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Say “Cheese” With Ease

Tips for planning family portrait sessions that reflect your personality

Photographer Lauren Fisher, of Jeremy Hess Photographers, enjoys capturing children and family portraits on location, where she can incorporate the setting into the mood of the shoot.

Photographer Lauren Fisher, of Jeremy Hess Photographers, enjoys capturing children and family portraits on location, where she can incorporate the setting into the mood of the shoot.

There’s nothing like the birth of a child to bring out the amateur photographer in us. Their sweet smiles and silly antics make kids a natural and, most likely, constant subject, and now that most of our phones are equipped with cameras, it’s never been easier to just point and click.

While these images might be OK for Facebook, they’re usually not exactly works of art that we’d want hanging on our living-room wall. It’s best to leave special portraits to the professionals.

Dan Brody, a portrait photographer with a studio in Bryn Mawr and connections throughout the Susquehanna Valley, describes the importance of a professional portrait like this: “The family portrait is really for the kids. When it’s on the wall in your home, they will see that they are an important part of the family unit. They will see that they are part of something bigger than themselves.”

Planning a professional photo session for your kids or family can be a little stress-inducing. Follow these tips from several Central PA photographers who specialize in children’s photography, and your little ones will be sure to say “Cheese!” with ease.

Top: Krisha Martzall. Middle left: Jeremy Hess Photographers / LF. Middle right: The Susquehanna Photographic. Bottom: Jeremy Hess Photographers / LF

Choosing a photographer

The Internet has made it a snap to find the right photographer for your family or children’s portraits. Most professional photographers have a website and even a blog where you can see their work.

Lauren Fisher, of Jeremy Hess Photographers in Lancaster (717-390-7050), says it comes down to your personal taste and what you want hanging on your wall. “Go to [a photographer’s] website, and if you feel like that’s you, that’s your style, that’s how you want your family photos to look, then you’ve found your photographer,” she says.

Online portfolios give you an immediate idea of the photographer’s style. Some families may want the traditional posed portrait in front of a muslin background, while others may prefer a more artistic, candid, photojournalistic style.

Fisher urges people to base their decision on style, not price. The average session fee, which covers the photographer’s time and talent, is $100. Photographers offer different print and digital packages, as well as a la carte print prices.

Good timing

Mechanicsburg photographer Jen Baltgalvis  (717-576-3886) says that parents need to schedule photo sessions around their children, not vice versa.

“[Parents] need to know when their kids are best,” she says. “Some kids are happier in the morning; some are happier in the evening. You don’t want to schedule things when your kid is typically napping.”

One exception? Newborns, whom many photographers prefer to photograph when they’re sleeping.

Be prepared to book at least one month in advance, if not more. If you want to get photos during a particular season, Baltgalvis says, she encourages clients to book sessions the season prior.

Top: Jen Baltgalvis. Middle left: Nick Gould. Middle right: Dan Brody. Bottom: The Susquehanna Photographic.

Location, location, location

Most photographers are happy to shoot at a location of your choosing. In fact, they likely prefer it. Kids need to feel comfortable when they’re being photographed, so taking them to a place that’s fun and familiar—a local park, pond or even your own backyard—will help them feel more at ease.

If you’re unsure of a location, photographers can suggest great spots based on the time of day, the available light, and your and your child’s own preferences. Do you prefer the city or the country? Indoors or out? Spring flowers or fall foliage?

Some photographers, like Dan Brody (610-520-9290), work primarily in a studio environment. Brody enthusiastically shoots many of his subjects on white or black backgrounds, and often they are barefoot. “People express so much emotion with their feet,” he says. “Especially children.”

What (not) to wear

It’s natural for parents to want their kids to look their best during a photo shoot, so their first reaction may be to buy brand-new matching outfits for everyone. This may not be such a great idea.

Jeremy Hess, of Jeremy Hess Photographers and a father of four, says, “If you’re trying to put [kids] in clothing that they’ve never worn before, or you’re trying to comb their hair in a way that it’s never been combed before, you tend to end up stressing everybody out.”

If you want your child to wear a new outfit, Hess suggests building up excitement around the outfit so that your son or daughter wants to wear it. But it all comes down to making the child feel at ease.

Allison Bitzer, of The Susquehanna Photographic in York (717-746-8620), says, “Let the family’s personality lead the way. If your kids aren’t used to wearing matching white-collared shirts and you put them in that, they’re going to look awkward and they’re going to feel awkward. It’s going to be even harder for them to smile and do what you want them to do in a photograph. If one of your kids is an athlete and one is an artist, let that shine through.”

Avoid white or pastels, as they tend to get washed out in photographs. Deep, dark colors are better. Brand logos are a don’t, as they date the photos and can be distracting. Solids are always a safe pick, as photographers have differing views on patterns and prints — including coworkers Hess and Fisher. While Hess tells clients to stick to solids, Fisher urges parents to let their kids wear what they want.

“If that girl wants polka-dot tights and if she wants bright-colored shoes that are sparkly and glittery and if she wants a bright pink T-shirt with a vest over top and that’s just who she is, then that’s what I want to capture,” she says.

Fisher adds, “Dramatic patterns for family portraits usually aren’t the best. As long as everyone looks good together, that’s the main thing. If someone’s casual, everyone should be casual. If someone’s dressed up, everyone should be dressed up. If someone is in yellow, don’t wear a color that doesn’t look good with yellow. It’s about working all together.”

Baltgalvis gives a thumbs-down to matching outfits. “I always tell [clients] to wear what they normally wear. Don’t go matchy-matchy, because you wouldn’t go out to the mall matching.” Brody echoes this sentiment, encouraging harmony in the clothing’s color scheme and also in the level of dressiness. Mom shouldn’t be in a cocktail dress if her sons and husband are going to wear jeans.

Top: Jen Baltgalvis. Middle photos: Epic Photography. Bottom: Jen Baltgalvis.

Time for some smiles

Now comes the hard part—getting your kids to cooperate at the photo shoot. It’s enough to make any parent a little tense, but photographers say that’s the worst thing they can do.

Hess says, “We’re here to have fun and take pictures. When a mom or a dad or a guardian walks in and they’re stressed out, then the child will feel that stress, as well.”

Also remember that this will likely be a new, strange experience for your children. Kids aren’t used to getting their pictures taken—particularly by a new person in a new place, says Bitzer. She suggests preparing them for the session ahead of time by explaining to them what’s going to happen, doing a play photo shoot at home, or showing them pictures to let them know that’s what they’ll be making at their session.

A mother of two, Baltgalvis urges parents to bring snacks and water to the shoot, so they can take breaks as needed and keep little subjects happy and focused. Also bring a few favorite toys or books. If you’re getting outdoor photos of your baby, Baltgalvis suggests bringing a blanket, as many infants don’t like the feel of grass on their skin.

With everything, let your child’s personality—and age—be your guide. Older children are much better equipped to take direction and sit still. If you’ve got a rough and tumble toddler who loves to run and jump, asking that child to smile and hold a pose probably won’t work well.
But, says Fisher, “that might be the best photo of your child, of him running down a hill.”

The littlest subjects may need to be held some of the time by a parent in order to feel secure, so Baltgalvis says that parents of young children should be prepared to appear in at least some of the images. A kids’ session could turn into a mini family session.

Next, let the professionals work. It’s OK to suggest a shot or two, Bitzer says, but be receptive when the photographer tells you it won’t work or takes a different approach than what you were expecting. Avoid trying to “help” the photographer by yelling for your kids to look at you and smile.

Baltgalvis says, “It’s hard when parents try to take over, when they’re directing the kids. I want to be the one interacting with them. I want the kids to be looking at me and laughing at me and not looking at the parents. I think it’s hard for parents, too, because they want it to go perfectly and they think they need to get the kid’s attention, when they don’t need to worry about it.” Brody agrees, “It’s my job to anticipate the moment before it happens. If you try to create it, or think you’re going to wait for the perfect moment, it’s probably already passed.”

A successful photo shoot with children can be a lot simpler than you might think. You just need to keep things relaxed, understand your kids, and let them be who they are.

“There’s such a joy to life in children,” Hess says. “We don’t want to control them as much as we want to capture them.”

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