Don’t Say Cheese: A Photographer’s Guide to Better Family Photos
Regular readers know that my husband Dave is a photographer and filmmaker. He’s also one of the main photographers for Classic Play! Today he’s here to offer some practical, and oftentimes hilarious advice about taking better family photos. Enjoy!
I photograph people for a living. Usually, people who have very little interest in being in front of the camera. It’s a tough place to start from believe me. My job is 70% making my subject comfortable and 30% shooting the photograph. Surprised? Don’t be. I bet you hate having your photo taken as well. Why? If I had to guess, it’d be because the one thing you hate more than having your photo taken, is looking at photos of yourself.
Is this because you’re hideous? Because you have a history of breaking cameras with only a look? Have you been beaten about the head and brutalized by an angry DSLR?
No. You’ve been the innocent victim frozen in time in a bad photograph. Perhaps you’ve even been the aggressor taking photos of your beautiful children that make them look like a creature from Grimm’s fairly tales.
What you can do to protect yourself (when the subject of a photo):
1. Don’t say cheese or anything else that will make you clench your teeth and jaw. This technique is only to be used on stubborn children with a lack of experience in front of the camera. Professional models smile and hold their teeth roughly 1/4 inch apart as if in mid laugh. Try that. It works.
2. Relax! It’s just a photo. I bet you have a friend—perhaps you even see her in the mirror every day—that is beautiful and has a great smile, and hates her smile. This friend seizes in a rictus of fear the moment a camera is introduced into the scene as if they’ve been on the lam for the last several years. If you (I mean they) feel that freaked out imagine what you must look like. Or just wait until its posted on Facebook. Just relax and be yourself. You’re beautiful.
3. Do you have “a pose” you whip out for every photo opp? Lots of celebs do this. It’s not cool when they do it so I’d refrain from this if I were you. (Sidebar: Google Image Search Jon Bon Jovi. That man is consistent! Squint eyes sexily. Slightly pucker lips. Looks slightly off to the side. Grrrrrrrr…). Having one face is reserved for clocks. If you have “a pose” or “a face” for photos it sends a clear message: I spend too much time thinking about this.
Re-imagine the family photo (when you’re the photographer):
1. No mugshots or lineups. Where is it written that the same approach taken at the invention of the photograph is the right approach? Face camera. Stare into lens. Hold breath. Turn slightly sickly and pale. Hold eyes open as wide as possible to avoid blinking. Don’t blink! Back then it took several minutes to load one sheet of film and it was very expensive if you blinked at the wrong time. (Sidebar: Nancy Pelosi is a world class blinker. I have this on good authority.)
Nowadays, you can shoot and re-shoot as much as you need to to get a decent shot. Take your time, put your subject at ease and have fun. Give little bits of direction and encouragement. If you can make everyone laugh even better. Now THAT looks like a good time. But I’m off-topic. The point here is that lining up the family/friends and having them freeze for you isn’t natural and doesn’t look natural. It’s this approach that frustrates the photographer and the subjects (“Why do I have crazy eyes?”). So what to do? On to number 2…
2. Let it happen naturally and capture it. Your family is a living thing that moves. You need to move as well. Capture real moments. These are so much more rewarding to look at a month from now, a year from now, 10 years from now. Have you ever heard someone say “Remember that time we all stood up from the picnic table and stood in a line and you took that picture? That was fun. We should do that again.”?
Know your camera (practical knowledge you can use):
I could write a book on how to use your camera better for better results. But here are three important things to know about your camera that will help you get the most out of your photos.
1. When you turn on your point-n-shoot camera it defaults to its wide-angle setting. This is what adds the dreaded 10 pounds. It’s great for landscapes but it will make the fittest among us look a tad chunkier than they really are. So if you’re taking a portrait or photo of a group, first zoom the camera in halfway or so. Next, back up until you can get the subject (group, person) in the shot the way you’d like it. Finally, compose and be sure not to cut off heads or fingers and hands.
2. Flash generally sucks. Avoid it. Unless you’re Juergen Teller, Terry Richardson or someone of their particular style and talent (Google at your own risk) you will not get a good result with a flash. Shooting indoors often requires flash. In those cases just realize that your shot isn’t going to look that great. It’d be better if you can shoot by the light of a large window or outside.
3. DSLRs are big and heavy and won’t make your photos better if you don’t learn how to take better photos. These big cameras are everywhere now. You can spot them by the scoliosis-like curve of the shooter’s spine. Back in the days before digital, you could buy a little point-n-shoot camera that cost a couple hundred dollars and took beautiful images on film. Film I say? Yes film. Go pick up a used Olympus Stylus Epic or Yaschica T4 35mm point-n-shoot with a fixed focal length. You will be amazed at the images you get back.* The fact that you can still stand up straight will be the icing on the cake.
*One of the best thing about shooting film is that you almost have to get prints of your photos. And since everything old is cool again you can fit in with the hipster crowd that thinks they know something you don’t.
Photography is an amazing way to document your family. Freezing a moment in time is somehow more magical and timeless to me than video. One of my favorite photographers (OK my absolute hands-down favorite) John Dolan said that when photographing a wedding he realizes that while shooting for his clients he’s acting as the family historian. Keep that in mind when you pull the camera out next time. With effort and some luck, these tips will yield honest images that more accurately reflect your life for years to come. No pressure.