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– verb: to present oneself insincerely
– noun: a deliberate pretense or exaggerated display
I’m not a fan of posed portraits. I’m not even a fan of the word. Insincere exaggerated pretense is not how I want my images to look. I want honest responses, full-body laughter, and spills of emotion. A posed portrait maybe has a place in this world, but I am banking on my client’s children and my own children wanting to look back at pictures from their childhood and see their real reactions and meaningful expressions. You can’t get that in a pose. But you can get it in a set-up.
I use a couple tried and true set-ups every time I do a family shoot. I used to worry that all of my work would start looking the same and I would be known as the photographer that always takes pictures that look like this or that and nothing more. What I have realized though is when the ingredients are different, the end result never looks the same. Families bring their own energy to a shoot and even if I do the same “pose”, if I do it well and give it my all, it will never look the same as another family doing the same thing. To best illustrate this I am showing three different families doing the very same set-up.
But they do make for good pictures. The Set-Up: ask anyone in the picture to tell anyone else a secret. Honestly it doesn’t matter who because often it isn’t the secret shot itself that you are going for, but rather the reaction of said secret. Every once in a while I get a kiddo that doesn’t understand what a secret is or how to do it and when this happens I just tell them to lick their brother/sister/moms ear. Which would totally gross me out personally, but usually gets met with fits of hysterical laughter and there ain’t nothing bad about photographing that instead.
Like crows on a clothesline. The Set-Up: with a younger family, I get away with asking everyone to hold hands. Once kids get a little older, I just have everyone get on the same level. This takes on a different direction every time: a running contest, a stadium-style wave, a monkey swing. The goal is always interaction. And if that isn’t happening on it’s own, I find it’s never a bad idea to bust into song. Everyone likes a serenade.
Kids take great delight in getting to run up behind their unknowing big people and surprise hug/tackle them. The Set-Up: if kids are too young to understand this or too old for it to work without being awkward, reverse it and have parents do the sneak attack. I usually save this for the end of a shoot because sometimes it can get a little crazy. Though my photography business has still never caused an emergency room visit. That I know of.
Grown-ups are bread, kids are peanut butter and jelly. Or, pickles and prosciutto. (I’ve photographed some very sophisticated young folks.) The Set-Up: Depending on size and age of kids, have parents bookend the little people and either pick-up kids and smash everyone together, or just get low enough to make it work. If there are more kids than adults, this can get really funny but it’s quick. Be ready and consider being a bit lower than you usually would, as the pull of gravity is heavy here because the kids likely are too.
Now is probably a good time to mention that I get laughed at a lot. Usually 95% of what I ask people to do for photos is met with a sweet but certain: “I absolutely will not do that.” I just ignore that. Because they always do in the end. No one has ever flat-out refused and told me no when it comes down to it. Which may be something I should factor into my personal relationship issues, but that’s a different article. The Set-Up: This typically works best when you ask a grown-up to have REALLY BIG ARMS and hug everyone at the same time. Sometimes this requires encouragement and you have to think of yourself as a little hugging cheerleader. When I have to do this, I am just grateful that there is no one videoing my crazy hand motions and the way my voice gets squeaky.
My goal for each shoot is to do something random that I have never done before. When doing this, don’t over think it. It will work or it won’t; those are the only two options. If it works, great! You have a new idea. If it doesn’t work, great!
Now you know to never try that again and hopefully no one was sent to the emergency room in the process. The Set-Up: This is a good time to really shoot for the moon, knowing that it’s nothing more than a bonus. It honestly could be anything. Be brave and ask for something new—you’ll know pretty quickly if it’s going to work and there is nothing wrong with it not working—just know to move on.
These ideas, as with any type of lifestyle photography posing are about the reaction, not the concept itself. Shooting digitally allows us the ability to shoot constantly; keep the expectation open and allow the moment to play for itself. And have a funny song in your back pocket just in case.