The season is upon us, my friends–when parents everywhere drag their nicely dressed families to a professional photographer, hold their breath that the weather holds out, dare their toddlers to throw tantrums, and drink ten bottles of wine when pictures are over and swear they’re never going to do it again…but then repeat it all again next year, exact same tantrums included. I never had professional family pictures done as a kid, but my husband did, and he has nothing but negative memories surrounding the days that these pictures were taken–in cheesy 1980s picture studios where his parents dared him to make dumb faces for hours. Family pictures can sometimes be an exhausting and miserable experience for everyone, and for that reason alone, we have never had professional family pictures done. Ever.
Don’t get me wrong–I see COMPLETE value in the work that professional photographers provide, and if you’re one of those families that miraculously takes amazing pictures with zero stress–go for it…because nothing is more beautiful than the perfect family picture! But for our family, particularly because of our toddlers, it just has never seemed like a “fun” idea–and I try to keep our stress levels to an absolute minimum, especially near the holidays. When I look at every picture that we have as a family, I’m able to see happy memories around the day it was taken, recall the exact ridiculous words my husband said to make our kids laugh, and remember having fun as a family on our own schedule. That’s what is most important to me when picking out the perfect picture for Christmas cards–not the torture that we all had to endure to pay someone to capture those memories for us.
So…I’m not a professional photographer at all, and ninety-nine percent of my Instagram pictures are taken with an iPhone. They aren’t amazing pictures, they aren’t technically perfect by any means, and if you’re a photographer reading this, you probably want to kill me already. Please don’t. Lol. But, I promise that no one is going to be counting the megapixels in your Christmas card picture or checking for light flares. They just want to see your happy family, all in one frame. So, here are the tips that I can provide to help you capture just that:
- Give your kids something to hold: if you notice in almost every one of the letterboard pictures from my pregnancy, Lennox/Lela/Luna are all holding something in their hands that go with the picture. This wasn’t just because it made the picture cute; it was to occupy them and keep them from aimlessly waving their toddler arms all over the place. For our Christmas pictures this year, I plan on letting them hold a wreath in front of us. If you fill their hands with something, it entertains them and limits movement long enough to snap a cute picture without motion.
- DO NOT FORCE PICTURES: there have been so many ideas that I’ve had for pictures that have just not worked out, and that’s totally okay…because every day is a new day. My biggest, most important rule of photography is–if your kids aren’t feeling it, don’t force it. We limit ourselves to three pictures on a 10 second timer for every idea that I have, sometimes five pictures if they are just really feeling it that day. But thirty seconds is a VERY long time in the world of a toddler, and if you stretch it too much longer past that, you’re going to have some really unhappy kids. As soon as we’re done taking pictures, I try to play with the kids immediately, instead of flipping through the camera. It helps make the process fun for them, because it doesn’t feel as fake. Photography shouldn’t take up your entire day, AT ALL. I edit during their naptimes, and if I realize that I don’t like what we shot, I just try again the next day. Stress free.
- Put your kids high off of the ground: I’m not talking about standing them on top of a ladder or anything, but for most pictures, I have the kids sitting on a bench or a chair or a stack of hay…because if I set them on the ground, my toddlers will usually take off running sooo fast. For some reason, they do great seated and high up.
- Draw an X where you need them to stand: if you ABSOLUTELY have to have your kid standing for pictures, draw an X on the ground in chalk where you need them to stand. This is how we’re able to get pictures of all of ours standing in a row. I’ve drawn Xs in sand, on pavement, everything. If they start to drift away, I say “Let’s play a game: first you have to stand on the X”. It works if you rip up tiny pieces of paper and place them down, too…if you don’t want to vandalize a sidewalk with chalk, you rebel.
- Say the most ridiculous thing you could possible think of: Please stop making your kid say “cheese”–it makes their faces strained, and I don’t know who came up with that weird idea. Instead, try to make their smiles and laughter natural; Tom and I take turns telling inside jokes or making fart noises (yes, my friends, behind every beautiful picture is a parent making fart noises in the background). If you’re using a timer, say the funny comment at the five second mark so your face doesn’t look silly once it snaps, too. I can’t tell you how many pictures I have ruined with a ridiculous face that screams “I’m making fart noises”.
- Invest in a camera remote and tripod: Tom and I love to get in the frame with the kids, and even when it’s just pictures with me and the kids, I usually take them while Tom is at work. So I have a shutter remote for my DSLR camera, and I also have a camera remote for my iPhone 7 plus. They are super cheap, and it’s worth it to not have to use the self timer so much. However, my kids have a habit of misplacing mine constantly, so we still use the self timer a lot. Lol. But my best pictures were because of the remote. Also, I use the same tripod for my camera and my phone because I was able to buy an adapter that fits on the tripod so it will hold my phone, too.
- Editing is Your Best Friend: I have been editing pictures in Snapseed since it first started. I have tried Lightroom in the past, but I just could never get the look that I have always loved from my Snapseed pictures. When I shoot on my iPhone, I always make sure to apply an HDR overlay on Snapseed to pop the color, increase the structure, and then manually play around with the brightness/ambiance/contrast etc. I never apply pre-done filters, and I never really edit the same way twice. Every picture deserves it’s own attention to detail, and editing is what takes pictures from “ho hum cell phone pics” to “WHO DID YOU PAY TO TAKE THIS?!”
- Lighting is so important: I love natural lighting, but my house is 100-years-old and not exactly designed with a bright and airy layout. If you notice that your pictures all have a weird yellow tint to them, you need to find a spot in your house with better lighting or invest in a studio light. Most of our pictures are taken outdoors (in our backyard or at nearby State Parks), but with the indoor ones, I sometimes have to use a portable studio lighting set that helps keep the lighting a crisp white in my iPhone pics, instead of that icky yellow.
- Shoot vertical, not horizontal: A lot of people might disagree with me, but I can’t stand horizontal pictures and only use them if it is ABSOLUTELY necessary to get everyone in the frame. There’s a reason why vertical is called “portrait” and horizontal is called “landscape”–if you are shooting people, always shoot vertically and crop the excess space when you edit, if necessary.
- Never ask a random stranger: you guys, Tom and I have had so many hilarious conversations about this–never let a well-meaning stranger take your picture unless you want to use it for a good laugh later on. I bring our tripod in my purse every time we take a family trip (they aren’t allowed at Disney World, FYI–I had to prop my camera on a trashcan. No regrets), because if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Don’t get me wrong–I think it’s the absolute sweetest thing in the world when someone offers to capture a really special moment for us, and I always accept their offer and thank them endlessly. But if you are planning on getting a picture worth framing, don’t put that pressure on the poor old lady at the Grand Canyon who has never even seen a DSLR before. Use a tripod.
And hey, if all else fails and none of these tips work, just take pictures when they’re sleeping. 😂