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.

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