How do you feel about family Christmas portraits? Are they something that you look forward to every year or do you dread them? I recently read a Facebook post that deeply saddened me as a photographer, but that I could relate to 110% as a mother. The women posting in the thread where commenting one how hard family portraits were to prepare for, and make it through. From preparations, scheduling, kids fighting, or getting sick, all of these things put a damper on the day. As a mom, I know this pain. As a photographer, I want to offer a solution to this pain.
In years past, we tried and tried for the “perfect” family portrait. When our first daughter was born we tried. After hours of attempts, with the help of grandparents who pulled out all their best props and gags, we got ONE image where we are all smiling. It's not a perfect image, you can see the motion blur because my husband and I are both trying to tickle our daughter, but it worked and it worked well for Christmas cards. That child just never seemed to never be in the mood for pictures at the same time I was. I thought, “When she gets older, she will smile.” Ha! She became more opposed to the idea as she grew. Then, her siblings arrived. One by one, they stole her spotlight (the spotlight that she hadn’t seemed to want originally, but really wanted once someone else was standing in it).
Seriously, Emma didn't want anything to do with her younger sister for quite some time. She no doubt, wanted to be the only star.
I tried for many years to grab a picture of all of my children looking at the camera and smiling at one time. I thought, “I am a photographer, I can photograph other people’s families smiling at the camera, I should be able to do my own.” Yet, even with years of portraiture under my belt, my best attempts would always have at least one child crying, pulling their siblings hair, or flat out refusing to be anywhere in the vicinity of the camera. What’s funny is that now, as I look back on the images, the ones that I deemed failures at the time, I see how perfect they really are in showing the kids’ personalities and the story of the day. I just wanted a different story.
I didn’t want the story that showcased “imperfect” children. I wanted the story that illustrated a happily smiling and loving family. Why couldn’t I achieve that? The answer was because I was trying to control it too much. I am actually the one who made it a miserable experience for all of us. I was tense and uptight and I made it a chore instead of the fun, family time it should have been. I wasn’t like that when I was photographing other people’s families. When I was with them, I knew to make it a fun game so that everyone would have real, life-filled expressions. However, with my own family, I hate to admit, but I expected more, and instead of playing with the kids, I used my "Mom voice", I snapped at them, and I made pictures no fun at all. No wonder they were unwilling participants that ended up fighting with each other at every touch, and every other pose ended in a tackle. My attitude was contagious and it was not a good attitude.
You may have noticed that I'm missing a year's worth of failed attempts here. I think I was just too pregnant to try for posed pictures that year.
I didn't really try for a full family session this year either. This image was taken at an event that I had a studio setup at and my family was attending. We had someone snap three quick pictures of us on my backdrop. Fortunately, one of them turned out well enough for our Christmas card.
Two years ago, after a normally painful family portrait session, I stumbled upon the beginning of the solution. I realized that my oldest daughter wanted to be the director. She didn’t want to be in the poses that I chose for the family, she wanted to make her own, more fun poses. I told her that if she would cooperate with the poses that I made, that she could put us in a pose next. It worked! All of a sudden, she was a willing participant, not only that, but she was having fun. Now, unfortunately, she was a bit bossy in her posing (like mother, like daughter) and I think that some of her siblings cried because of it, but we got into a groove. Each kid got a turn in posing the family and we actually had fun with the game.
Last year, I forgot all about our fun game and our first attempt at pictures was a fail.
As I was scrolling through yet another year of failed images (mostly because the two year old wasn't having it), I remembered how much fun we had started to have at the end of the previous year and I convinced my husband to give it another go. The convincing wasn't easy because he has dreaded family picture day since our first family Christmas portrait session. I think that day is a traumatic memory for him.
Anyway, I convinced him and we convinced the kids to try again. We decided to make it more fun. We all wore pajamas (two children required new pajamas to be excited about the prospect), I didn't put up the backdrop (because I didn't want to work that hard), and we allowed each family member to choose one or two poses for everyone to try. Now in the spirit of full transparency, I have added all of my "failed" pictures above, there were decent ones in those sets (sometimes that required the help of Photoshop), but most of them truly were fails. Last year, they were mostly fun images, so I'm just adding gifs of a few of the poses. You can see by everyone's faces that fun was had!
We took a break in the middle of smiling poses to let everyone make funny faces, just to make sure everyone was still having fun, since our youngest girl was starting to fade.
Did we still have tears last year? Yes, but just from one child and only at the very end when she had to be in a picture with just Mama when she only wanted Daddy. Poor Gracie.
This year, around July or August, my oldest actually came to me begging to get to do Christmas portraits. I never thought I would see that day!
We still have a long way to go, okay, I still have a long way to go, but I know some of the keys now, it starts with me. You know that saying, “When Mama’s happy, everyone is happy”? It’s definitely true with family portraits. The more excited you can be about the pictures, the more excited the rest of the family will be. Conversely, the more you worry about them, the more the rest of the family will pick up on your nerves and react to the pressure.
Family portraits should be a fun time. The goal shouldn’t be to get a “perfect” picture. The goal should be to capture a moment in the life of your family. We want to capture the essence of the season you are in, however "perfectly imperfect" it is. The images that really show the personalities of everyone are the ones that we cherish forever. Here are a few of my all time favorite Christmas pictures of my kids. I rediscovered them while searching through images for this post. I thought they were all failures at the time I took them. The kids were being wild, they weren't listening to what I was saying, and honestly, they were just being kids and it shows. This is the exact reason that I love these images now.
So, what can we do to make family pictures more fun and successful? Here are a few ideas:
1) As I've already stated, your attitude is HUGE in how your pictures will turn out. Decide ahead of time that you are going to have fun and enjoy yourself. You really have no idea how much this will affect not only how you look in the pictures, but how the rest of your family does.
2) Be in the pictures with your kids. This is important too. I know that most of the images that I posted are just my kids. Some of that is because I disliked the way I looked so much that I didn't want to be in the pictures. It's also partially because my poor husband was traumatized by our first family photo attempts. However, I know now that we need to exist in pictures for our kids. They love us and they love to be with us, it doesn't matter how bad we think we look. The kids will have more fun when we are posing with them. They will also appreciate the pictures more, years from now, when we are gone. We need to leave them pictures of these moments in our family life to remember us by.
3) Family pictures are a great opportunity for a family playdate. They should be something that we all look forward to each year. Think about a place that your family loves to go together, we can photograph you there. We can go to a park, we can go to your house and play a game, we can walk around downtown, we can fly a kite, or do some other fun activity. Pictures don't have to be traditional, think outside the box. However, we can still be traditional and pose in the studio, it's completely up to you. Whatever we choose to do for your family portraits, let’s choose to make it fun and to have it be memorable in the best way for all the members of your family so that next year, everyone is excited and looking forward to family portrait day!
Oh, just a reminder, it is not too late to schedule your family portrait session this year and still get Christmas cards out in time (hahahaha, on time, what's that? I've sent them out in January before). To schedule your session, send me at email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to help you have a fun and memorable family playdate/photo session!