How To Have a Great Family Portrait Session

By Jeannette Katzir

Plan your family's outfits well in advance of the shoot for a coordinated look. PHOTO BY JEANNETTE KATZIR

Plan your family’s outfits well in advance of the shoot for a coordinated look. PHOTO BY JEANNETTE KATZIR

This moment in your family’s life is precious, remarkable, and unrepeatable. The way your newborn curls her fists when she sleeps. The wide-open wonder in your toddler’s eyes. The developing relationship between your second-grader and your preschooler — those little rivals, little partners in crime.

I’m a mother, too — a grandmother now, in fact — and I understand how valuable these moments are and how important it is to preserve them. As a photographer, I also know that nothing sends a shiver down some parents’ spines like the phrase, “family portrait session.”

Family photo shoots can be complicated. You have to find a good photographer who fits your budget, pick the outfits, get the kids to focus. The whole thing has the potential to be a raging disaster (Dad wore the wrong color socks. Aidan refuses to smile.), but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, the experience can become another fun memory to add to your list. You just have to know how to approach it.

Planning The Shoot

Research photographers. There are a lot of family photographers in Los Angeles, so take the time to research. Ask for recommendations from friends. If you find a photographer whose work you love, look at reviews and give the photographer a call to get a sense of the person you’ll be working with. You want your photos to reflect a relaxed and happy family. You need a photographer you’ll all feel relaxed and happy around.

Be clear about what you want. The better your photographer understands your goals, the likelier you are to be happy with your photos. Share sample images of poses or themes that really speak to you.

Consider the location carefully. You might already know you want studio shots, in which case there’s not much to think about. But if you want to take this adventure out into the big, wide world, review your options carefully. Aside from the aesthetics (which are important), where will your family be able to relax and have fun? Is there a place that’s meaningful to you? Don’t forget to consider your own home. Sometimes this is where families are most relaxed and kids are easiest to engage for long periods of time.

Schedule the shoot for early morning or late afternoon. This is when the light is softest, and when the sun is in the right spot to prevent shadows under the eyes and nose.

Sunset beach shots are amazing. This option is one of the many benefits to being an L.A. family. Just know that your photographer can’t make any guarantees about the weather. Overcast weather makes for the best sunset shoots, and that sort of thing is out of everyone’s control.

If you have children who nap, arrange the shoot for after naps. And even if they don’t nap, you know better than anyone if they’re at their best in the morning or the afternoon. Keep their routines and mood cycles in mind when you’re scheduling the shoot.

Have fun with props to make your portraits "yours." PHOTO BY JEANNETTE KATZIR

Have fun with props to make your portraits “yours.” PHOTO BY JEANNETTE KATZIR

Preparing The Family

Schedule any necessary haircuts a week or two before the shoot. Fresh haircuts have a way of looking too sharp and unnatural.

Get your children excited. Tell them what to expect (a little holding still, a little patience), but talk up the upcoming shoot like it’s a fun family outing.

Pro tip: Most photographers aren’t against a little lighthearted bribery. This could mean a visit to a pizza parlor with a singing mouse or a triple-scoop ice cream cone once the shoot is over. But use this move carefully. If you threaten to renege when the little ones get restless during the shoot (and they will), this will likely make your children more anxious.

Plan outfits well in advance. The trick is to find colors that work well with each other — how matchy-matchy you want to be is up to you! A lot of families like to dress all the females in one color and the menfolk in a different, coordinating color. This technique always makes for a clean, coordinated look.

Make sure everyone has had something to eat before the shoot. It’s difficult to smile on an empty stomach.

Come prepared with emergency extras: small snacks, bottled water, bandages, wipes, hair clips, hair spray, bobby pins, change of clothes and anything else you might need in a pinch.

Making It Yours

Make your photo unique by incorporating a hobby that’s meaningful to your family.

Invite the family pet. Child-and-pet photos are particularly charming.

Props are welcome! Favorite books, suitcases, trunks, chairs, bikes, sleds, holiday decorations, blankets, sunglasses, toys, bubbles, chalkboard, balloons … incorporating objects is an easy way to make a statement about who you are, and it opens up more opportunities to get creative!

Let your child have a say in their look! By all means, plan the polished, mantle-friendly family portrait you’ve been dreaming of. But don’t be afraid to let your young ones take a few shots in their favorite costume, flounciest tutu, or jauntiest hat. It’s a darling way to capture who they are at this point in their lives, and it’s another way to remind them that this day isn’t all about holding still and doing what they’re told. They can have fun, too!

Don’t be afraid to step out of the shot. Some of the best shots of your child happen when they’re left to their own devices. And don’t worry about the photographer! Sometimes Mommy Instincts want to keep us in the frame so we can keep those little rascals under control. But your photographer is used to working with rambunctious children. If we didn’t find their boundless enthusiasm charming, we’d take headshots for businessmen instead.

Your ultimate goal is a photo that let's your children's personalities shine through. PHOTO BY JEANNETTE KATZIR

Your ultimate goal is a photo that let’s your children’s personalities shine through. PHOTO BY JEANNETTE KATZIR

When Problems Arise—Because They Will

Accept your small child’s limited attention span. Prepare yourself mentally for the reality that the shoot will only last as long as your child’s attention span does — and it will probably not be as long as you’d like. Just coming in with the right expectations will help you keep your own anxiety levels down.

Remember that your photographer has seen it all before. As parents, we tend to worry about inconveniencing others with our children’s behavior, but every child photographer knows to expect a meltdown, and we know it’s only a matter of waiting out the storm. So when your little one looses his cool, don’t let the presence of an audience cause you further anxiety. It’s always harder on you than it is on us. Just take a deep breath and get through it however you have to.

Don’t be shy. Hopefully, you’ve discussed your vision with your photographer before the shoot, but if it seems there’s been a miscommunication or your photographer is setting up shots that don’t interest you, speak up! The more you vocalize your preferences, the easier it is for us to do our job.

Above all, go into your family photo shoot with the understanding that your photographer is a partner. We’re here to help you create the look you want, help you create an atmosphere your family can relax in, and wait out tantrums alongside you. The planning takes effort, and little ones may not always cooperate, but the one relief your photographer can offer you is the knowledge that you’re not in this alone.

Well, that and a really amazing family portrait.

Jeannette Katzir is a family and child photographer capturing special moments in the San Fernando Valley Area. She is also a proud L.A. parent and grandparent. You can see her work at

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  1. My wife and I are wanting to get some family pictures taken soon, so thanks for the tips on making them great. I love your idea of bringing props like your favorite book. This sounds like a great way to add personality to the photo.

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