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How to Plan a Truly Great Family Photo Session (Part 4: The Interactions)

This is the last post in the series “How to Plan a Truly Great Family Photo Session” (click here to start it from the beginning). Unless I think of something else to say about it of course! Today we’re talking about what may seem like the most obvious aspect of a great family photo session… the interactions between family members.

It’s one thing to spend time hanging out together in private in your home but it’s another thing to do it when someone pulls out a camera since that simple action is likely to make at least one of your family members (if not all of them) freeze up and instantly feel awkward. Plus there are different stages throughout your children’s lives and sometimes it’s hard to find an activity that everyone can participate in and have fun with.  Some families interact very naturally together without any outside help and others need something to prompt them, or to do together, to help them interact naturally.  You know your family and if you are the kind that might need a little extra push in this area (especially when there’s a camera around). Either way, I hope the Cottrell’s example might get some wheels turning for you….

(Somehow the kids kept losing important clothing items throughout the session so this picture cracks me up… and reminds me about Nicole’s relaxed, non-stressed attitude! See post 3 for more on that!).

The Cottrells have family snuggle time in bed on Saturday mornings.  This means, dad’s home from work and the kids crawl into their parents’ bed to hang out and start off their weekend together. What an AMAZING and special time to share in together every week! And since this is a regular thing they do together that everyone in the family loves, I can think of nothing better to capture on picture day.

When the Cottrell kids grow up and think of good times with their parents, I have no doubt they’ll think of Saturday mornings in bed together, so those are the kind of memories we want to preserve in photos.  Especially because it will make it that much more amazing when the kids grow up and keep the same tradition with their own kids and have a photographer capture the same memories with their family.  How cool would that be?!?

So why on earth would you rather have pictures of everyone sitting and smiling together in a park than family snuggle time photos?!

Because for some reason, family photo time has become the exact opposite of family snuggle time in many ways.  It has become so much colder.  Why is that?! We have digital now, we can take thousands of pictures and it costs us nothing! So we can afford to sacrifice a few blurry photos due to the kids jumping on the bed too much or a couple of dark pictures as we get the indoor lighting just right.  Posy- posy type of pictures come from back in the day when a single picture cost a ton of money to take and you couldn’t risk one not being perfect!  We can risk it now so lets make the most of it!

So while you’re trying to think of what backgrounds make your family look best (because that’s important too), make sure you take the time to think about what activities make your family the most YOU. Think about what each of your kids like to do to showcase their personalities.  The Cottrells’ little boy loves to sit at the piano and play (he seriously can play specific notes in specific order… I guess that’s called a song!) so they planned some of that time into the session.

Their little girl loves to entertain and tell dramatic stories (while jumping on the bed apparently!) so they let her go ahead and do that while they all sat attentively!

A major factor in the Cottrell family session is that the parents were very active participants.

Don’t forget, it’s not all about the kids.  I don’t care if you don’t like how you look right now, your kids will want pictures of you playing with them when they grow up whether you’re 100 lbs overweight with adult acne or not!

Family picture time is about so much more than looks and these pictures are for everyone so don’t get obsessed with yourself and how YOU look. Get in there and be great parents who really play with their kids and participates in their interests!

(Even if that means getting your head stepped on every once in awhile).

That’s the way people will remember you, rather than as someone who’s missing in all the photos because they were sadly insecure.

So be thinking of things your family does together.  How do you interact together?  I don’t just mean playing kids games either.  Do you hold your child while they stir the brownie batter? Lets get a picture of that. Do they imitate you getting ready in the morning or while you clean house? Lets get a picture of that.  Do you play dress up together, have dance parties, work in the garden, make meals together…. any of that is GREAT for pictures!  Just make sure you chose something that keeps you close, touching, and happy and your pictures will look amazing.

So let’s review what you’ve learned so far…

When you are planning a family photo session make sure you consider the right timing for the session, the style (pick 1 item to build your wardrobe, location, and props from), your attitude and expectations about the session, and what activities show your family as they really are at this stage in life.

Well that’s it!  Now you know how to do it, how to have a truly great family photo session! You know how to have the right style, attitude, and interactions.  But even with all that great info, the most  important thing is that you don’t think of this as picture day.  Think of it as a visual representation of the kind of love you have for one another and most of all… think of it as a great day you’ll have with your family that you want to remember forever. That will make it a truly great family photo session.

(Click to read the series from the beginning.)


How to Plan a Truly Great Family Photo Session (Part 3: The Attitudes)

In this series about planning a truly great photo session (click here to catch up) I’ve decided to really go at it on this one because this topic is incredibly important! When I say that “The Attitudes” are very important to having a truly great family session, I mean the attitudes of all the family members involved. No, this isn’t an “attitude is everything” speech and I don’t even mean everyone should be happy (although that would be great as well).  What I mean is that there is a lot of pressure and expectations for family picture day. So many in fact, that those things alone can actually ruin picture day… and the pictures that go with picture day.

So when I say attitudes I’m talking about your attitude about the session. That is what will REALLY set the tone for the day.

So let’s talk about the Cottrell’s attitude towards their session
I mentioned in the first post that Nicole came to me with all sorts of ideas and most of it was based around a family photo session done by another photographer that I had shared on my personal Facebook page because I loved it so much.  The thing with this session was that this couple’s SEVEN children were all super well-behaved, seemingly expert fashion models who all apparently came out of the womb with the ability to hold their own unique poses for as long as a photographer requested.  Seriously, these kids snapped into poses so difficult that even adults can’t do them and held them long enough for the photographer to get several great shots from it… it must be genetic or something.  Whatever it is, it is definitely a high standard to base your photo session on… which we made the mistake of doing.

Only, it wasn’t actually a mistake because it happened to turn out great for one reason and one reason alone… the parents let go of their expectations in the very beginning of the session.

Sure a perfectly poised, well manicured group of little ones is quite a stunning site… but a slightly off kilter, very rambunctious set of siblings having a blast together is even better than a “perfect” photo.

(This picture of her dad trying to prevent her from crushing her brother’s head makes me literally laugh out loud every single time I see it. See, Scottie just now came in the room to see what I was laughing about).

I think we all know that natural is better, but for some reason it’s still hard to believe it and we still try to get the kids to sit and behave like angels for a good hour and a half.  Not going to happen.

Even if it does work out from time to time, I’m not totally sure that’s the way a family photo session should be!

Every once in awhile, we are able to get some cool posed shots with kids, like this one of The Ellison family…

(Best signage ever!)

…but I STILL like the ones where they got to be themselves much better!

So here is Nicole and Jon trying to pose their munchkins into perfect little manicans while the kids continue to jump and bounce right out of their hands.

I’m not kidding, that little girl bounced around CONSTANTLY.

I felt lucky that we were able to get at least some pictures without her red curls standing straight up over her head!

So I was sooo relieved when I saw Nicole and Jon just throw up their hands and say “whatever, let’s just let them do their thing”.

(I totally love this picture where both kids are unhappy and Jon and Nicole are just cracking up about it! Chip and Kay have a similar photo below from their session where both kids are crying and they can’t stop laughing because they’ve just chosen to enjoy every second of it no matter what).

Below is the photo series where you can actual see Nicole making the choice to relax and let go!


I remember a lady I used to babysit for had 3 GIANT prints hanging in her hallway and each one was a photo of each of her kid’s screaming, crying face filling the entire frame!  Awesome.

I’m not a mom yet, but according to my mom, you just miss your kids being little. 

That means you miss their little feet, their little hands, their ever changing personalities at different stages… even maybe the way they looked when they cried.  That was who they were then and it was your whole world for a time… and you might not have a single picture of it. You might wish you could remember their pouty face, but you just can’t quite recall it and you wish you had a picture of it.

(or you’ll miss their little mischievous face… like the one this little guy is showcasing for us!)

No one with grown children has ever told me they wish they had more pictures of their kids smiling at the camera or sitting up straight in green grass. That’s not life, it’s not them, and it’s not you. You, your kids, and your family in this particular stage you are in is what we’re trying to capture.

Another important note on this point is that… WE DO NOT JUDGE YOU!!! 

Sometimes I think half of the reason parents spend majority of picture day trying to wrangle and control their kids is because they’re embarrassed by their kids “bad” behavior.  Just so you know, most people in this world (including kids) don’t love picture day. Which means we’ve seen it all and it seems like at almost every single photo session the parents have said to us, “I just don’t know what happened today, they never act like this! Of course it would happen on picture day!”

Yeah, of course, because when else are you commanding them to do things they never actually do in normal life, or getting in huge fights and then smiling like it’s all OK 15 seconds later, or punishing them for being shy, or yelling at them for not being happy?!  It’s a weird thing, picture day is!  And kids don’t like it anymore than adults.  But it doesn’t have to be this way!  It can be MUCH more natural and relaxed and even actually… fun (gasp)!  Sure, we’ll try to get at least 1 or 2 photos of the whole family sitting, smiling and looking good and we don’t want ALL the pictures to be them crying and screaming! We want a balance that shows who you really are!

Sometimes that means you are all posed so we can see your faces to just know what you actually look like, and sometimes that means you are upset, and sometimes laughing uncontrollably.  Don’t limit yourselves to only show one side of your family on picture day.  Especially when it comes to your kids… let them be themselves, not the version of them you want them to be that you’re excited to show off to people.

(As you can see in the following two pictures, upside down is as good a side as any to show off … maybe even better than right side up at times!).

Stop worrying about how everyone is perceiving you…from the family members who will see the pictures, to your photographers themselves… none of your memories matter as much to any of us as they do to you.  Relax and allow us to capture the meaning in your life, not the vision of a perfect family that you have in your head.

(Uh oh, someone’s about to be in trouble!)

So while I just went on and on about relaxing and being “real”,  I know there is still some level of order and organization that needs to go into a family photo session, so I say, follow the Cottrell’s example and bring along a third party to take care of all that for you.  Nicole and Jon brought along the kids babysitter on family photo day. So when it came time for clothing changes, rounding them up, making sure they don’t run straight into the busy street that was 2 feet away…. all of that was handled by the babysitter so that Jon and Nicole could JUST HAVE FUN with their kids!

When you are chasing them around and digging through the bag for their snacks, while trying to smile and look all put together… the stress and tension in you does show up.  We have had several family sessions in the past where it has been difficult to get a single photo of the parents smiling.  That is so sad!  We want you to remember the moments that we’re capturing as some of the best times your family ever had together! I know that real life does get in the way and prevent you from spending fun, quality time with your children as much as you’d like to, but that’s why you bring along an assistant to take care of the real life stuff to allow you to be your real selves with each other (not just the jumbled balls of stress you tend to turn into) and truly enjoy your family without all the junk getting in the way that makes it difficult.

So while you’re working on planning the timing and style of  your session… make sure you take time to think about your expectations. Having a plan is good because we’ll at least start with that.  But once things get rolling, take a deep breathe and let it go… and then start laughing out loud a little bit and I’ll bet that will make everyone else start laughing out loud a lot. And you’re on your way to a truly great family photo session.

In Part 4 (click to read it!), I talk about how interactions affect family photo sessions.  Click here to start this series from the beginning.

How to Plan a Truly Great Family Photo Session (Part 2: The Style)

In case you missed the first post in this series, I’ll update you (even though you know you really SHOULD go back and read it!). I’m writing a series about planning a truly great family photo session based around one of my favorite family photo sessions ever, the Cottrells (with a little help from some of my other favorites as well, The Ellisons and Chip and Kay’s family).

There are 3 categories built into making a truly great family session: the style, the attitudes, and the interactions.  This time we’re talking about the style. Because I love organization and lists I’m going to break down “the style” into 3 important categories as well: the wardrobe, the location, and the props.


The Wardrobe…

I will say, Nicole has super unique, super awesome style that I’ve always been jealous of… and when you add on her husband Jon’s expertise fashion sense (I think he probably dressed up Scottie for our first few dates when they were roommates) you have quite a little fashionista (fashionisto for the boys?) family.

So I know that not just anyone could pull off this type of style with their session.  However it at least has that…. it has STYLE I mean! Style of some sort, any sort, that is truly you is welcomed!

I don’t know when family photo sessions became all about colors and matching, but that’s only ONE aspect of fashion and for some reason all the others seem to get thrown to the waste side when it comes to family photo time!  Instead of thinking “what colors would make us look good together” think what “Look” could we all work from to look good together.  Start with one piece of your wardrobe that you want to build around… probably a kid’s accessory since those are a little harder to find.

So for example, say you found the leopard print tights the little Cottrell girl is wearing and you absolutely adore them for your own little girl and want to incorporate them into your session.

You have just picked the look for your family.  Now you know you need to incorporate a sort of modern/funky/urban feel for the rest of your outfits.  Voila!

Your family now has a whole look, not just a color (you can have a color too, but that’s secondary to the main look). The thing I can’t stress enough is ACCESSORIZE!!!  Especially when it comes to your kids!

The accessories these little ones are wearing are what MAKE this session have the feel it does.  Imagine this same session if they were wearing just a normal shirt and jeans and that’s it.

It definitely wouldn’t be the same at all!  The accessories have more to do with how great these photos turned out than even the photographers themselves have to do with it (a big statement coming from me!). So I’m stepping out there and saying that if your session lacks style, even the best photographer in the world cannot remedy that… it has to come from you. And it begins with your wardrobe.


The Location…

It’s amazing how different the two locations in this session feel. Two very simple locations with a different wardrobe to match each. The crazy part is how much the location change helps communicate two different sides of the family entirely, which is important for this family because both sides are very true to who they are.  The shots at their house are very warm and cuddly and showcase the intimacy in the family.

The shots at the wall outside showcase that this family is always ready for a good time and has some mad style going on that helps them showcase their unique personalities (I can’t even tell you how much the little girl’s clothes match her personality!!).

The thing is that you don’t have to pick a wild and crazy location to have a good session and it definitely, definitely doesn’t have to be done in green grass… especially if you want your pictures to look unique! The Cottrell’s chose to start at their house, which happens to be a great location because of it’s simple, consistent decorating and great natural light.

Not all houses will work like theirs did, but if your does or even if one room in your house does, consider it an option. In your house you interact a little more naturally, the kids are much more relaxed plus they have stuff to play with, and the parents aren’t stressing out about what the kids are doing to public property when their backs are turned. So there are some major benefits to shooting in settings that are comfortable to your family members.  And honestly, good lighting is the main ingredient so don’t always focus on how stunning the background is.  We’re trying to capture emotion in the prettiest way possible and often times a clean/simple background with good lighting is the very best way to do that.

The Cottrell’s nailed the clean, well lit, relaxed location and then moved on to a location with a bit more of an exciting background.

The second location they chose was one of the last ones I ever expected someone to pick for a family session.  They chose this wall.

Nicole had never even seen this wall in real life.  She found a picture of it online that said it was in downtown Phoenix and began a google map hunt to find out exactly where it is. The thing I like about how she went about this was that she didn’t get location inspiration from other family photo sessions but from something normal in life that she thought was beautiful (which we think is awesome because that’s how we work as well… we don’t get wedding inspiration as much from other weddings, as we do from real life and art).

The really unique part about this location choice is that’s it’s based around one object. When Nicole thought of locations, she thought of one specific thing she’d seen in the past that she thought was cool, rather than trying to think of an entire area that’s cool. And it’s amazing what can be done with that one thing!

So think simple: your home + one specific item can work great!

This same formula worked for one of our other all time favorite family sessions (The Ellisons) who started at their home and then found one “superhero wall” to use after that.

Another of our favorites (Chip and Kay’s family) thought of one simple item… a specific field on the side of the highway they’d driven by before and we did the entire session there.

We would normally have wanted to have more than one background or location option to let us create different looks for Chip and Kay, but they used very well chosen props to fill that need and create the feel of having different looks even with one very simple background (since we were out in the middle of nowhere for their session and not about to find other looks there!).

Notice that all three of these families not only chose a specific item to base their photo location (2 walls and a field) on but they also accessorized or used props with tons of style! That’s one reason why they are our favorites… they nailed the style aspect! You know your kids, you know how many locations and looks they’ll hold up through before exhaustion takes over so plan a session with that in mind and be thinking of that one thing you love enough to plan your session location around!


The props…
So I mentioned Kay and Chip’s family session right? That is one of the few times I think Radiant Photography has really done props well.  And guess what, it had nothing to do with us.  And guess what again, we really suck at props.  It’s just not our thing.  If it was, we’d be styling weddings rather than just capturing the things that other people style for us. Which is one way to have great props and a well styled session… to hire a professional session stylist.  We haven’t actually done this yet, so we can’t speak to it but I’m assuming it would work out great if you found someone to work with who really got your style and could figure out the perfect way to express it with props and decor (we work with plenty of wedding stylists so we can give you some recommendations if you want!)!

But speaking from the very limited experience we do have with props… it has to come from you (or a professional stylist like I said).  What I mean is, it can’t come from us.  We’ve tried that and it was a total flop. Maybe it was because we’re not good at this, but really it felt like it was because the props were unnatural for the people using them. Unless we’re BFF’s with you and your family or style experts, I don’t think it’s possible to tell you what props to use.  Even if we are great friends, it’s still hard because chances are we have different styles and the things I’m picturing are not at all what you would use.

What I’m trying to say is that at least for Kay and Chip’s session… the reason the props worked was because they meant something to them.  They REALLY meant something to them. Their theme was multi-generational family (aka really cool vintage stuff with sentimental value). The items they brought were mostly family heirlooms like a quilt her grandmother made that they sat on (with a blanket underneath to protect it from getting too dirty!), and they even had their kids wearing clothes that their parents and grandparents actually wore and saved from when they were that little!

When you put that much heart into a session and base it around something so meaningful to you… it’s bound to be a success. So my advice on props is to either hire a professional stylist to make it beautiful, or if you’re going to go the DIY route, to make sure you are using things that have real value to you. This family session isn’t just about looking cool or being pretty, it’s about the heartbeat of your family so choose something that represents that. (and then remember to bring some cheap playschool toys your kids can play with during the session to get some good smiles out of them too… even if they don’t fit your style!).

So if style is not necessarily your forte and you’re known a little bit more for not having great style, you can still pull this off I promise.  Notice that all three parts of this style category begin with one choice.  The wardrobe begins with one accessory that you build the rest around. The location begins with one item in a place. The props begin with one thing that tells the story of your family that will let you build the rest of the story around it.
So to summarize the past 2 blog posts…

Pick the right time to schedule your session, then pick 3 things to build around: the accessory, that one thing in a place, and the heartbeat of your story. You have a plan and you’re well on your way, now just expand from there and you’ll have a session with truly great style!

If you want to know when the next part in this series is posted Like our Facebook page to stay updated! Click here to read part 3 about “the attitudes”. Click to go back and read the first in the series: Planning a Truly Great Photo Session Part 1: When to do it.

How to Plan a Truly Great Family Photo Session (Part 1: When to do it)

What do you think of when you think of family photo sessions?  Green grass, matching colors, and pearly whites? Well OK, but we think of a lot more than that and we want to share some of our insider info with you on what it means to plan a perfect family photo session!

Considering that a lot of what we have learned as been through experience, we’re going to tell the stories of some of our past photo sessions to give you ideas about what you can do well.  The main session we’re focusing on is The Cottrell Family session because I titled their original blog “The Cottrells Are our Dream Team” and really that still holds true.  The Cottrell session is the one that we show people whenever we want to impress them and make them think we’re the best photographers alive.  It’s the session we show off to other photographers when we’re teaching photography classes so that they know we know what we’re doing and that they should listen to what we’re saying.  The thing is though, that while this photo session turned out AMAZING, it had just as much to do with who the family was as who the photographer was (listen closely and you can hear the sound of my ego blow).

So what gives? What is soooo special about this family that they were able to create such a perfect session? Well for starters they really are just a special family. They definitely are a rare and creative breed who are the trend setters in our world.  The thing is, just because they’re creative enough to have figured this out on their own, doesn’t mean that you have to be able to do the same.  They’ve set the standard and now you can learn from it.  Their tricks can be taught!  So that’s what I’m going to be teaching in this special blog series that will pop up on the Radiant blog from time to time about “How to Plan a Truly Great Family Photo Session”.

And so we begin….

I believe that the key to a mind blowing, tear inducing, life time of remembering family session can be broken down into 3 categories.

1. The style

2. The attitudes

3. The interactions

Bam!  Now you know it all! Well, not really.  But let me get you started at least.  There are good reasons and times to have a family session and there are not quite as good reasons and times to have a family session.  With kids, particularly infants and young children, there are definitely different times and stages that will help your photo session live up to it’s full potential….

For infant photos…

…you want to shoot your baby within 10 days of being born. Yep, that’s right.  You have a 10 day window, which means you still feel terrible after what your body just went through, and you still don’t know exactly what you’re doing as a parent.  But that’s OK because we know what to do and we will do our job best if you sit back and let us do our thing. Once they’re more than 10 days old, they begin to be much more difficult for us to pose, they have their eyes open more (but they are never actually looking at the camera so sleeping eyes are best), and they have developed favored positions which means they are less moldable and poseable for us. So to schedule a newborn session, the best idea is to call when you’re pregnant and let us know your due date so we can put it on our calendars and at least make sure we don’t fill up the weeks surrounding your date so that our schedule is flexible enough to work with you on that 10 day time frame when the baby actually comes.

For baby photos…

… anything after they can sit up on their own is great.  That’s why people usually do 6 month photos… they are a lot more responsive to people by that age so they interact better and their little personality begins to show through a little bit better.  So aside from your sleeping infant photos, this is probably the time that will remind you the most of who your little one was as a baby.

For 1 year photos…

… this has less to do with their developmental stages and more to do with commemorating the year. I love the idea of yearly photos to see how your baby grows and to give you a marker to remind you that you haven’t had photos done in awhile so you don’t just wake up 10 years later and realize you forgot to schedule photo sessions for the past 9 years!

Anytime past the 1 year mark….

… these have a lot more to do with family interactions than anything.  We want to capture your child’s personality and their role and relationships within your family. This is the stage I’m going to be focusing on when I talk about “Family Photos” in this series. Mostly because that’s the age the Cottrell kids were at the time of their session so it helps me talk more specifics. Of course many of the same principles will apply to earlier in life so you know, just use your brain to make these tips fit for you and your family.

When the Cottrells scheduled their family photo session….

When Nicole (the mom) was inspired. The ages of her kids weren’t as relevant as some of the beginning years so that gave her the flexibility to wait until she had an idea. THIS is genius. I had shared a photo session by another photographer on my personal Facebook page because I thought it was such an amazing session.  Nicole saw the post and was immediately inspired by it so she called me saying, “I have a good idea, we should do it”. And I love that.  During our first call, she was just rambling on and on with ideas. This is a huge deal because SHE knows her family way better than I do so for her to come with her own ideas versus relying on me to come up with ideas made the session work 1,000 times better.  By the way guys, I only have so many ideas so they definitely begin to repeat after awhile!  I need LOTS of help from you to come up with a creative family session! They were HER ideas to represent HER family as who they really are.  And that is always the goal of a family session!

So start looking for inspiration!  When you see it, call us and go with it! I just started a Pinterest board called “Ideas for Clients” that you can start following to give you that little added push! And actually that inspirational board is what inspired me to start this blog series!  I kept coming up with good tip ideas from the Cottrell session so I figured I’d put it all together and share it with our fans! I hope you love it!

If you want to know each time we post the next part in this series  Like our Facebook page to stay updated!

Read part 2 HERE about the first of the 3 things that make a family session truly great: the style.