions. If you think you’ve hit upon the right place, double check to see if you need a permit to shoot there. It would be awful to arrive and be turned away because you didn’t follow the guidelines set by whoever owns or manages the place. It’s usually really easy to check. More and more places have their rules about photography posted on their website. Even if they don’t, a quick phone call to the manager will sort it out.
Also, make sure there aren’t any special events planned for that day. I once scheduled a photo session at a very quiet park only to arrive and discover a huge fair going on. I had no idea they ever had events there! It always pays to be sure. Before you 100% commit to the location make sure there aren’t any real hazards or attractive nuisances that will hinder your session. By that, I mean things like open bodies of water or playgrounds. If there are, will you be able to keep the little kids away from them or at least hide them until you’re finished? Trust me, you don’t want to try to do photos of a two year old right on the edge of a lake. On the other hand, if you can see the lake in background, but it’s pretty far away, it shouldn’t cause you any problems. Something like a playground can be fine too, if it isn’t visible from where you plan on doing the photos. It can even be a fun way to end the session. You can get some fun, silly shots of them playing together! Also be aware of how crowded or noisy the place might be at different times. The fewer distractions, the better.
3. Decide on a Time of Day.
There are three main factors to consider when picking a time: when everyone is available, the lighting at that time, and how the children behave at different times of the day. Their availability is obviously key, but if someone needs to take a day off from school or work to get better lighting or behavior, suggest that! Avoid scheduling for a time when they’ll be in a rush to move on to another appointment. You don’t want to add to their stress by having them feel like they’re going to be late for something else. Also, be honest with the family and tell them when you think the best time is to shoot there. Many people would happily sacrifice an afternoon of work, if you explain that it will buy them a gorgeous golden hour of lighting. Finally, make sure you’re not scheduling it during or too close to nap time. That’s a recipe for a session-ending meltdown.
4. Beware of the Weather.
Rain isn’t the only deal breaker. Don’t try to go through with a shoot in excessive heat or cold. Safety first, kids. If you’re concerned, call the family and talk to them about it. They’re probably thinking the same thing, but are afraid to cancel.
Now it’s time to up your family photo game. Try these 5 tricks for no-fail picture perfect family portraits every time. Click HERE.