Families who have the most relaxed documentary sessions do these 7 things

While lifestyle sessions often seek to emulate the happy, bright, beautiful parts of real life, documentary photography is about capturing the real thing – which can feel a bit daunting to some.

Here are some shifts that I have noticed make a difference in how relaxed a family feels during their documentary family session:

1. They have a different mindset about what a beautiful photo is

The parent’s have simply let go of the expectation of “perfect” pictures – because they know that the more they let go of control, the more real, raw and beautiful the moments will be. They don’t get wrapped up in worrying that their kids aren’t “doing it right” – all kids throw tantrums and sulk sometimes.

2. They plan sessions around everyday routines

When the family is occupied with something they usually do, they don’t pay attention to the camera as much. I often schedule sessions for morning or evening routine time, because those times of the day include routines that everyone knows how to follow.

3. They plan their session at a location where they would be that day – with or without a photographer present

Most families stay at home – being in any environment where the family is already comfortable helps them get into a natural groove. Sometimes I tag along onto special ventures, like a beach day or an Easter visit to the grandparents’ house – a change of scenery often helps families have so much to do that they mostly forget about the camera.

4. They allow plenty of time for pictures

I often explain that photographing real moments means that we have to give them time and space to happen. The longer I stay with a family, the more moments start to unfold. Too short of a session might prove very difficult because everyone is still very much camera-aware, or simply because it’s hard to capture a mixture of moments during such a short time. This is especially true with shy family members.

5. They don’t worry about how they will look in the pictures

I had an interesting discussion about this with Patricia, a Bay Area doula that I’ve photographed on the job a few times. She said that when she gets proper headshots done she wants to look good – because portraits are “supposed to” be “flattering, perfect, and wrinkle-free”. But when it comes to documentary photographs, she feels that emotion and moments are what matter – the pictures are heirlooms for the kids to remember you by, and not necessarily your next Facebook profile picture (even though that usually happens anyway!).

6. They don’t try to “act natural”

The most relaxed families do not think about what would be natural or what would they usually do – they let life take the lead. They don’t feel nervous about being silly with the kids, or telling them off when they are acting crazy. The kids often end up LOVING pictures of the parent being silly (or stern) with them.

7. They stay present with their family

When the parents stay present, engage with their kids or partner, and just react to things as they come, they have an easier time getting natural pictures of their time together – AND everyone enjoys themselves more.

Final thoughts

Ultimately feeling relaxed during a documentary session comes down to letting go of expectations and going with the flow of life. Photographs of real memories are the closest thing that we have (so far!) as a way to travel back to times we want to revisit – and I hope these tips can help you make the most of it.

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Documentary newborn and family photographer serving San francisco Bay Area, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and surrounding areas