10 Tips for DIY Family Photo Shoots

10 tips for diy family photo shootsWe took some family photos on Sunday evening, you may have noticed that my “meet the family” icon had changed. Here are the few that were decent. I will tell you what: after jumping through all these hoops a parent has to jump through… it’s a wonder I got any good ones. By request, here is a post (the first in a series) about how I do what I do, and some tips to help you get better photos too:

This is a keeping it real post, so you’ll see some of my edited photos and some straight out of the camera.

A Few Things First:

Settings:  I have a Nikon D3100 and I only own an 18-55mm lens. Yes, I would love more lenses, thanks for asking. My camera is 50% of the time set to “auto” and the other 50%, when the light isn’t good and my flash keeps popping up, I set it to no flash. This requires that I hold still and whatever I am shooting holds still. Usually this also requires lots of Photoshop. Sometimes if the color or the light doesn’t look right on the no flash setting, I set it to “A” (manual aperture), and turn the small wheel on the top right until it opens up to let in as much light as possible. If I can possibly help it, I never, ever, ever use flash. I hate flash. NO FLASH. It mixes with natural light and makes things look blue, weird and harsh. Faces look washed out, and it puts a huge dark shadow behind everything. Maybe some professionals know how to shoot with a big huge beautiful diffused-light flash. But not me. *Update: I now have a 24-85mm 3.5 Nikkor lens, which I use outside. The range is perfect for catching beautiful images of my kids outside. I also have a 50mm prime 1.4 that is great for indoor low light portraits but also looks great outside. It just doesn’t zoom, so… too much running outside!

Focus: Focus is paramount. My heart breaks when I lose a great photo to fuzziness. Unless it’s an artistic action shot, it’s over. I just put myself out of my misery and delete it. So when I am behind the camera, I pay attention to what my camera is focusing on by what red dot blinks when I push the shutter release halfway down. I almost always focus on the eyes. If their eyes are crisp and you can see nothing else in focus, you’re still okay. Otherwise, focus on whatever that thing is, that you simply must see, if nothing else. So that is difficult to manage when no one is behind the camera.

What to Wear: If you are setting up for a portrait session, you don’t have to match, as long as nothing fights for attention. If I am in a bright, loud stripe and he is in a non-coordinating plaid, that’s going to look weird. Your eye will be dodging back and forth between our outfits and ignoring our faces. So if Ben is in a cute plaid, I put the rest of us in subdued solids. Or the kids can be in similar prints. Or we are all in solids and Scott has a light stripe. Texture is great, pattern is great, as long as it’s not fighting with another pattern.

The opposite is true: all subdued solids on a plain background? BORing. Think about having different tones in your photo- light, medium and dark. If your complexion is light, go for a medium background and a dark outfit. If your complexion is medium, go for a light outfit and a darker background. Just make sure that you aren’t disappearing like you’re wearing camoflauge.

That being said, I put Baby Sister in a super wrinkly dress and didn’t notice until later. Sigh. Also, I meant for Scott and Ben (who were matching, because I-don’t-know-why-I-do-these-things) to be, well… not next to each other in the one winning photo. But these things happen.

10 Busy Parent Tips For Family Shots:

1) The More Help, The Better
Obviously, I wait for a day that my husband is there. I want his pretty face in the photos, and it’s easier when there are more hands wrangling kids. However… even better? When there is someone else- a sitter, a sister, a friend. Bribe them with food. Much easier.

2) Scout It Out
Days, or even a week ahead of time, I scout out a good spot. When we go to the park, I scan the grass for good spots. I bring the kids early in the morning or late in the afternoon just so that I can scope out the best times for good lighting. I stare at the backyard while I’m doing dishes or playing with the kids. I check the weather. I google sunset times.

3) The Timer Isn’t Cutting It
I just ordered a remote shutter release (I am holding it in my left hand). On Amazon, it was like fifteen dollars. Totally worth it. Make sure it’s compatible with your model. I can take a gazillion photos without standing up once. Two disadvantages: it’s hard for me to get the zoom right without the family there first, so I don’t, and I can’t tell what the camera has decided to focus on, especially with the subjects running amok like this: 2013_03_31-182113 thl

4) Put On Your Own Mask First
Get yourself ready while the family plays in their pajamas, or oatmeal coated shirts, and don’t even bring up the idea of getting ready. Make sure your husband or bribed help is watching them. I almost always forget to ask my husband to shave. Oh well. I almost prefer a little handsome stubble to red blotchy angry skin. Right?

5) Test and Mark Your Spot
Set up your tripod (or sometimes in my case, side table, upended bucket… whatever is on hand. So lazy.) and take test shots of toys, or garden furniture, or your bribed help. (Remember little faces will be lower down). Do all that before you even deal with the family at all. Then mark your spot with something. Mine was a red ball.

6) Pick Out Outfits and Hide Them
If you pick out your clothes right after laundry day, hide them, otherwise of course someone will decide to wear them right away and they will be dirty when it’s gametime. I bring out my husband’s outfit and the outfits for the kids and watch the kids while my husband changes, and then we change the kids at the same time two seconds before it’s time to go.

7) When Someone Sits Down, You Best Get Clicking
There is nothing that will ruin a photo faster than really bored people. See exhibit A:2013_03_31-182157 thl

That photo would have been pretty great, except Scott was way over the whole thing and his face looked like I was poking him with a sharp object.

I have seen plenty of professional photographers do this. They push you and prod you, adjust this and that, while you’re standing there holding twenty pounds and sweating stains into your clothes. By the time they finally get it exactly right, with everything in it’s place, nobody wants to smile and in fact, most people wish they had something they could chuck at him. Unless you are a natural-born comedian who can get your family to forgive you in five seconds flat, you best just shut up and get crackin’ and adjust the little things as you go. Toddlers and babies are (shocking) even less patient than adults! Quit playing around and take a photo.

8) Least Patient Goes First
2013_03_31-181437 thl
In my case, that’s the toddler. Sitting still, on his own, without an adult arm clamped around him, will require the most patience he will ever have. So I did that first. I sat him down at the place I marked, and I took the camera off the tripod or table or what have you so that I could get close. Then we plopped Baby Sister down in front of him and made all kinds of jokes and crazy faces and mostly fart noises until he cracked a smile. I took about ten or so, just until I knew I had the angle I wanted (close to the ground worked better) and they had both looked straight at me a few times. 2013_03_31-181321 thl2013_03_31-181438 thlThen we took shots with all four of us, and I let him run around a bunch between shots, and do whatever I could to keep him thinking this was fun. Candids are just as wonderful and usually where you get the most genuine smiles.

2013_03_31-182040 thl 2013_03_31-182042 thl

9) Do Not Check Your Work Every Time
It takes too much valuable time to glance down and check a photo. I only look: a) In the beginning when I need to make sure I’m getting them in the photo at all and the light seems right and b) I think I’m finished and I want to make sure that one money shot was really in focus. Otherwise, just keep trying to take the best shot you can and take as many as you can (as long as you are watching for focus) before they start to squirm.

10) Keep It Fun And Quit While You’re Ahead
I only succeed at the first part like half the time. But I always succeed at the second part. If you’re stressed, nobody will want to smile. I am always at least a little stressed, because obviously. After I was done shooting the kids, my knees were covered in mud and I was thinking, “okay, great, now I will have to edit that out…” the camera wouldn’t stay easily, was suddenly not the right height, after all…you know. Once, during a professional shoot that we were actually paying for, Ben took a spill and cut his chin. Blood and tears and everything. Things happen on the fly. So the second part is so important. This whole thing probably took an hour or so of our time, and the easier I make it on myself and my family, the easier it is to do it more often, and the easier it will be to let it go and give up when things just aren’t coming together. I’m probably going to have to try again, and just keep trying, to find a good background, a day where I put on makeup and did my hair, and just keep at it, in order to get some truly good ones. However, when bargain prices are at $100 with someone just starting out, these photos meant that money went right back into our pockets. Totally worth it.

2013_03_31-181803a thl

Looking for more?

Tips for monthly baby photos includes talk about lighting and editing

Keeping your spouse happy during a photoshoot (always handy)

A tutorial about how I achieve sharper images using Photoshop

You can also check out another photoshop editing tutorial here.

I hope your next shoot goes smoothly and feel free to ask questions in the comments! I love to help!

xo Mary

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9 comments on “10 Tips for DIY Family Photo Shoots

  1. Ashleigh

    We do all our own family pictures too. Unfortunately our Christmas and Easter pics turned out the exact same. Pose and everything. I guess if it works it works. I like that you’re sitting down. Maybe we’ll try that next time. Nice work!

  2. Rachel Williams

    Awesome Tips!! Totally got all the good points in there — Love it!
    Totally appreciate it. 🙂 You do great work Mary! 😀
    Love to add, maybe try to do a ‘trade’ with another family (use your own camera though- you know your own camera Best!) — Worth a shot — pun intended. 😉 he he

    I love, Love, LOVE photography – it is SUCH a cool art form!

  3. Stephanie

    This is full of some wonderful tips! I am to cheap to pay for a professional photographer, so I do my own also. 🙂 I think it is fun. Do you have any tips for printing/editing? I sent my picture to be printed as a 16×20 and it came back poor quality.

    1. MaryMary Post author

      Hi Stephanie! I’m so glad you found something helpful in this post. The difference you will see in prints from a pro photo lab and a big box store is the texture and coating they add and the quality control. A photographer will pay for each image to be adjusted so that it’s developed as close to the original as possible. Most of the time a basic print for cheap is just fine, though. But if you get a bad print, especially from a place like Costco, that has great customer service, have them print it again, and tell them what happened- it turned out too dark, too light… If the digital image looks good on a reasonably updated monitor, it should print well. I wish you luck in your DIY family photos!

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