Hello and welcome to ‘How to take family photographs successfully’ without losing your cool or pulling a muscle in the process. Okay so you’ve spent that proverbial 10 000 hours behind the camera, dressing your long-suffering kids up in all sorts of outfits as you’ve gone in search of those epic photographs. However, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but If you’ve gone about those 10 000 hours in the wrong way, you’re probably worse off than before you started. So let’s get you on the right track shall we…
Now first off, there are not a whole bunch of people out there who like to have their photos taken and your family probably isn’t much different. Husbands will generally be a bit ratty about the whole thing, teenagers will push, shove, punch and find every angle possible not to play ball, toddlers will sulk in spectacular fashion and have unprecedented amounts of snot running from their noses, babies will cry uncontrollably, and mom’s will be terribly, terribly worried about their outfits. All of this before you even get out of the car. Once you do get out of the car, that’s when it does actually go completely belly-up – this one gets sand in it’s eyes, that one has a stone in its shoe, the other one needs an urgent poo, and sooooo we go. Your job, as CFP (Chief Familia Photgraphaa) is not to actually give a darn. Your job is to deflect attention. So here’s my advice – go for it, follow what I say and you’ll get the shots you want.
PLAN TO START EARLY
5.00pm is not a good time to plan your family shoot. Grandpa is going to miss the Boks, 6-year old Seb is going to miss his mate’s birthday party (even though it’s the 17th birthday his been to this month), Dad is on his 3rd beer of the afternoon – you get the picture. Timing is everything – catch that family before they have time to realise that they’re even awake. That means you need to be ready to shoot the moment the sun fires its first ray over the horizon. In summer, 5.30am, or 6.00am, at a serious push, 7.00am at the latest. In the winter you can go for 8.30am or even 9.00-ish. Yes, that’s a bit of a challenge in itself, but it’ll be worth it.
DRESS THE PART
High heel shoes don’t look so cool on a beach or in a forest. And although a Springbok rugby jersey has its place, not so lekker as your family perches on a rock on the top of Table Mountain. Dress should be casual, but neat. I loved what Terran and Julie’s family wore in this shoot. A bit of colour, a few slogans, the girls looked feminine, the boys looked like boys should look, everyone barefoot – chilled. Nobody felt as though they were off to some stuffy social do.
The moment your family gets out of the car it’s game on. If you moan at them to stand still and ‘look at the camera’ you’ll lose them. So let them go. Let them run around and go bananas for a while. Run behind them taking photos as you do so. Those first few moments of unbridled energy will hold some absolute gems as far as completely natural, unposed shots go. Don’t rush any ‘posed’ shots – just let your family be whoever and whatever they are. Creating a carefree, fun environment is paramount to the rest of the shoot.
DON’T SAY THE DREADED ‘S’ WORD – NOT EVER
‘Smiiiiiiile,’ is a terrible word when it comes to photographing people. All it does is create false grins and weird, contorted faces. Banish it completely from your photographic vocab.
If I could ever teach you only one simple thing about shooting people, it’s this – you don’t shoot people with your camera, you shoot them with your mouth. The camera is coincidental – it just happens to be the tool in your hand. Use your mouth and don’t be scared to use it. You need to coax, encourage, inspire, laugh and command with it. Ask questions, make comments, get interactive with that voicebox of yours. And always use it to be gentle, kind and loving. If you need to use it to be cruel, then that’s okay too – because making your family charge through ice cold water is the best kind of cruel there is as they scream at the shock and horror of it all. Keep composing, focusing and shooting – don’t relax, just keep going – you need to be emotionally drained at the end of it.
USE WHAT GOD HAS GIVEN YOU
Too many people stand upright and just click away. Look around you and you’ll find a gazillion natural wonders that you can use in your photos. Hide behind bushes, trees, sanddunes. Drop down onto your knees, onto your tummy, lie on your back and shoot upwards. Think out of the box. Look at reflections and shadows, then incorporate them into your shots. Don’t abide by photographic rules – break them – shatter them – because when you do so, you might get a few duds, but you’ll also uncover some real keepers.
When I start placing people for those more formal ‘posed’ shots, I actually allow them the freedom of where and how to stand or sit or lie. I’ll point to an area where I want them to be and then just say: ‘go!’ And they naturally decide for themselves how they want to go about arranging things. Here and there I’ll make an adjustment or two, but for the most part, humans young and old are extraordinarily good at placing themselves. Your job is to keep talking to them as they shove each other around. If you see little Sam plonk his bum down in the perfect position, tell him so! Tell him he’s the main man model in the entire known Universe. Get him excited about how he’s performing.
Touchy issue this. I’m not big on props at all. But if it’s an ice cream that can be smashed into someone’s face, or a surfboard or skateboard that can add some value to the shoot, then by all means be my guest. Just don’t use any prop as a substitute for capturing real, raw emotion. Far too often one sees these hugely contrived shots that are frankly, quite embarassing to look at. Yes, a ‘mooi blom’ has it’s place, but a kid shouldn’t look like a flower pot. So minimise props and only use them in as natural a setting as possible.
PERSONALITY IS EVERYTHING
For me, it’s always the kids who set the tone during a family shoot. They’ll laugh, cry, throw the odd tantrum, pick their noses, get yucky stuff on their fingers, get itchy, fall and so on. But they ALWAYS bounce back. If Jenny is grumpy at the start of the shoot, leave her. Within 10 minutes or so she’ll be up and at it, guaranteed. You need to hunt down and capture each look, glance and emotion. Every second of the shoot is filled with precious moments (and I literally mean every second). Look at Terran carrying Charlie in some of these shots. Charlie ran into a few sprint difficulties, so Terran picked him up and ran with him. I could have missed these easily, but the point is – EVERY second counts and we ended up with some cool photos of Terran just being a dad to the delight of his son. Then there’s the shot of Julie and Ivy enjoying a moment together – it doesn’t matter that we can’t see Julie’s face because Ivy’s face says it all. So again, leave your family to just be who they are and watch like a hawk for personality and character.
FRONT LIGHT, BACK LIGHT, SIDE LIGHT, WHATEVER
As a beginner, mastering light is not going to be the easiest task you’ve ever undertaken. But that doesn’t mean you need to be afraid of it. Shoot from every conceivable angle. The more you practice the better you’ll get. Look, it is going to be a lot easier to photograph with the sun behind you, but experiment a little and just enjoy the moment. Which reminds me. Family shoots on the beach where the sun is behind you are going to be your best bet as you start out. If you’re shooting your nearest and dearest as the sun dips down in front of you, you are going to find out very quickly that the reflection bouncing off the water is not your friend.
I always like to wind things down by taking a dozen or so portrait shots of each person in the family. If you’re in the city, look for a wall, door or backdrop that offers some interesting texture. If you’re in a natural setting with lots of trees and bushes, be careful of hectic shadows. If you’re on the beach, try and find some kind of shade. Again, shoot with your mouth. Ask kids questions – what’s your favourite ice cream, who is the coolest teacher in the world, does mom or dad pick their nose more, how old are you. When they answer, don’t keep quiet – respond! Strike up a conversation and get all excited with them as you shoot away. Good luck and go for it!