Family Self Portraits | By Melinda McIntyre
Long before everybody had cell phones with cameras, my husband and I would use my digital camera to try and take “selfies.” The first advanced digital camera I bought had a viewscreen that you could flip down so you could see yourself - a key feature for me at the time. I wanted to be a part of the images that I captured as we traveled across Europe together, but I also wanted to try and compose the shot and get the details just right. While I cherish these old photos of us, they certainly aren’t the same style and quality as what I could take from behind the viewfinder. Through the years my camera has become more advanced and my family has grown, but my attempts to take “us-ies” with my cell phone have not improved much as we all squeeze in and fill the frame. They’re good snaps of us all together, but not quality photos that reflect who we are or how we live. They don’t tell a full story.
Over the last year and a half, I have realized that I need (for myself and for my family) to document the love that my husband and I have for one another and the love that we all share as a family. We are a family that moves every couple of years for my husband’s work, and our sense of home is built around each other. With constant change, I have found that I need a way to capture the steadiness of our family, and to process my emotions so I am able to help my children process theirs. Taking family self-portraits helps me to refocus on us, and to not get so caught up in the million tasks and challenges that are associated with moving. It also helps me remember each stage, and that I am not always frustrated from picking up toys, making food, and dealing with kids fighting over something or other. With a little creativity, a tripod or steady object to set the camera on, and a timed shutter release, the possibilities to be part of your own family photo shoot are limitless.
All of the family self-portraits we have taken have been inside of whatever place we call home for the moment. Because we move so often, I want to remember these rooms, houses, and apartments that we have lived in and made home. I will admit it is nice to get to see new rooms and to find new light in so many new places, but I’ve also discovered that you don’t have to relocate to get inspiration – this photo, one of my favorite images of us, came after moving the furniture around in the room, which helped me to find light that I hadn’t known was there before.
Tips for using your home:
Go wide – if you have a wide-angle lens use it. Especially if your rooms are small, try to get in as much as of the room as possible to tell the whole story.
Use door frames as framing. It helps draw focus on the subjects, and a bonus is that every home has them!
If you have two rooms right next to each other figure out a way to incorporate them both. This allows you to tell two parts of the same story. Your family probably doesn’t always hang out in the same room, so don’t always do that with your images.
Watch the light in your home. There are some rooms that create amazing shadows when the sun is out – and some rooms are always going to be dark. Pick a room that you want to use and watch how the light moves throughout the day.
Use movement to tell your story. We are an active family, and unless we are all reading or working we are rarely all sitting down. For us to all being sitting together is a rare thing, so in my images I try to incorporate the fact that we live a fast-paced life.
My children have learned that family self-portrait times are some of the most fun times. I try to let the kids know what I am visualizing, so that they know what I expect from them. The times I don’t explain it to them we end up having more problems and I get frustrated with the results.
Here are some steps to make it fun:
Have the kids do an activity that is something they love to do anyways – reading, playing with toys, board games, dancing, or even playing video games.
Let the kids pick music to listen to while taking the pictures. If there are two kids with even one song each, this should give you at least 5 minutes to get your images taken.
Limit the number of times that you have to set the self-timer. I have my camera’s timer set to 7 images at a time, so if the kids are not really wanting to cooperate I tell them that we will just do the shot with me running back to the camera two times.
Use bribes if necessary. I know many photographers don’t like to do this, but I usually will set up the shot a little before dessert time, so my kids know if they cooperate they get their dessert faster.
If your image really isn’t working the way that you are wanting it to – adapt, stay patient, and know when to stop and try again later. When you are working with kids you may have to change what your plan was, which can be particularly frustrating since as artists a lot of the time we have something that we are visualizing. But keep in mind that family self-portraits are different from client work, because you live with the subjects. So not only will you have another chance to recapture your shot, you can’t just shake hands and part ways if everybody is angry at the end of the shoot. If you can’t achieve what you wanted stop and come back a different time. Your family can tell when you get frustrated so stopping before you get too annoyed will help them be more willing to try again in the future.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly – if there will be another adult in the frame with you, have an open dialogue with them, and explain why these images are important to you. Their attitude and help will help ensure a smoother experience for everyone involved.