In the 1850s, photography was a cumbersome and expensive pursuit. Cameras were bulky, and exposures were long. But still, people from all backgrounds somehow found the means and the money to organise a formal family portrait, even if it meant handing over their weekly wages. Since then, family photos have helped shape and preserve our memories, from the major milestones to the tiny details of daily life.
We create and consume far more images today than we did during the Victorian era. Family photographs are no longer merely for special occasions; they’re part of our everyday routines. Take a look at Facebook or Instagram, and you’ll find millions of photographs of parents and their children from all over the world.
Family photo albums were once small, contained, and private. Now, they’re vast and ever-expanding. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less precious. We asked thirteen outstanding photographers about how they capture those meaningful pictures that last for a lifetime (and beyond). Read on for their best tips for professional and hobbyist photographers alike.
1. Keep your camera on hand at all times
“I always have my camera or phone to hand,” Naomi Pridding (@onecuriousmother) admits. “That way, I’m always prepared to snap if there’s something I want to capture. Toddlers are super fast, so you have to be able to react fast too.”
You never know when the perfect scene will unfold before your eyes, so be ready for it. Kata Sedlak (@kata_sedlak) explains, “These moments come out of the blue. Either I take the picture, or it is gone forever.”
Having a camera handy also serves another purpose: the more you have it with you, the more familiar it will feel to your family. Then you’ll be able to fade into the background and observe. “The more often I have a camera with me, the easier it is for my family to forget it’s there,” Andi Schreiber (@andischreiber) says. “It becomes like any other accessory.”
2. Photograph everything
Moments that seem “ordinary” at first glance are often the most powerful. “Despite having made many photographs of my kids when they were little, I wish I had made more,” Andi tells us. “Now that my boys are in high school, those photographs mean the world to me. Someday, they'll be glad to have these pictures to help them connect emotionally to their childhood. They’ll see evidence of our family life, from the messy to the mundane and everything in between.”
Kerry Long (@kerrylongphoto) has a similar outlook. “Observe their daily habits,” she suggests. “We as parents know our kids better than anyone. Even eating breakfast in the morning--there is beauty to be found in their simple habits.”
3. Take it slow
“Slow down,” Amy Grace (@_amy_grace) suggests. “Ninety-nine percent of meaningful photography happens before we pick up a camera.” Working with family requires time, patience, and trust. You’ll spend a lot of time waiting around, and that’s okay.
4. Involve the children
Turn your photo session into a game and a bonding experience. “Sometimes, if it feels right, I show the kids how my camera works and let them take a couple of photos with it so that they are involved in the process,” Kerry tells us. “Continue to talk to your child and engage as you take the photographs. Don't be a silent person behind a big camera.”
Ashley Solberg (@ashleysolbergblog) says instax cameras are great for this kind of interaction. She invites the kids to help out on set by grabbing the photo once it appears and watching it develop before their eyes.
5. ‘Perfection’ is overrated
“I wish someone had told me not stress about getting it picture perfect (pun intended, of course),” Ashley admits. “Some of my favorite moments are unexpected, unposed, and unplanned: up-close captures of the littlest fingers grabbing a parent's pinky, a mommy-daughter duo dancing in matching shoes, faces filled with pure, unprompted laughter.”
Set aside all preconceptions and expectations, and trust your gut. “Know what type of photographs move your soul and then create those,” Carolyn Bentum (@carolynbentum) advises. “At first, like so many others do when first starting out, I felt like I was always looking outward for direction about what I ‘should’ be creating. Don't feel boxed in by the ‘shoulds’ of taking family photos, but create what makes you happy.”
6. Prioritise honesty
Truthful, authentic images are timeless, especially when it comes to something as personal as your family. “Whatever mood they happen to be in at the time is what I capture with my camera,” Dana Leigh (@danaleighphoto) tells us. “Forcing happy smiles very seldom translates as genuine in a photograph. I let moments play out.”
Amy continues, “In family photography, we want to honor the truth of the subjects. Real life is what will be most meaningful down the line. I think this is why we pore over old snapshots, the off beats, the moments where everyone forgets the camera.”
7. Let kids be kids
“When I get too intense about getting the ‘right’ shot, I've ruined the mood, and I've overstepped my daughter's willingness to be my subject,” Kerry adds. “The only thing to do at that point is to move on and hope that another similar moment might arise another time. If my daughter doesn't want to be in a photo, then I don't want to take that photo.”
8. Get low
Bending down to your child’s level can help them feel more comfortable and will also result in more expressive photographs. “I usually shoot from the waist,” Aaron Sheldon (@documentarydads) tells us. “This shooting style gets down closer to my son’s level.”
9. Know when to take a break
Although it helps to have your camera with you, sometimes it’s best to put it away for a moment. “It’s important to trust your intuition to know when it’s a good time to be making family photographs,” Andi says. “Sometimes, it’s better to be present without a camera.”
Troy agrees. You might want to enjoy a moment privately, or your kids might ask you to step away from the camera. “I am always seeing images,” Troy explains. “Some I capture and others I let go. Sometimes I just want to live in that moment.”
10. Get in the frame
When it comes to family, you are an observer, but you’re also a participant. Make yourself a part of the photos. “I wish someone had told me to get in the frame often with my kids,” Traci tells us. “My kids will appreciate the photos later on.”
Kelsey Gerhard (@kelseygerhard) shares this feeling. “I wish I worked harder on my self-timer and remote skills and took the time to have myself be in the pictures more,” she says. “You don’t realize until the time has gone by and you have one kid in high school what you missed out on when they were small.”
11. Embrace change
As your family grows, your photographs will evolve. “Stay true to how you see your family but allow for that natural progression to happen in the work,” Troy advises. “Family is forever changing, and your work will change as well.” Look to the past for inspiration, but don’t get stuck there. Keep moving forward.
12. Make physical prints
In our virtual world, prints have taken on a new layer of meaning. Breann Chiero, the photographer behind the lifestyle brand and agency Hungry Hipsters (@HungryHipsters), uses her instax mini 9 for this very reason.
“I love instant photography because it's a tangible memory,” she tells us. “Just like a hand-written card, printed instant photos feel more nostalgic. So much of what we all do these days are only saved in a digital space, so being able to hang onto a physical memory has always been important to me.”
For family photographers, instant prints mean having something to keep for years and pass along to future generations.