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First family portrait

Browse a professional photographer’s portfolio and you will likely see image after image of happy, relaxed, smiling families. There will be formal shots as well as more casual scenes. Indoor, outdoor, home, studio – there are a wealth of different family portrait options. One thing that most will have in common, though, is that the families are well-dressed, colour co-ordinated and looking genuinely happy to be there. Photographers make it look so easy.

The reality however can be anything but! As a cautionary tale of what-not-to-do: my family’s first attempt at a portrait was, to put it bluntly, an epic fail. In fact the notion of a family portrait should probably have set off some mental alarm bells straight away, given that every single obligatory photo-with-Santa in our album contains at least one rumpled and violently sobbing child. I naively assumed, though, that the absence of a fat man in a red suit might make a difference. Instead I realised that Santa isn’t the problem: I am!
 
We slept in, so were in a rush from the start. Our oldest child didn’t like the way I’d done her hair. Our second child loathed the outfit that I’d bought especially for the day. The baby’s nappy leaked. Needless to say there were tears and tantrums all around. I had five minutes to pull on my clothes and do my makeup before rushing out the door. I was stressed, the kids knew it, and that came through very clearly on the family portrait.

Result: a great photo for the future 18th birthday walls, but not much of a family treasure!  
 
Adrienne Campbell is a Geelong-based photographer, mother of two and owner of Pixel Tree. http://pixeltree.com.au/ With many years experience in photographing children and families, she encourages parents that a beautiful family portrait is definitely achievable – it just takes a little bit of planning. “The key is being patient and making it fun,” says Adrienne. “As the photographer I really like to get to know the children a little bit before I start taking photos. So if it’s a home-based session for example, I’ll often ask to have a cup of tea first, and when the kids are used to me being there I’ll ask them to show me their rooms, or their favourite toy. Then when I start taking photos, the kids are often more likely to be feeling relaxed and to smile naturally at me, at the camera.”

 And for parents, some tips on making the first portrait session run smoothly include the following:

•    Know what type of sitting you want beforehand. Casual and relaxed, or formal? What type of background do you want? Many photographers will have an online portfolio that you can browse beforehand, so that you can prepare your children on what to expect.  
•    Have clothes organised for each family member in advance – and to avoid tantrums, make sure that they know and are happy with what they will be wearing. Also have a spare change for each person – just in case of mess.
•    Colour-coordinate. When it comes to clothes, a tip from Adrienne is to think about how the various outfits will all work together. “Some people like to go all white, but as far as clothes go, white is not great in terms of exposure,” she says. “Colours that are a bit muted work really well, as does clothing that is not too “busy”. Stripes or polka dots are fine but clothing that has lots of slogans or big pictures on the front can detract from the photo. The photo shoots that tend to work best for me are ones where the colours are muted and there are not too many different colours.”

•    Have an emergency bag packed and ready to go. Similarly to your labour bag, you need a photo shoot bag! In the rush to get out the door on time it’s easy to forget things like a hairbrush and comb, nappy wipes, snacks and water. Having that bag packed the night before can help you leave the house on time.

•    Choose the time of day. “Absolutely make sure that your children are well-slept and well-fed before the portrait session,” says Adrienne. “From my experience, mornings tend to work better, after the kids have had a good nights sleep and a good breakfast. And from a photography point of view, early mornings work well in terms of the quality of light.”

•    Bring some distractions. If your portrait session is outside the home then bring a few things that your children are familiar with, such as a favourite toy, for example. And … perhaps a few bribes! “I usually bring a few treats along,” says Adrienne. “It sometimes helps to have a few lollies or some stickers as a treat. I also take balloons. As a tip for parents taking their own photos at home, a big coloured balloon is great for getting your child’s attention and getting them to look up with their big, wide eyes.”  

At the end of the day, irrespective of whether you choose a formal or casual scene, you want your family portrait to be a reflection of the happiness and joy that you feel when you are relaxing together. “So don’t rush,” advises Adrienne. “Be generous with your time and allow your kids some time and space to relax. Leave yourself enough time to get organised in the morning without rushing, and book a portrait session that is long enough for your kids to ease into it without the pressure to get the shot.” After all, it should be a fun family experience – and hopefully the photo on your wall will be a testament to it!