How to Capture Raw, Emotion-filled Family Pictures

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When I look back at some of my first family photos I took, they looked empty. They looked boring, simple and had no life. I would go from pose to pose and just always try to get that perfect shot. You know, the one mom wants of all her kids smiling looking like the perfect cookie cutter family? Yeah I was that photographer. Not to mention I would get about 15 minutes tops of kids being actually interested in me taking their picture.

I started realizing the pictures I loved from other photographers that inspired me where full of life and had a realness to them! I asked myself why I didn’t have that in my pictures? What was I missing? Interaction, that’s what! I’ve always LOVED kids and really do love to interact with them but I think I was so focused on getting “that shot” for the parents I forgot about interacting.  So here are some things I’ve learned to make my sessions go from boring and stiff to real and fun, not only for the kids but parents too!

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First it’s not common for many kids to love getting their picture taken for a period of time. Making it fun and less like work keeps them entertained, having a good time with happy faces. I always try getting down on their level first and become their friend before just putting my big camera in their face.  Even if kids aren’t shy, most need a little time to warm up. I always ask them things about themselves. What kid doesn’t love to talk about themselves. Even simple things about their age, school, friends, sports, cartoons.. etc. Find out what they like and it usually works to your advantage later on in the session when making small talk while shooting.

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I usually start my session with a more traditional pose, because I know they will be a bit stiff at first. They need some time to warm up and heck so do I.  If its a family I don’t know it helps us get comfortable with each other and them in front of my camera before I start making them do silly things.

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The first easy way to get your families to go from a stiff sitting pose is to yell different things.  Usually I start with something like ” who’s stinky feet do I smell, is it you Liam.”  This will most likely get the kids to blame each other and start to giggle.  I also yell things like ” kiss someone next to you” or ” group hug”.  This always makes for interesting funny/adorable pictures. That is when I get everyone nice and cozy in each others personal space and you get those real emotions and expressions. When I have them nice and close I try and yell different things to keep them giggling, laughing, and interacting. “Tickle mom, parents tickle kids, did someone toot, mom and dad kiss.. etc.”

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When moving from spot to spot at a location I am always making the most of it.  Having kids holding hands, running around mom and dad, parents spinning kids, kids on parents shoulders etc. There is always a picture that can be taken at any moment of a family, capturing them just being them.

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A mom told me recently something that stood out to me. ” Wow, my kids had so much fun tonight, I don’t even think they knew they were having their picture taken. Usually I get about 10 minutes before they are over it and we just did a hour and a half with no bribing or complaining.”  There is a reason for this… we played. The whole session.

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Playing games the whole session is something I think that really helps keep kids interest.  Things like Simon says is a great way to get them into a pose without them even noticing. “Simon says put your hands in your lap, Simon says sit down on this blanket, Simon says everyone hug dad…” so on.  Keep kids moving and keep their minds off the fact they are sitting posing for pics for up to 2 hours!  Keep things silly.  Every kid likes to have fun and laugh so even if you are doing a more posed shot don’t be afraid to jump up and down like a crazy person and yell funny things to get some natural smiles and giggles (even parents laugh at my non sense).  I really do try and make the whole time fun for them.

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Kids also love competition so after putting them where you want them tell them something like: “let’s see who can be the stillest statue – whoever can stay in their spot for 30 seconds wins” ( count out loud so they know how long they have stayed).  They are always trying to be better then their siblings and competing but I try not to make it all about winning and losing as that may make for some unhappy campers.

When I start individual pictures I always ask if anyone wants to go first. Sometimes I will get one kid over another that will want to but if I have more then one I play a game.  Pick a number one through ten, whoever is closest gets to go first!

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Try bringing props that can be “used” during the session is another way to make family’s interact!  Some examples are: a big quilt to have parents parachute in the air well kids run under it.  Also serves as a cute blanket to sit on or snuggle in nice and close.  Try thinking more “lifestyle” instead of posey! So maybe end the session at an ice cream parlor and snap pics of them eating their melting ice cream cones, or bring popsicles  to end the session with.  Its fun when kids can make a mess and they feel like they get a treat out of it all!

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Getting down on the kids level and becoming their friend during the session is so big. I hear a lot of my clients say ” Our kids can’t stop talking about you and how fun you were” that is what you want.  When you leave a session and the kids are hugging and high-fiving you or trying to tickle and play tag with you, you know you have had a good session.  I know I love kids and its easy for me to sit and chat with them but really being interested in what they have to say and really getting down and playing with them will make the world of a difference.  There are times I even set my camera down to play a quick game of chase. If you become their friend they will open up to you which means they open up in front of the camera.

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My biggest advice is to stop focusing on getting “the shot” and focus on the emotions in the picture. Stop worrying about someone not looking or everyone having a perfect smile because life isn’t perfect and that’s what makes a perfect shot. So when your tempted to pass up editing a shot, step back and ask yourself will this be a memory your client would want to forget 20 years from now.  The real emotions of the way the parents love their child.

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