It’s that time of year again! Family portrait season. Although most people have the good sense to hire a photographer for this, there is a small subset of crazy and/or masochistic people who want to take their own family portrait. I’m one of them! Maybe you like a challenge. Or you want to save some money by doing it yourself. I do it because I want complete control over the process. While hiring a photographer would no doubt be easier and perhaps even produce a better result, I enjoy managing the shoot from beginning to end. That said, it’s HARD WORK!
Perhaps there’s a sulky or uncooperative husband (you know who you are!) or children who would rather be doing something else. When you hire a photographer to take your family portrait, that person manages these difficulties for you. For some reason kids behave better with a “new person.” But when you choose to take your own family portrait, you most definitely are not a new person. You are just “mom,” only you are nagging your family about taking photos instead of the regular stuff you nag them about. Still want to try this? If so, here are some tips to make this challenge easier.
Before involving your family in any way, sort out all logistical aspects of your portrait, including wardrobe and location. I made the mistake one year of attempting our family portrait on the Brooklyn Bridge. I wanted to take the photo in the early morning light, so I made my family wake up early and walk 30 minutes to the bridge. When we got there, it was cold and windy with cyclists speeding past. Tripods are not allowed on the bridge, so I had the added stress of trying to take the photos quickly before the cops noticed us. Everyone in my family was irritated with me. I recommend that you not do this! Find a location that’s easy to get to. Perhaps someplace that your family already enjoys. Spend some time there with your camera in advance of your shoot so you can decide exactly where you want to place your family and confirm that the light is ideal.
On the day of your shoot, go to your spot ahead of time and set up your tripod and camera, so that when your family arrives, it’s go time.
Once you decide where at the location you want to place your family, you need to find a way to mark that area off, so your family knows where they need to be to stay in the frame. You can use something that’s already there, like a log or bench that everyone will sit on. Another idea is to bring a blanket and compose the shot so that as long as your family is seated on the blanket, they will be in the frame. Or, you can bring blocks or beanbags to mark off the area. For my family self-portrait, I took some of my 4-year old’s alphabet blocks, and before my family arrived, I marked off the area where they would need to stand. I photoshopped the blocks out in post-processing.
It goes without saying that you’re going to need a tripod. Go ahead and set that up before your family arrives. If the lens you’ll be using has image stabilization or anti-shake technology, you’ll want to remember to turn it off, as it can actually cause blur when used on a tripod.
I HIGHLY recommend using an interval timer instead of a remote control or a regular timer. What’s an interval timer? It’s a feature many cameras have that allows you to tell the camera to take X number of photos with X number of seconds between each photo. When I took my last family self-portrait, I set my interval timer to take 100 photos with 2 seconds between each photo (to allow my autofocus time to refocus). This allowed my family to relax in front of the camera somewhat, and I was able to be present instead of worrying about holding and hiding a remote control. We took several batches of 100 photos, until I was confident we had enough material for a good portrait.
Set your camera’s autofocus to AI Servo mode, so it refocuses after every shot. It’s true that AI Servo mode is usually associated with moving subjects. But, if you shoot with a wide aperture like I usually do, even small movements can ruin focus. AI Servo mode also gives your family some freedom to move without worrying about focus. Just be sure that you set up the interval timer to allow enough time between each shot for autofocus to work. I choose 2 seconds between each shot.
My Canon 5D Mark IV has an interval timer built in. If your camera doesn’t have one, you can buy one.
I approach my family self-portrait from a lifestyle perspective, and it’s ok with me if not everyone is looking at the camera. But, if you want your family to look at the camera, there are some things you can do to encourage this. You can tie a balloon to the back of your tripod and tell your kids to look at the balloon. You could buy a Lens Buddy, which is a small toy animal that wraps around your lens. Then you can tell your kids to “Look at the bunny!” (or bear or fox, etc.). Or if you want to really pull out all the stops, Tether Tools makes a product called Look Lock, which allows you to mount your iPhone to your camera. This allows you to play cartoons on your phone while it sits on top of your lens.
Also, I highly recommend bringing goody bags or treats to incentive your kids to cooperate.
Even if you follow all of the tips above, you are still likely to end up with hundreds of photos that aren’t useable. That’s ok! Try to find the best 10-15 photos, and then use the clone stamp in photoshop to fix any problems. Last year, I had several photos that were great except that my husband was scowling. I used the clone stamp to clone in his head from another photo where he had a better expression.
I hope you find these tips helpful! Taking a family self-portrait is challenging for sure, but it can be fun. My family has made it into an annual tradition that we both dread and look forward to. I’m glad that when my kids are grown they’ll have these photos and they’ll know that I took them. And they’ll have the memory of their crazy mom who dragged them to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge at 7am in November 2017. Sorry kids!