The Truths of Family Portraits

I am eternally grateful to Nicole and her family for letting me showcase her beautiful portraits. I am writing this story as a detailed insight into the truth of what really happens on real portrait shoots with real families.  

Every family is unique and the individuals each have their own personalities and moods. The truth is not everyone loves being photographed, and not everyone is always sunshine and roses on the shoot! Today I share a few truths of family portraits, and what I do as a professional to make sure I get the beautiful portraits each family deserves.

The Family Portrait Xmas Gift

Before Christmas, I received a phone call from a lovely lady from Avalon, wanting to buy a gift certificate for her daughter who lived in the Eastern Suburbs.  The daughter – Nicole – had seen our family portrait work hanging on a friend’s living room wall, and decided she wanted beautiful portraits of her own family.

Always happy to help, we arranged for Nicole’s gift to be mailed to Mum in time for the family’s Xmas lunch. Cut to early New Year, and we booked Nicole’s family portrait shoot at Bronte beach.

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Family Portrait Truth #1 – Bad moods happen

On almost every shoot I find someone who’d rather be somewhere else, and Nicole’s shoot was no different. When I was introduced to Nicole’s eldest son, it became obvious to me that he really didn’t want to be there. His body language was pretty closed, and he was giving little more than monosyllabic answers when I asked him a few questions.

I tried desperately to drag him out of his shell, because I knew if I couldn’t get him relaxed and open, the shoot would be a disaster. I resorted to my favourite, most time-honoured way of connecting with kids – fart humour, and generally being a complete idiot in public.

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Being An Idiot In Public – A Beginner’s Guide

I have no shame when it comes to being an idiot in public, if it gets people to drop their mask and let me in, so I can capture their real, true selves in a portrait. This is far more important to me than my own ego, or sense of dignity. Just so you know. (And just so you aren’t terrified the first time I start dancing madly, or pulling crazy faces from behind my camera.)

My strategy is this:

  1. Get the family (including grumpy child) roughly in position for the portrait, with a great background, nice light, and good people placement.
  2. Say or do something COMPLETELY ridiculous and unexpected, aiming for a smirk, or a smile from grumpy child. (This could be anything from singing the wrong words to “Twinkle twinkle little bum”, to gorilla impersonations, to laughing maniacally and hoping it rubs off.)
  3. Raise the stakes quickly; introduce some fart noises or bad jokes, go for a broad smile. Notice the body-language slowly opening up, and the child becoming slightly more engaged.
  4. Quickly shift to either tickling or poking a nearby sibling, or (for older kids) gently teasing the siblings to get grumpy child laughing AT someone else.
  5. Swiftly change back, tickle/poke/tease grumpy child, get some strong laughs, and shoot a few frames as all of the kids and parents laugh together.
  6. In extreme cases, introduce Schadenfreude as a last-resort comedy technique. Fall over, stumble, trip. collapse, or pretend to hurt yourself, purely for a laugh. Note: don’t go TOO overboard. You still need to be able to shoot afterwards.
  7. Rinse and repeat, for any/all grumpy children, or parents.

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Starting With The Family

I chose to start Nicole’s shoot as I begin most of my family shoots – with a family portrait. My theory: even if everything goes pear-shaped in a hurry, at least we have a great series of family portraits in the can – the highest priority for almost every family I shoot.

Sometimes the family mix includes a Rascal Child – that child who fidgets and pulls faces. This child’s behaviour invariably adds a bit of stress to Mum and Dad, but here’s the thing: this is totally normal, and happens in about 90% of my family shoots.  My role as the professional is to manage the kids, calm the mood of the situation and prevent a meltdown in kids/parents/both. Meltdowns = bad news.

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Family Portrait Truth #2 – Every Family Has A Rascal

At Nicole’s portrait session, her youngest son Samuel decided to be Rascal Child. And, true to form, his behaviour started to get Mum and Dad a little stressed. Before things got too tense, I had a quick chat with Nicole and Michael, and explained my approach.

Kids are always kids – they love to play, muck up, and burn off energy. And, oddly enough, they often do what the photographer says, while totally ignoring their parents!

I contend with this every day of the week, and the key is to trust me and simply go with process. I’ll make sure I get what you’re after in the way of beautiful family portraits.

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Letting Kids Be Kids

A key secret I employ to get such genuine portraits of children is this: simply let them be. Let the kids play, run around, and go crazy. Let them climb trees, let them laugh and play and be themselves.

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Those moments end up being beautiful in their own right (above), and give rise to the spontaneous gems that you’ll invariably love about your children (below).

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Kids Individually & Together

Every family has several unique stories to tell, apart from the Family Portrait. Children have their own personality and their own identity. Also, children relate to each other as “The Kids” – a group of siblings who, for better or worse, are immediately related and share a common bond. Each of these mini-stories need to be photographed so I can tell a family’s entire story properly.

The below series of four shots was framed beautifully into the one piece. Nicole and Michael loved the craziness of the main shot – William bumping Sam & Cate’s heads together – complemented by three stunning individual portraits showing each of the kids at their best.

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The Couple That Started It All

It’s easy for parents to get so caught up in the daily grind of work, school pickup and dropoff, sports, music lessons, stress, dinner, washing, and so on.

I believe it’s really important to take a moment to honour the couple – Mum and Dad – when I shoot a family. After all, it was your love and connection that started your family’s journey in the first place!

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Family Portrait Truth #3 – Unexpected Turns On The Shoot

Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, unexpected stuff happens on a portrait shoot. Occasionally a Dad will throw his little one just a bit too high, or an older brother will crash-tackle a younger sister just a bit too hard. This is totally normal, and typical of real families, and often makes for awesome portraits anyway.

However. At Nicole’s shoot, during one of the “run around like mad” moments designed to let the kids blow off a little steam, Samuel (Rascal Child) decided that taking a jump off a 2-metre-high storm drain at Bronte would be a GREAT idea.

Yeah. Not so much.

Sadly, I wasn’t fast enough to either plead with him to hop down, or catch him before he hit the deck. When he landed, Samuel kneed himself in the jaw, hurting himself pretty badly and causing a flood of tears and a general “I’m done with this photo caper” attitude that more or less shut down the rest of the shoot.

Fortunately, Nicole and Michael were relaxed about the whole thing. Fortunately, I had plenty of amazing images already, and we were almost finished anyway. Fortunately, Sam wasn’t hurt too badly, although his chin came up in a great bruise a day or so later!

This is Samuel, refusing to be part of any more portraits. Nicole ended up putting this image in her portrait album, because of the humour in the shot, and because it was what really, actually happened on the day!

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Show Me A Family, I’ll Show You Chaos

This has become a bit of a mantra for me, when explaining how family portraits sessions typically go. It’s important to remember that all families are made up of a broad mix of personalities, and not everyone feels super excited about having portraits taken.

Does this make it less important? No. Does this mean you should give up on the idea? Absolutely not.

It’s BECAUSE of the chaos that I love shooting families so much. Your family has a uniqueness, and a sense of connection that deserves to be photographed and preserved for future years and generations.

Without this, everyone’s portraits would be dead boring and virtually the same. With this chaos, your portraits are unique to you, and I am blessed with the opportunity of telling stories like this one below:

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If you’ve never had a family portrait session because you’re worried about your kids, don’t worry. I can handle them. As I hinted above, kids will often behave very differently for people who aren’t Mum or Dad. (Just ask the Grandparents…)

If you haven’t yet had portraits taken because you think your family is a bit unusual, or wouldn’t be able to sit still, never mind that. Your family is 100% normal, and deserves beautiful memories like every other family I’ve shot over the past 9 years.

If you haven’t had your family portraits taken because you’re worried about how you look, please don’t. Your family love you for who you are, exactly as you are RIGHT NOW. And I’m a professional – I have learned how to skillfully use light, lenses, and posing/angles to show you at your absolute best.

This moment in time will never come back. If you don’t photograph your life and your loved ones now, the moments are gone. 

Please have your family photographed. Not because it’s how I earn a living, but because it’s how you remember where you’ve come from, and how you help define who you are as a family.

To get started with your family portraits, simply call me on (02) 9665 0800 or email us at info@israelsmith.com and we can help you out.

With love,
Israel. xo

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