I’ve had many first-time family portrait clients ask me my secret to capturing smiling, happy subjects. They have a difficult time imagining their rowdy kids, reluctant husbands, and possibly rabid pets cooperating long enough for me to fire off a single frame.
“Benzos or box wine?” one mom asked. “Seriously. Which one? Or both?”
I admit I’ve had moments where I wondered if I could get away with writing off a tranquilizer gun as a business expense, or if I needed a special liquor license to calm the nerves of frazzled parents. That was a long time ago before I learned healthy coping methods for stressful situations.
Some of these tips are wisdom imparted to me by parents who’ve been around the block a few times. And I mean literally; probably chasing naked, squealing toddlers who have escaped bathtime.
For parents, the advice to “take a deep breath” starts in the delivery room, and doesn’t end at least until their kids cross the finish line at college graduation. Full, deep breaths that expand the belly outward not only fill your lungs with vital oxygen but stimulate the vagus nerve that directly signals your brain to chill out. Hooray for science!
We all try to “suck in our guts” when cameras are around, and this heightens stress. In between breaks, let it all hang out, and take ten deep, slow breaths. Breath in through your nose, hold it, and then exhale through your mouth.
I promise I won’t choose these little breathing breaks to snap a few candids.
We all know that laughter is good for us. Natural laughter makes for excellent photographs, so be sure to jot down some ice-breaking family jokes to spring on your spouse or kids when things get tense.
I’ve even asked my subjects to fake laugh…to ham it up, or imitate their parents’ laughter. (Note, go easy when teasing siblings; some kids, especially teens, are already self-conscious in front of the camera). Fake laughter often begets the real thing, because everyone feels and sounds silly.
Count to Ten
Every parent knows this one, but I’m putting it out there anyway. Slowly count to ten, and throw in the deep breathing exercises for good measure. When your kids are acting like maniacs and you’re at the end of your rope, hitting the pause button will give you perspective on the situation.
If one countdown isn’t enough, then count backward. Ten or twenty seconds is hardly enough to derail your photo shoot. Take your time, center yourself, and sanity will creep back in.
Trace Your Palm
Sometimes, we need an extra step to help us regain our center, and this trick works for just about anyone who needs help in the self-soothing department: Hold one palm out, and with the other, slowly trace a figure eight on your upturned hand. Go ahead…try it right now. See? This little exercise, simple as it is, helps relieve muscle tension.
(Don’t ask me how; I learned this from a client. The vagus nerve thing was my scientific moment of the day.)
Divert and Distract
Kids have short attention spans, and they need breaks to blow off steam. A few quick, age-appropriate games, like duck, duck goose, or funny rhymes and riddles, make a huge difference when your kids are beginning to burn out. Don’t be afraid to take time-outs to let your whole family goof of; it reinforces the idea that this is a “fun” day, and relaxes everyone.
Some kids respond really well if their parents have brought along a favorite toy, and toddlers love to take “dance breaks” to favorite songs. Guess what? These candid moments are among my favorites to capture, especially when entire families engage in spontaneous play.
Hugs, Kisses and Cuddles
Take a few minutes to spend some quiet time cuddling each family member. These little breaks provide excellent photo opportunities, and demonstrative affection helps reassure everyone on your portrait day, especially if the whole process of making everyone presentable has caused tension and snippy moments.
Physical affection helps kids feel more centered and confident and lets camera shy or cranky spouses know that they’re troopers. Plus, being on the receiving end of an affectionate hug or smooch will help calm your own nerves.
Attitude is Everything
It’s normal to be anxious about your family portrait session; you’ve invested in the right clothes, booked a photographer who knows his stuff, and managed to find a day that works for your whole clan. It’s okay to worry that your holiday cards will include photos that look like stills from the set of The Walking Dead.
The trick is to change your mindset and remember that this is an opportunity for you, your spouse, and your kids to experience family moments, not just capture them for future enjoyment.
Remind yourself that there’s no rush. I’ve already built in extra time for our portrait session to offset the inevitable chaos, because guess what? Even those perfect, smiling families in my portfolio had their meltdown moments.