Oh yes, those are my kids. And this happens almost every autumn, when we go out to take our annual family portraits. So I'm not speaking to you today as some distanced photographer. I'm speaking to you as a momtographer. I've been on both sides of the camera- pretty much at the same time- and I'm learning a few things about how to photograph my kids.
Now if your kids are anything like mine, then photographing them alone isn't that hard. I own a great pair of mommy goggles, as I'm sure you do too, and so I can look at each of my babies and see the most beautiful creature on earth. Pulling each child aside, I am floored. I look at my oldest and adore his smile. My baby girl has the prettiest eyes. And my little man just looks at me and I melt. I know you can all relate. I bet you do the same thing with your kids. And so pulling each one aside for his/her own solo shot is not that difficult.
But the fun truly starts when we try to put them all together for that group shot. Oh. My. Word.
Suddenly my oldest's smile is gone. He is rolling his eyes, and beside himself that he has to touch his little sister. My daughter loses any focus on me and her beautiful eyes are darting from brother to brother, so our connection is gone. And the baby? Oh my goodness. It's as if someone put ants in his pants, and then sent him to stand with his siblings. He can't stand still, he's giggly and making potty jokes, hitting his sister, kicking his brother, you name it. At this point, I usually lose it and yell at him, resulting in the classic shot I posted above. Oh the joys of Portrait Day.
Over the years, I have learned a few things about making the most of this often difficult situation.
1. MOM SETS THE TONE
Before we even step outside, get in the car, walk to wherever we are shooting, I am learning to get myself mentally and emotionally prepared. Just as I have to get myself ready physically (and my husband, and my kids... ugh, a topic for another day- how to get everyone looking great without having World War III!), I also have to get myself ready mentally. And so do you.
We know our children. Perhaps we have silly kids. Or kids who are going to refuse to smile. Maybe each precious cherub brings his own unique treat to each portrait session. Or maybe each time is a surprise. Whatever it is, if our kids are on the young side, then we have to be prepared for pretty much anything. And we have to be ready to BE OK WITH IT. Spend a little time alone before you leave for your portrait session. For me, I know I need to spend some time in prayer. For you, it might be the same, or you might need to do a little mental imagery. But prepare yourself for the "less than perfect" behavior you might see, and prepare your mind and your heart to react to it with patience and grace. Tell yourself that you will not yell. Remind yourself that when you want to yell, you will LAUGH instead. Try it. Laughing when you want to yell will set you at ease, and might set your kids at ease too. So prepare yourself- physically, mentally, emotionally.
2. PREPARE THE KIDS
Do you get the same reaction that I get when I tell my kids that we are taking our family portraits? That might be the only time they agree all that day! The loud "UGH!" in perfect unison- I get it every time. Or I used to. I am learning to prepare the kids ahead of time. Not just prepare their wardrobe (which is important, and again, a topic I'll go over someday soon). I need to prepare them on the inside too. Now, you might have a harder time with toddlers, of course, but for the older kids this is important. Sit down with your kids- together or apart, that's up to you. I sit mine all down together so they all hear the same thing. I explain to them what we are doing and what they can expect. I think, often times, that my kids give me the "ugh" because they are expecting an hour of mom barking at them to smile. This is why we need to sit them down! Let your kids know what they can expect- no more than half an hour, or an hour of photos, NO YELLING from mom, sincere apologies if yelling does slip out, a FUN time for all, and maybe a treat after. I try to make that night an "out to dinner" night. I am in no mood to cook afterwards anyway, and the kids love the treat, so it gives them something to look forward to. If you can't do dinner out, do ice cream, or a movie night in. Just make the time after the photos a treat for them so they have something to look forward to.
3. SKIP THE CONDITIONS
Yes, give them a treat after the portrait session, but no, do not make it conditional on whether they "behave". Remember Point 1? Prepare yourself, Mom. Things are NOT going to go perfectly. And if your treat is contingent upon them going perfectly, you're either skipping the treat or you're giving in, neither of which will help for next time. If you skip the treat, the kids will know next time that they might not get that reward, and if you do it anyway, then they'll know you'll give in no matter what. I've been guilty of this. Don't do it. Make the "after session treat" just that. A reward JUST FOR SHOWING UP. Then do your part, skip the "freak outs" (talking to myself here) and look forward to the treat yourself. You'll have earned it too!
4. ENCOURAGE ALONG THE WAY
As moms, we are the main cog in this wheel of perfect family portraits. We organize the session, prepare the wardrobes, get the kids showered, dressed, ready, etc. By the time we're there, whether we're shooting ourselves or not, we are in "the zone". What's the next shot? Where is Suzy? Is everyone still clean? What's the time check? Ugh. It's not easy. But remember to LAUGH! (see Point 1). And remember to encourage and connect with the kids throughout the entire session. TELL THEM HOW GREAT THEY ARE DOING! Laugh with them, but gently tell them when it's time to simmer the jokes. Tell your girls how beautiful they look. They do don't they???? Tell them. The more you encourage them, the more everyone- including you- will feel at ease, will relax, and will enjoy the session. And that's when the great shots come out.
5. POSE THEM WITH TRIANGLES
Now you might have a professional photographer, and if so, she will know how to pose your kids together. But if you are the shooter that day, think triangles. And try to make the triangles from your kids faces. That is where your eyes will naturally go when you look at your portraits, so keep faces a bit closer together. If your oldest is towering over your others, bring him down and closer somehow. Have him sit on a rock or on the ground and have a younger sibling on his lap or nearby on a knee. If you have four kids, think of a diamond shape (which is two triangles, yeah?). No matter the number, try to make trianges. Unless you have two. Then just keep them close and not completely horizontal. Balance their faces in the shot.
6. MAKE THEM TOUCH, BUT NOT TOO TIGHT
You can see from our family portraits, that I had my oldest put his hand on my daughter's back. I usually have him do this every year, and he always starts out doing the same thing. Arm around her shoulder. NOPE! I don't want to see that hand. It's a random hand popping out in my photo, and it usually causes my daughter discomfort (as he accidentally pulls her hair, or squeezes her shoulder, or whatever). Just a hand on the back. Don't need to see it. Or a hand on the shoulder in front of you. Nothing huggy. Just touch. Gently touch. Connect the kids, but don't squeeze them together. That will come (in Point 7!)
7. PROMISE (AND DELIVER) THE FUN SHOTS
Inevitably, when you put all your kids together, they get pushy, they get too close, they start to bicker, or they hug too tight. They begin looking at each other, fighting, whatever. The triangles become way off balance as do the kids. It's a hot mess. They want to goof off and you want the precious, cherub shot. Promise them the former to get the latter. And take those goofy shots! Right after the nice one. While they are still in their poses, let them get goofy. They'll start laughing and looking at each other and those are precious shots too. That's real life, yes?
8. BE MINDFUL OF TIME AND BE SPEEDY
This all has to happen in about five minutes. You know this, right? I've learned that if I spend more than five minutes setting up my kids, they get antsy, frustrated with me, and the smiles are gone. So prepare yourself ahead of time (See Point 1!) and know how you want to set the kids up. Then do it quick, keep them positive (Point 4!) and go for it.
9. DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAD!
This was my biggest mistake this past year. In all my preparation, encouragement, prayer, and promising, I forgot about my husband. I forgot to promise him the after session treats. (yes, dad needs treats too- not always the same treats though!) I forgot to promise him a SHORT and fun experience. I forgot to mentally prepare and pray for him. And it cost me. See that title shot above? That's the result of Dad's frustration, not Mom's. So don't forget Dad. Make sure he's having fun too.
10. CELEBRATE SUCCESS- OR REALITY
When you are finished, be finished. If you bring it up, simiply bring up how great the kids did. Laugh over it. Make the experience FUN, so the kids don't dread it the next time. Let them see that Mom is relaxed over these portrait sessions, so they can be too. Fake it till you make it right? Celebrate the experience and enjoy the photos that come from it. Remember, you plan on hanging these portraits in your home, right? You don't want to look at them everyday and remember a day filled with stress, arguments, and tears. You want to remember a good day. So make it one. Celebrate it from start to finish. Do that, and maybe next time the kids won't freak as much when you tell them it's Portrait Day!
What tips and tricks do you use when photographing your kids together? What struggles do you have? I'd love more tips- as a photographer AND as a mom!