Having family photos done can be a mentally taxing affair so here are my 7 tips for healthier family photos which will help you and your family to feel better, be happier about having your family photos taken, and love the results.
Over the past 20 years I've photographed thousands of families and I've learned so much in that time. I'm neurodivergent, I have ADHD, so I understand that when you've got kids with special needs including neurological issues, behavioral issues, cognitive issues, or a combination of those that something like having family photos taken can seem even more overwhelming.
The great news is that it doesn't have to be so overwhelming. In fact your family photos can be beautiful and the process of getting them done can be one that is made far less challenging if you choose a photographer who is understanding and excited to work with you.
7 Tips for Healthier Family Photos
Before we get to my 7 tips for healthier family photos I want to tell you that you deserve to have wonderful family photos. A family photo session should be fun and exciting, not stressful and worrying. It also should be collaborative. These are your photos, you deserve to have a say in what they look like. You deserve family photos that you'll love to look at for years to come.
Sadly that's not always the case. Many people have had bad experiences with family photographers and there are a lot of people out there who think it's their fault. That is simply not true.
These Tips Work
These tips work. They were forged in the heat of many difficult family photo sessions amid breakdowns and full-on panic attacks. After watching people struggle and hearing horror stories about experiences with other photographer I knew I had to do something. I developed these tips after speaking with families candidly about their experiences. After putting them into practice I've seen firsthand how they have helped kids and parents enjoy their family photo session. I've also used these tips to help reassure panicked clients and to get photo sessions back on track with great success.
1. Find An Experienced Photographer
Find an experienced photographer. You want a photographer with experience working with special needs. Most photographers will not advertise this as a separate service so you might have to ask others in your support circle for photographers which they’ve had good experiences with or make a lot of phone calls to find an experienced photographer.
What To ask: Photographers might have experience working with a child with one special need or another but that doesn't mean they'll understand your child's specific needs and struggles. Make sure to ask photographers about their experience with non-verbal kids or kids that won't make eye-contact or that have sensory issues if those are issues that your child or children have.
For years I photographed an event for the Down Syndrome Assoc. of Pittsburgh so I've taken a lot of photos of kids, teens, and adults with Down Syndrome. I've also photographed A Night To Remember events several times but photographing events are very different to photographing portraits. Many of the folks I've photographed at these events were not asked to pose but were captured in more natural candid photos. They were having a good time with their friends and were naturally relaxed.
Therefore those experiences don't exactly translate to a portrait session. I have also photographed families with kids that have Down Syndrome but it is such a wide ranging diagnosis and everyone regardless of what they might be diagnosed with is unique. Asking me if I'm experienced photographing people with Down Syndrome and I'll answer honestly but that might not apply to your child's specific presentation. It's better to be specific about your child or children when it comes to interviewing photographers.
2. Find The Right Photographer
It's not just important to find a photographer that has experience you need to find the right photographer. Look for someone that you can get along well with. You want a photographer that understands you and your needs on more than a superficial level. Your photographer is helping you tell the story of your family, who you are as individuals and as a group. You deserve to have a photographer that values you, listens to you, sees who you are, and cares about helping you present yourself to the world how you want to be presented. Find a photographer who not only creates pictures you like the look of but who you can trust to capture who you are as a family.
What to ask: It might sound off-putting but asking a photographer about their values is important. You don't need to do this directly but sharing values with your photographer helps to address unconscious bias that may show up in your family photos.
I work closely with another photographer who is amazing. I absolutely love her and her work. She and I are both great listeners, we care deeply about our clients but our values and politics are not aligned. In fact they're fairly opposite. This tends to show up in the poses we place our clients in. She will often pose clients in a more traditional fashion which comes with some deeply traditional views about gender. If you're a more traditional person that might not bother you at all. However, if you're more progressive when it comes to gender equality you might find those poses don't represent who you are. The opposite is very true as well. This is why finding the right photographer, one that aligns with your values, is important if you want family photos that reflect your family's truth.
3. Find A Collaborative Photographer
Find a collaborative photographer because photography really is a collaborative process. So often clients will give away total control to their photographer. A lot of time this is in the name of not wanting to rock the boat or be difficult. Most often it's because we know who we are, we intrinsically know how we see our family, and we don't think about those things or put them into words.
The truth is that your photographer wants you to love your photos. To do that we need to know what you like and don't like. We need to understand your vision and expectation. Your photographer should know how you want the world to see you and how you see yourselves. We can't do that if you give us total say over what we're doing. We're creative and we might read some superficial traits and run with those but sometimes our instincts can be way off.
Get to know and understand your photographer and make sure they understand you. Share your feelings, fears, what you want your photos to say, the emotions that you want conveyed, the feelings you want to feel when you look at your photos and what you want others to see about your family. Your photographer should understand all of that and be able to translate it into beautiful family photos.
What to say: Here is where you stop asking questions and begin to talk about what you need and want. If a photographer is dismissive of you then walk away. Only hire a photographer that is excited about your ideas. If you're a really big thinker with a grand vision they might have to help you understand the cost and time involved in completing you masterpiece but I personally love it when clients have grand ideas.
Chances are what you're asking for isn't anything extraordinary. Just make sure it's within the photographer's experience or knowledge otherwise you might need to continue looking for a photographer who can meet your expectations. Understand that any compromise on what you need will mean your photos will reflect that compromise.
4. Talk About Your Needs
Make sure to talk about your needs. You already have an intrinsic understanding of your and your family. You know your boundaries and limitations. You've thought about what you want your photos to say about your family. Now is the time to talk about your practical needs with your photographer.
If you or one of the kids need a certain amount of transition time or to self sooth before, during, or after let the photographer know that. If you need to be in a familiar place let the photographer know that. Your photographer needs to respect you and accommodate your family. If there are mobility issues or issues with medical equipment that has to be accommodated for make sure to share that with your photographer. Photographers are professionals and will make whatever accommodations you need work if they truly care about you as a client.
What to say: If you're still working on how to communicate your needs or your family's needs then doing so with a photographer is great practice for doing so with medical, school, or other professionals who you have less leverage over and fewer choices between. I promise that no photographer wants to do a bad job or to make you feel bad. Be open and honest. Your photographer should repeat back to you what your needs are to make sure you know that they understand.
5. Good Family Photos Take Time
Good family photos take time. Avoid mini-sessions which are specifically timed to last less than 30 minutes, often between 15 and 20 minutes. They're very demanding and can be incredibly stressful. Mini-sessions and other timed sessions are what I like to call "factory photography" because everyone gets the same poses, nothing is personalized to you, and for the photographer it's about moving fast, making money, and not about you, the client no matter what you're paying. If you want photos that reflect who you are as a family, that show your personalities, and that don't leave you overly stressed make sure your session isn't arbitrarily timed.
What to ask: Most photo sessions require a sitting fee. Some photographers treat this fee as a sign of your seriousness and respect for their expertise and time. Other photographers think of a sitting fee like an hourly rate. Be sure to ask photographers what their policy is on time. If they insist that a session is over within or at the 60 minutes mark regardless and rush you through pose after pose it's going to be stressful and not what you deserve.
I charge a sitting fee to reserve a session but the time that session takes is dependent on a lot of factors. The important thing for me is to capture the photos we've agreed on. My biggest consideration when it comes to time is avoiding burnout for you and your family members. That point comes at a different time for everyone which is why it's important to recognize that and communicate throughout the session, not just before it.
6. Reasonable Expectations
Your family is unique as are the challenges you face so setting reasonable expectations is critical. Your family photos should tell the story of your family. If your child won’t make eye-contact or won’t smile on demand then make sure the photographer understands that and has designed some poses that account for that.
Find a photographer who can make honest photos of your family that tell your family's story, show your love for each other, and that are unique to you. That might mean having commissioned portraits rather than traditional poses. Commissioned portraits used to be exclusive items that would cost premium dollars. The advent of digital and proliferation of good photographers has brought their prices down and access up but when done correctly they paint a more honest photo of your family and offer a one-of-a-kind photo. Today most photographers take photos in the style of commissioned portraits but have a set of poses they use for every client. Make sure if you need personalized portraits that what you're getting is actually personalized to your family.
What to say: Like most of these tips this one could be summed up as communicate everything important to your photographer. Have an open and honest conversation about what you need, what issues might crop up, what accommodations are needed, and what you would like. Tell the photographer how you want the photos to feel, what emotions you want them to invoke (love, strength, resilience, humor, etc.) and you will love your photos.
7. Remember Your Goals
Everyone wants a successful and fun photo session, including your photographer, that's why it's important to remember your goals. Remember that you want family photos that reflect who you are as a family. To do that means you can't force things. If anyone is having an off-day don't be afraid to reschedule. It's more important to love your photos than to just get them over with. Remember you're likely paying quite a bit of money for these so getting what you want matters.
I know a lot of other photographers and while it's not overly common for a family to cancel the day of it does happen. If a photographer gets upset it shows you where their priorities are - the money and their time and not you and your desire for photos that you'll love.
What to ask: Asking about rescheduling policy upfront is helpful. Knowing if you need to pay an additional fee means less stress if you need to call the photographer the day of to postpone. Good photographers might charge an additional fee but they'll also be happy to accomidate you because they want you to love your photos.
Here are some bonus tips because I've had some situations crop up a few times over the years so I feel it's important to share these even as they rarely happen.
Bonus Tip 1. As the parent you are in charge of your child/children. You set the rules and enforce them and the photographer shouldn’t interfere unless they see abusive behavior. As a photographer I will only intervene and speak with you as the parent if I feel like I need to. I never like doing so and it’s only ever happened twice. Traumatizing your kids over family photos is not worth it. The photos are not going to look good and they'll likely remind you and them about that trauma every time they see the pictures. Family photos can be rescheduled, trauma can stay with a child for life.
Bonus Tip 2. I strongly believe that everyone deserves body and emotional autonomy so if you or anyone I’m photographing says they don’t want or don’t like something we can and will talk about how to accommodate their needs and feelings. Sometimes a client or one of the family members becomes extra-agitated. Maybe they have serious anxiety or body issues. I ask that you don’t pressure your child/partner or whomever is panicked to ignore their needs for the sake of family photos.
I love taking your photos but I don’t believe they are worth causing trauma or reinforcing ideas of suppressing our feelings for the sake of the group. The pressure that one can feel in those situations can be enormous. They don't know me and might feel that I am judging them, they will feel judged by you, their parent or partner, by anyone else around, and by whatever social pressures or body issues they're bothered by. That is a lot of pressure coming from different places. It can overwhelm grown adults, I've seen it. That pressure on a teenager can be even more powerful.
It doesn't matter how beautiful you think the person is who is upset. Telling them that will only sound dismissive. As a photographer that are things I can do such as changing poses, lenses, or the lighting to minimize or draw attention away from the parts of their body they are upset about. This works 99% of the time. The other 1% has taught me that their body autonomy and well being is worth more than a traumatizing photograph. While it's rare that does mean that sometimes the answer is to allow that person to say no to being photographed and not to strip them of their autonomy.
7 tips for healthier family photos
I hope you found my 7 tips for healthier family photos and the two bonus tips to be helpful. If you have had any troubling experiences with photographers please let me know.
If you're a photographer who has other tips that you feel would be helpful please drop me a line to share them. Feel free to share these tips with your friends and on social media. As always use the contact page to let me know your thoughts and check out my Pittsburgh area family photos or book you family photo session today!