Documenting the everyday and special occasions is so much easier in the modern age. We’ve got high-quality camera phones and even video cameras wherever we go. With ease, we can record and play back our lives. However, I do still love the tradition of setting up more formal photos for special occasions, such as the holidays, summer vacation, big family gatherings, and the annual family photo or during a pregnancy and after the birth of a new baby. The photos can be candid or more formal, but the point is, they are precisely captured. It’s so touching to look back on these years and these events and have a collection of images that tell our family story.
We have a family photographer, Gia Canali, whom I’ve used for many special events, beginning with our wedding and my first pregnancy, to the children’s birthday parties, annual holiday cards, and special photo sessions. She sets up beautiful shots and knows just the right backgrounds to pick, so I thought I’d ask her for her tips on how to set up and create perfect family photos at every occasion.
When And What To Photograph?
Some parents love to document the turning of each year of their children’s lives, especially when they are so little and each year brings so many changes. Others like to photograph stages and skills—like when a child first crawls, sits up, or starts walk- ing. Lots and lots of families choose to take family photos for the holidays, which can be sent in e-cards or through the mail. A more recent trend is to document day-to-day life: an afternoon in the backyard, a day at the beach, a get-together with visiting out-of-town relatives.
How to set up your own, DIY photo shoot:
1. COME UP WITH A PHOTO CONCEPT FOR KIDS. Start with a simple idea. Activity-based ideas are always good, such as building LEGOs or playing with bubble wands. If you can get outside, even better!
2. CHOOSE THE LOCATION AND YOUR “SET.” Consider the environment—you want something that is fairly plain and without a lot of distracting detail in the background or foreground so that your family is the focus. And you don’t want to pick an area with too narrow a scope. Kids move around a lot, so you need to make sure that you have a pretty large, clean frame and background—otherwise, forget it! What’s most important when doing your own setup is to scout the location first, and if shooting at home, to build your set in advance. Do it when the kids are napping and always test out the frame. You really don’t want to be doing the setup while they are waiting—wasting their precious little attention spans! Some of our favorite locations include:
- The Beach: It is great because it’s simple, classic, generally has numerous angles with clean backgrounds, and the frame is nice and big! No matter how much your kid runs around, you almost always have a usable frame. If you don’t have a beach nearby, an open park, grassy meadow, or lakefront works well too.
- The Bed: Believe it or not, another very workable location is often the bed. I personally love using our bed at home for a DIY photo shoot. Put on a set of white sheets and comforter or all-neutral linens, and clear o any stray items on surfaces that may sneak into the frame, such as phones, glasses of water, the * newspaper, or the alarm clock on the nightstand.
- The Floor: Yep! You heard me right. A big fluffy rug and some neutral pillows on the floor always photograph well, and it’s perfect for newborns. It can be beautiful and ethereal. To create even more of a set, hang a blanket against the wall as a backdrop, like we did in one of our shoots with Brooks and Scarlett. Simple white string lights or a garland can also add a festive, fun touch.
3. DECIDE ON STYLING/PROPS. Think classic toys. Some of our favorite props include:
Stuffed toys: A fun photo is to put the baby or toddler in the center of a light-colored rug or on the bed and surround her with all her favorite plush, stuffed animals or, more simply, with her favorite one! And you didn’t have to buy a thing.
Balloons: There is something endlessly fun and free spirited about a little one holding balloons. You can buy them in any color, they are affordable, and they make for classic photos.
Kites: If shooting at the park, the beach, on the bluffs, or in an open space, bring along kites—they’re an excellent activity for children and will keep them occupied for a good amount of time, and while they play, you can snap, snap, snap away!
Bubbles: For an outdoor shoot, bubbles look so pretty and whimsical, and children absolutely love them. I do too!
"Messy Props" Caveat: Just keep in mind that messy props are always . . . messy. If you really want that adorable photo of your baby eating a rainbow sprinkle ice cream sundae, then save that photo for the last shot . . . and be prepared to pack three pairs of the same outfit!
4. THINK ABOUT WARDROBE. Speaking of outfits, simple is always better, especially when doing shoots that you will be using for a holiday card. Avoid logos and busy patterns. Coordinate children and family members in complimentary colors. All white or white mixed with denim or khaki never fails. You want your family to stand out, not the sports team logo or the superhero T-shirt.
5. PICK THE BEST TIME OF DAY. Photographers’ favorite time of day is just before sunset—the golden, or magic, hour. But I also say that the best time is when your kids are happy. So if that is in the early morning, that’s when you’ll be the most productive and get the best shots. Don’t underestimate how much time this can take, btw.
6. CREATE A SHOT LIST. Do as photographers do. Make a list of what shots you want to get, and prioritize your list, placing the most important shots at the beginning and the less important toward the end. Plan a mix of both posed and candid shots. When working with children, be conservative with your list—you don’t want to get overly ambitious here! After you’ve done one or two shoots, you will have a better idea of how many shots you can reasonably get in a two-hour shoot.
7. BE PATIENT. This is key to being in charge of your own shoot. Parents really must have positive energy. Embrace what is happening. You might want your little one to do something a certain way—but that is not necessarily going to happen. But if you go with the ow, you just might be surprised by what funny or sweet moment that you managed to capture. And know that it’s fine to reschedule. Sometimes kids just aren’t feeling it. As Gia says (and as we’ve done before), “Sometimes it’s better to win on another day than fight really hard and lose on the day you’ve scheduled!”
I absolutely adore photo walls in the home (there's a clip of them in my Everyday Chic YouTube video). I am very nostalgic. I really enjoy being reminded of all the stages of my children’s growth. Their little faces change so much, and they grow up so fast. On large walls in secret our home, like at the top of the stairs, we love to create and display our most special family photos. We use simple white, black, or light wood frames and white matting. We make oversize photos and space them just a few inches apart. It’s one of my favorite parts of the house. It’s a lot of effort to select the photos and have them printed and framed and hung, but it’s so worth it. I can’t walk past the wall without smiling, laughing—and sometimes even tearing up.
Tag me in your holiday cards, I'd love to see how you guys capture the best moments from your family! Happy Holidays! xox
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Actress, model, active humanitarian, & Mom! Author of 'Everyday Chic'.