How We Capture Family Photos Inexpensively (and Yes, It Can Involve Tears)

I am not a fan of having my picture taken.

This is actually a major understatement. I have always loathed it. I don’t feel comfortable in front of the camera, struggle to smile authentically and, as I’ve mentioned before, almost always have my eyes half or fully closed.


We take a lot of pictures in the course of a year and get a lot of great shots of the kids. These are almost entirely candid, which I actually prefer, but when it comes to getting decent photos of the whole family – well that just doesn’t happen without significant planning.

A few Q&A’s along with some behind-the-scenes pictures from past family photoshoots.

Who takes your photos?

Okay, so we lucked out with this one. One of my closest friends is an excellent amateur photographer and has kindly volunteered to take our photos year after year.* She’s a saint. She is so good with the kids – very patient and kind. Ditto with the adults. *For two years before I met her, we had other friends take our family photos. Actually, we have never hired a professional photographer (the mother of one of my bridesmaids did our wedding photos).

If you know someone willing to help, not only does it significantly reduce costs (I give gift cards each year and/or have provided a meal), it can also make things more flexible. Meeting up at odd hours, changing locations, dealing with a child having a tantrum – these can be a lot less stressful if you’re not working under contract with a professional.

What sort of camera gets used?

We’ve always just had our friends use their cameras (everyone has owned decent DSLRs in the past). For the last two sessions, we’ve actually used our iPhones because it’s just so much easier for us to have the originals and decide what ones we want to keep/edit etc. The camera functions on newer phones are phenomenal. We’re not looking for something to go on the cover of Vogue, so iPhone pictures are likely the way forward for us.

Love this picture – an iPhone shot.

where do you go?

We’ve always stayed pretty close to home; nothing further than a 30-minute drive. I’m looking for relatively neutral backgrounds, and we often return to the same places. I like to find something with heavy architecture – a brick wall, concrete steps, a colourful door, solid greenery.

Brick wall…
Steps – check. Door – check. Interesting background – check. Elisabeth with half-closed eyes – definitely check. Sigh.

In general, an uncluttered background is going to show better in photos. Lighting is key, so if you’re wondering about how a certain location will photograph, try visiting at the appointed time to scope it out (for example, light dappling through trees can cast very weird shadows on people’s faces). The golden hour in the evening is generally the nicest time though cloudy days often provide the best results. Because we’ve always been working with young kids, we tend to do morning shoots to avoid interfering with naps or mealtimes.

2021 – on location at a local garden and green space. No naps to work around this year…
One year we went to a fishing village about 30 minutes away; the red barn and stone retaining walls made for great backdrops.
A stone wall on the side of the Grand Pré church has been the main feature for two different family photo sessions.

What do you wear & how else do you prepare?

I am not into fashion. We always shop our closets (I think maybe one year I bought a sweater, second-hand, to match what everyone else was wearing), which are mostly thrift-store finds.

I like to go neutral. Blues, blacks, grey – sometimes with a pop of colour. A red headband for Abby, sparkly shoes. I try to coordinate things we already have. Everyone in blue jeans is a great place to start.

When the kids were younger I made sure we had a fully stocked bag – diaper necessities when they were really little, snacks, water, WetWipes. We’ve never had a full-blown stain catastrophe, but maybe for really little ones a backup of clothes might be a good idea?

We always talk to the kids in advance. Sometimes I have them practice smiling. Honestly, it’s hit or miss. A few years ago, one kid liked to look sideways – with a huge smile. We’d say look at the camera and the smile would come…but the eyes would never follow. Oh well.

How do you get your kids to cooperate?

Okay. Here’s the bad news. We all dread this day. A few years it involved tears. It almost always involves some sort of candy bribe.

I don’t have a good answer on this one. We are constantly nagging the kids to sit down, stand up, look up, look down, smile, open your eyes. I think that’s why my favourite shots tend to be the really candid ones where no one was trying too hard. What can I say – we’re not into being photographed, and it likely shows.

One thing that can help is having a prop: we’ve used apples several times so the kids can eat; holding a kite or carrying around a cute stuffed animal could be fun and provide entertainment.

He carted around this apple for ages; it’s hidden from view in most of the shots, but it’s fine when it makes an appearance, too.
I can tell by the bulged cheeks the kids had both already been bribed with some small candy treat.

Also, it helps to indulge some shots they want.

Like a stop to pose with this lobster we encountered en route.

Or this shot from a few weeks ago when he promised to smile if I would just let him do a goofy pose right afterward. Guess what – I love the goofy pose. It perfectly sums him up at this stage in life!

Why go to all the trouble?

I think we make the whole experience as minimally invasive as possible. We don’t buy coordinating outfits, travel to obscure locations, or spend hours with a professional photographer. Still, it’s not a process I enjoy.

But I love having the pictures.

They go in our photobooks and I also use them on annual photocards at Christmas. We have a lot of family scattered geographically, and this is a great way to keep everyone up-to-date on the transitions. A few more gray hairs for the parents, and a few (or a lot) more inches for the kids (I, sadly, have maxed out in the height department).

What sort of poses do you try to get?

I love candid portraits. I try to get pictures of all the relevant combinations. Levi alone, Levi with Abby, Levi with Mommy, Levi with Daddy.

One of my favourite pictures of him – ever. And there’s another apple!
Ditto above. I have prints of both these pictures hanging up in my hallway. She was playing peekaboo around some columns.

I like pictures taken at different angles, from a distance, and with shadowing.

I’ve always loved this photo; Abby woke up with croup about 4 am and we were all bone tired. Somehow knowing that makes this photo shoot all the more memorable.
Hard to believe this was a decade ago. I still wear that dress!
When I was pregnant with Levi…his tiny Puma’s made it into the shot.
And here he is, a year later, hamming it up for the camera.

I even like downright silly poses.

This was a completely genuine reaction to his sister’s kiss…it ended up being a photobook cover one year.

2021 came and went. I promised the family it would be low-key. I gathered our outfits with minutes to spare; I threw my still-wet hair up in a bun.

Is it going to win awards? Probably not. But we’re all in the picture together, as a family.

It’s worth the tears (though this year there were exactly ZERO tears shed; yay for small victories). It’s worth the bribes. It’s even worth risking horizontal stripes and wet hair.

Now excuse me while I heave a massive sigh of relief that it’s approximately 350 days until we need to think about this again…

5 thoughts on “How We Capture Family Photos Inexpensively (and Yes, It Can Involve Tears)”

  1. So many great pictures! I went to a funeral recently, and the family had chosen to include only pictures of the family – and they had so many! I made the mistakes of a) sometimes not having a camera when the kids were school-age, and b) not getting someone to take pics of all four of us! So, great advice you have here to inspire families to take more pictures! Cheers!
    Jan

    1. I think things are so much easier now with the prevalence of phone cameras!
      As much as having a computer/workstation in my pocket can be a real drain of time/energy, there are obvious advantages and it means it is so much easier (and cheaper) to capture images on the go.

  2. Oh, I love this look-back at so many years of family photos! Your kids as toddlers/babies is enough to make a grownup cry. Adorable.

    1. I know – having these to look back on makes it worth all the tears. Where do the years go?

      And huge credit shout-out @Joy that YOU are the incredible “saint” of a friend I mention above. Thanks for all your efforts in capturing our growing family over the years!

  3. The family picture session is something very US/Canadian I think. In Germany there just isn’t the tradition to do it annually. I love all your photos they are all brilliant. So kiddos to your lovely friend. I once heard from a professional family photographer that she always has toys for the kids to play with and this way she can take candid photos from them in their happy world. So you basically do that already. Love the apps shots. And I love that you make the effort to have annual photo books.. I haven’t even managed our wedding album and that’s almost 8 years. Sigh..

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