Family Portraits 101: Why, Where, and How Often!

A family portrait used to be a special thing, something only done every once in a while. The photographer would snap a few, and you would hope that everyone’s eyes was open, you would get a few prints and then that was the picture. The only copies were in your hand. There was no Facebook, no digital file, no emailing it to everyone in the family. Those pictures were precious, and would be immediately placed in an album or a frame with names and ages of every face in the portrait written carefully on the back.

Now that we live in the digital age, photos have lost their magic. We carry cameras in our pockets and purses everywhere we go. It’s within arm’s reach 95% of the day. We take pictures of our meals, our pets, ourselves making funny faces when we’re bored. We take pictures of friends when they aren’t looking, of a recipe we want to have for later, or a cute sweater we see in a store. We think we don’t need a formal portrait of us with the kids because we have a million snapshots of them on our iPhones.

But will an iPhone picture ever end up in an album that will be passed down through the generations? Does it give your warm feelings when you look at it? Even if you decide to print it, any size big enough to live on the wall will be grainy, the lighting probably isn’t great, and really – it’s just not awesome.

The sad part is that with the technology available, we are capable of producing beautiful snapshots of family like never before! A photographer can take three hundred photos of you and your loved ones in a 45 minute photo session, choose twenty where everyone looks amazing and the lighting is perfect, and you can print as many as you want. Sounds ideal, right?


Some families are portrait crazy. Mom hauls the whole gang to a portrait studio every six months or so, or maybe every year for Christmas cards. When you visit their house, there is usually a portrait wall dedicated only to family pictures from year after year. Every special occasion becomes another chance for a group picture.

When I talk to other families about family portraits, I commonly hear (usually with a chuckle) “We haven’t had family pictures taken since -insert child’s name here- was born! Said child is now twelve and is no longer a child, but there’s no formal, high quality picture anywhere of them with the whole family. As a photographer, that’s so sad to me! Sometimes when I’m at home, I find myself gazing at our wedding pictures that are up on the wall. Without even realizing it, I’m transported back to a time of joyful memories that leave me smiling. I’m not a parent, but I hear parents wistfully tell me all the time that their kids are growing up too fast. Isn’t it worth it to have a those beautiful memories captured artistically?

So now that you’re convinced you need some family photos… where do you go? Do you go to a studio or to someone who shoots outdoors? I always recommend outdoors! Today’s artistic flair is rapidly moving away from stiff, formal decor and towards colorful, whimsical styling. At least to my eye, studio pictures (almost) always look forced! Even more than that, I want my family photos to tell a story. A story of our favorite place, of things we love to do, of how we interact with each other. It’s hard to tell a story with a plain background and a forced pose!

If you choose an outdoor setting for your family pictures, the whole world opens up to you! Is your living room in need of a pop of color? Have your family portraits taken in a field of wildflowers! Does your family absolutely love the beach? Book a local photographer when you’re on your next beach vacation. Is your home decor full of earth tones? Take your family portraits in a wooded or grassy area. Do whatever suits you! Bring props that mean something – if Dad and the kids love football, bring a football and have the photographer snap a few of them throwing the ball back and forth. If your family likes to ice skate together, take your family pictures when it’s snowy outside and bring those skates to hold. (Just remember to make it quick! And have hot chocolate ready. 🙂 Be creative!

Especially for small children, I’ve also found that outdoor settings are usually much more comfortable for them and they tend to be in a better mood. For Libby’s session below, I spent most of my time chasing her around a field and down a path in the woods making her laugh! You can’t force a smile out of a one, two, or three-year-old. Those laughs have to be genuine, and what better place to pull genuine laughter from a child than in a place where they can have fun??

So who is going to be your photographer? Do you hire Uncle Bob who uses a fancy camera with a tripod, or do you hire a seasoned natural light photographer who will tell you exactly where to stand, how to pose, and when to smile?

Nothing against Uncle Bob, but let’s remember that we’re talking about creating pictures that will last forever. These are photos that will appear on your wall, in your wallet, in a family album. You want to love them, because if you don’t LOVE your family portraits, into the box they go! You won’t want to look at them every day. Sure, it’s nice to have a picture so you can remember that family reunion where finally all the grandkids got together. But what if that picture was a wonderful portrait that you could turn into a beautiful work of art? What if it could be the centerpiece over your mantle, or add life to a bare living room wall? Uncle Bob with a nice camera may have the equipment, but having the right equipment doesn’t guarantee you great images. Hire a photographer who knows how to work with light, how to pose each family member so everyone looks their best, how to draw a smile from a little one, and who will move quickly to give you a lot of variety.

If you’ve read this far, I’m impressed. Major points to you! By now I hope you’ve heard my heart in this. Family pictures matter!!! Here are a few take-away pointers…

1. I would recommend having family pictures taken at least every 5 years, more often when the kids are little. Lots of photographers (including me!) have “mini sessions” in the spring, fall, and around Christmastime where you can go for 20 minutes and walk away with around 10 gorgeous images for less than $100. That’s a lot less than you’ll spend at a studio!

2. Hire a photographer who you KNOW will do a good job. It’s better to spend a little more up front and end up with images that you love.

3. Location, location, location! Choose an outdoor spot that you love. If you’re short on ideas, ask your photographer! They should have some suggestions for you.

4. This one’s a bonus: Canvas prints are one of my favorite ways to display portraits, and they can be affordable if you catch a deal on one of the million photo printing websites out there. (Another perk to an outdoor photographer is that they are much more likely to give you digital images, which means you can share on social media and print as many as you want… but that’s just an added bonus. Check with your photographer before you book!)

5. You don’t have to hire ME! I won’t be heartbroken if you read this post and then have family portraits taken with another photographer. But if you are interested in booking a family or couples session, I’m offering 15% off all portrait sessions booked between now and January 1. You can even book now and schedule your session for the spring. Contact me at ohstaleyphotography@gmail.com for more information!

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