The Annual Family Portrait
The Why's and How's of the Best Annual Family Portrait Experience in the GTA
Considering having your family photographed this year?
"I turned around one day, and my babies were all grown – and at university…"
This is me, and even as a photographer with over 20 years of experience photographing families in Toronto, I still wish I had more family portraits…but I was often behind the camera – not in front of it.
I believe your family history should be celebrated by one fabulous photography session of your entire family every year. Our progression in life, the families we make, and the children we create and raise, deserves the milestones of quality photography.
When your children are grown, and have families of their own, they will search for images of you with them – regardless of how many lovely images there are of them individually.
Do I need a professional and if so what kind?
YES, you should hire a professional, not an amateur, not a friend, and avoid self-timers on your own camera all together. Sadly, we hear all too often the regret of ‘we should have…’
I know iPhones can be great for day-to-day documenting – but they also ensure that one of you is always missing from the family document – to the detriment of your family history….and sadly, we know only too well – we can’t ‘go back’ – except through photography.
Professional photographers specialize in different fields. You can imagine that an ‘accident scene’ or ‘real estate’ photographer may be excellent at their field – but maybe not so with families. So hire a professional FAMILY photographer. There are about 30 in Toronto that are worth considering. Being one of them, here are some answers to my client’s frequently asked questions.
What style of family photography do you specialize in?
There is such a wide range of styles and trends and looks in professional family photography today. I tend to focus on natural thoughtful and emotional images for my families.
NATURAL: This often involves using my clients’ homes, local parks, or family cottages for the session. This natural background is both familiar and symbolic, and adds easy access to ‘wardrobe & props’.
THOUGHTFUL: It gives me an opportunity to provide thoughtful images where families are snuggled around their favorite couch, or playing and interacting with their familiar environment, and doing things that they would normally do.
EMOTIONAL: Because everybody is at home and comfortable it allows me to create a more intimate environment where I can produce more emotional photographs for you.
If this ‘sounds like you’ then I am the best fit professional photographer for you.
WHAT I’M NOT: If somebody is looking for a dark moody dramatic editorial style images of their family, I might recommend them to another photographer. Conversely if you want the unnaturally bright and airy look in an all-white studio or fantasy settings then I can recommend a few photographers in the city that covet that look.
What are some of your favorite family pictures?
Without a doubt my personal favorites are those that I took of my own daughters Margaret and Ava as they were growing up. In fact, I believe that the reason I turned pro was because of them.
Photographing babies and kids is a great joy for me, but photographing my own kids added an extra level of joy to my life. I can think of so many photographs where the girls are outdoors playing either in our backyard or in our local park or of course at our family cottage where they look so free and happy doing just what kids do.
Those photographs mean so much to me because of the genuine spirit of the girls’ personalities revealed to me in camera. I design each of my client photo shoots around capturing some of that childhood magic.
What do you do during your family portrait sessions?
I strive for a balance of three types of photographs in each of my sessions. During a typical 90-minute family portrait session I look for a combination of group portraits, ‘play time’, and ‘quiet time’.
GROUP PORTRAITS: An example of a group portrait could be the whole family gathered at the front door, or in front of the fireplace, or snuggled in together on the couch.
PLAY TIME: One example of playtime would be having a tickle fight on mom and dad's bed. Together with ‘quiet time’ – this is often when individual personality portraits are made.
QUIET TIME: Quiet time could mean a teenager sitting on the floor of his room listening to his music or a little one drawing at his mini table or having some apple slices as a snack in the kitchen.
It is a combination of these photographs that makes a session so valuable to my clients. And I strive for more than just one great group photograph looking for both ‘relaxed’ and ‘energetic’ views of your family.
From each session my clients usually order several photographs for their wall, and often the digital files to share with all of their loved ones. They regularly order a coffee table book, or professional album, with a collection of their favorite photographs from the session.
Do you use professional lighting?
Absolutely. Natural sunlight whether directly outdoor or coming through a window is always great to use, providing that it is the right quality and direction for flattering images.
Whenever I arrive at a home I look around for the most suitable, and brightest part of the house – with the nicest natural light, and then come up with the initial plan for where I'm going to take the photographs.
Then I introduce strobe lighting to help supplement the light that's already there – if necessary.
The strobe lighting that I use are often small lights that I bounce off walls or diffuse through modifiers so that the light creates a nice soft glow on the faces. I have years of experience shaping light and making it look naturalistic, for both little ones and their parents of all ages.
One of the most important distinguishing factors in looking for professional photography is how well, and how quickly a photographer can respond to difficult environmental lighting scenarios. Sadly, there are too many ‘budget photographers’ our there who are inexperienced, and use inappropriate lighting that does not flatter the subjects, or is just plain annoying.
This is one of the main reasons why it’s important to choose a photographer like me with many years of experience in creating natural-looking imagery.
What kind of poses will you use for us?
While I don't follow a tight formula for every family, there are certain universally loved poses that I will use depending on the circumstance. I am always ready to record natural moments, yet sometimes we need solid start points for the fun to flow from.
The first of these I call the INFORMAL/FORMAL.
An example of this might be the family standing on their front lawn with their beautiful home in the background. The parents are often in the middle surrounded on either side by the kids and the dogs. Everybody is connected somehow with a subtle hug or a little cuddle and yet everybody can be seen full length with great smiles.
The second pose usually involves WALKING.
This is where I get everyone in the family to come outside of the house and do a quick walk up and down the street. Or if we are working on location in a park, I will have the family walk up and down a path or an uncrowded part of the park with minimal background distractions.
Body tension tends to disappear when we walk so it's a great way to show the family looking at each other laughing enjoying a nice stroll outside. Often the ‘asked for’ scenario is what leads to the ‘natural moment’ as the situation progresses.
The Individual Portrait
The third pose that I often ask for is an INDIVIDUAL PORTRAIT of each member of the family. This could mean asking each child to curl up in the corner of the couch where the sun is softly dappling through the window.
The fourth pose that I ask for involves what I call SUB-GROUPS within the family. The most popular subgroup is with all the kids together without the parents. Some of my favorite poses when I'm photographing just the kids are where they sit on the grass together or on the couch and they are all looking at each other having a little laugh.
Then the fifth pose involves a whole lot of CUDDLES. What I mean by that is having mom cuddle with each of her children and then dad does the same. I find that cheek to cheek with arms round wrapped around each other has a nice loving feel to it.
And finally, with the remaining time in the session I asked the family to have some QUIET TIME and whatever activity they end up doing I will photograph. This could mean heading down to the water at the cottage and skipping rocks into the lake while I hang back and quietly photograph the kids at play. It could involve the whole family curling up on the couch to have story time where everybody snuggles in to watch and listen.
It is during this quiet time or playtime that I often get What I call IMMORTAL SNAPSHOTS. These are my favorite kind of photographs to create. Here are some examples of immortal snapshots.
Games are the best way to create these kinds of moments. For younger kids, peek-a-boo, puddle jumping, airplane, tickling each other, copycat games, climbing the fence or the tree, laugh attacks, playing on the swings, dressing up in costumes, and of course jumping on the bed are all examples of great photo opportunities.
Conversely, fantastic photographs can be created during quiet moments. Examples of these are nap time, quiet time hanging out on the bed, tea parties, kisses, and snuggles. During these activities I will take a variety of positions both up close (so that every little detail and nuance of a child's face may be seen) as well as pulled back so I can get the big picture view of the room or setting.
Collectively these six different types of photographs will create a lovely story of the family at that time in their lives.
What are some ways to get my kids to smile?
Not surprisingly if your child is well rested and well fed before the photo shoot the chances are higher that they will have lots of smiles and giggles for me to capture. However, every child has their limit and attention span and I never forget that I am on borrowed time.
There is a high ‘fun factor’ level and I take the most photographs while the kids are still fresh and happy. Here are some examples of how I keep the smiles going once the kids begin to get bored.
DECOYS are where mom or dad entertain the child from beside the camera which often gets the child to elicit his or her biggest smiles.
WALKING is another great way to relax a child and get another 10 minutes of happiness out of them. Examples of this include walking games where we have a start point and they must walk as quickly as they can with the biggest smile back towards the camera. It becomes ‘play’. Up on dad's shoulders while dad walks is another fantastic way to get kids smiling.
I remember this one time where we were walking back from the park and this little girl saw a pile of pigeons on the sidewalk and she went chasing after them and that bought me at least 10 minutes worth of super fun photographs.
Exploring through a garden with natural flowers is a great photo opportunity as kids love to stop and pick the flowers an interact with it all.
CUDDLES AND CUDDLES AND MORE CUDDLES are a great way to get a few more minutes of happiness out of a child. I ask them to cuddle with their parents or lay on dad’s chest as he relaxes on the couch, or hug mom as tightly as they can, or even curl up on their bed for story time.
FOLLOW ME: Another great activity is when I just tell the children that the game is that I am going to follow them. It may start with the kids following my antics – but it really gets fun when the kids get me to follow them and I take pictures of it…
This brings a great challenge to the kids and they start getting excited about what they might do that I might photograph. I've seen everything from running back and forth across the grass to running up and down the stairs to playing hide and go seek.
Another great thing is that I ask children to bring me their FAVORITE THINGS to be photographed. It's wonderful to see what they will bring down from their rooms for me to take pictures of. One little guy brought me his guitar so in my photograph he is strumming along and singing some words. One girl brought me her baby doll, so she is kissing her baby doll in the picture. One adventurous fellow brought me his handmade bow and arrow that he held across his face like a super cute warrior.
A brother/sister duo brought me their little red wagon, so I took this priceless photograph of them huddled inside the wagon together. I remember this one time that a little guy brought me his cat, so I took this adorable photograph of him snuggling check to cheek with the cat.
What if my kids start to meltdown during the session?
It's not a question of if, but a question of when. 90 minutes can be a long time to ask a child to smile and cooperate. I get that as I am a mom too. So, there are certain times during the session that we will likely take a break for rest and recharge.
I recommend that you give your kids some snacks. Apples and chocolate chip cookies tend to work well. They get eaten quickly and don't leave a trail. Please avoid things like lollipops or anything with food coloring as those will stain the mouth and lips. As you can imagine that is not good for photographs.
I often get asked if the session must be stopped if a child starts to meltdown or cry or misbehave during the session. But I always say, “Let’s go with it.” Often some of the cutest photographs are when a child is crying or looking a bit “past it” or having a time out.
Children have so many moods and expressions over the course of a day and as parents we want to remember every single one of them including the good and the not so good.
So, what's the harm in having the occasional meltdown photograph in your annual family album? None. In fact, my girls (who are now young adults) still tend to show off their early-years crying and tantrum photographs to their friends.
It always makes them laugh and share a couple of funny stories. I believe it helps them connect to their childhood in ways they might not remember otherwise. I say ‘Yay! let’s go with it!’ and we will make the very best of a short-lived situation.
Should we include the grandparents in the photographs?
Absolutely 100% Yes. Grandparents are the loving, physical reminder of where you and your family descended from. It’s a magical time for many people, but especially those who are grandparents, and the grandparent/grandchild relationship can be very special indeed.
I love it when my clients invite the grandparents to come for the last part of a family portrait session. Some of my favorite photographs involve the grandparents alone with the grandchildren. I’m looking for a relaxed, ‘formal’ group arrangement and in a relaxed playful situation - the photographs always have an enduring lovely quality to them.
I highly encourage you to involve your parents so that they too can be in the family history books. Whenever the grandparents arrive for a session, after the group work is done, I will often ask them for individual portraits and for a nice picture of just the two of them.
These LEGACY PORTRAITS take on a new level of emotional significance for the family, now and yet to come, so it's definitely worth doing while I am there for your annual portrait.
Some of my favorite personal photographs in my childhood albums are the ones where my brothers and I are with my grandparents. We never lived in the same country as my grandparents so time with them during holidays and summer vacations was always very special and I'm so glad that I have those photographs to remember them by.
What happens after the photo shoot? Will you retouch my photographs?
Great question. Many photographers in the city "shoot and burn" - meaning they take the photographs and put them directly into a digital format for you without much post-production.
I take great pride in finishing any photograph that you order to be printed for your wall, framed as a stand-up, or in a family album. ‘Finishing’ is the high-quality layer of finesse that I add in post-production that I could not capture at the time in-camera.
Common techniques that I used to finish my work include density and color correction, skin softening, removal of distracting background objects, cropping and vignettes. I don't do these to every photograph because that would be time prohibitive for me - and cost prohibitive for you.
Instead once we have finished our ordering appointment, I will get to work finishing your selections and you will receive those either in print or digital form depending on what you are purchasing.
Unless it is a complex retouching request (like the removal of braces) I will do the retouching in-house. For complex requests I will outsource to a retouch expert and pass that cost along to you after quotation.
What is the most common product to order after the session?
I would say that the most common purchase is to order your favorite group portrait from the session as a 12x18in fine art print matted and framed and ready to hang in your home. Of course, I often create very large prints for clients who have large walls and these prints can go as big as 40 by 60 inches.
On the other hand I often create small treasures for clients who have very little wall space so I print 5x7in photographs that we can then frame in beautiful wood or silver frames to display around their home on surfaces like a mantle or a side table.
What do your albums look like?
One of my favorite products to create for my clients is an annual family portrait album. This is usually a 9x12in vertical book that holds up to 80 photographs from the session. Each page is archival matte paper so that the photographs take on a fine art quality.
The covers of the albums are often faux silk or linen and can be embossed with whatever words you want on the cover. I take great care to design the layout of every album with a timeless style. For me this means a clean layout with no colored backgrounds, drop shadows, tilted images, key lines, overlapped images or funky experiments that can really date a book.
A clean layout where every photograph has breathing space and every spread has a symmetrical design means that your album will look as fresh in 50 years or 100 years as it does today.
Do you photograph big families and multi generation families?
Absolutely! It's funny you should ask that because there are a lot of photographers in the city who won't do big groups. They avoid them because of the technical complexities and the people skills involved in creating nice group arrangements. It requires ‘next level’ professional skill to do well.
With my years of experience as a wedding photographer I LOVE photographing big families. I work quickly together with my assistant so that we can get through a lot of different photographs in the same amount of time as we would take photographing a smaller family.
I take the time to make sure I know the family ‘units’ that make up the group. This means that we can organize everyone quickly and efficiently. This means that we keep everybody fresh, moving, and excited so that the photographs will reflect that positive energy.
Your extended family and multi-generational family portraits are so important because they tell the story of an entire generation, especially because of the advances of time – it’s poignancy, it celebrations, and it’s wonderful evocation of a time.
In order to make it easy for my clients after the session I will post a password protected link to an online gallery with the photographs from this session. That way each family branch can look online at their own convenience and place orders directly through me so that this burden does not fall to one member of your family.
It would be an honor and a privilege to be your family photographer. I look forward to connecting with you soon to create photographs that you and your family will love for generations to come.