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…

I’m A Memory Keeper: Photobooks + How I Organize My Pictures.

Earlier this summer I took some time to identify things I value. It took a while to get the proverbial ball rolling but, once I did, the list kept growing. I accepted the fact that I value time alone, calm, and order. I value date nights and having 1-on-1 time with my kids. I value home aesthetics, cultural experiences, and connecting with seniors.

I also value my role as our family memory keeper and a huge component of that involves photos and photobooks.

My Dad was the resident photographer in my house growing up; he was constantly gathering us for awkwardly posed shots, especially if we had extended family visiting. The resulting photos are objectively dreadful – awkward photographs of everyone standing on the front porch, inside a museum lobby, or by our fireplace bedecked with Christmas stockings. Several people always have their eyes closed. Candid photos were not in his repertoire. But one of my favourite things to do as a kid was flip through our family photo albums. Page after page filled with memories; most fun but a few sad (rest in peace, Thumper).

As a teenager I went through a stint of scrapbooking with my older sister, but that didn’t last long (too much clutter for my liking). For years my photos mostly hung out in a digital purgatory; accessible, but not without effort and excessive screen time.

And then, when our oldest was born, I discovered photobooks.

Why Photobooks?

I love the ritual of sitting down and flipping through an album. Accessing photos digitally is fine, but I prefer when the viewing experience involves tactile senses. Because of the sheer number of photos we take each year (and would want in hard-copy), it’s prohibitive to develop them all as prints.

Enter photobooks. I often end up getting well over 1,000 pictures crammed into each book. I keep my layouts simple and use very little text. It’s a place for the photos to shine and tell the story of our life that year.

What publisher do You use?

Judging by the width of the binding, you can tell each year I just keep adding more and more pictures. I have books going all the way back to 2011, so I’ve officially hit the decade mark.

For the last 5 years I’ve been using Blurb. When MyPublisher (my original go-to) was absorbed by Shutterfly, I tried out a lot of different programs. I ended up settling on Blurb because it had desktop software that would allow me to build the book offline, dragging and dropping pictures from my desktop.

Once the book is complete, I simply upload the whole thing at once. There are great previewing features offline to help me identify layout issues, spelling mistakes, etcetera.

Blurb’s paper quality isn’t as good as some other companies (there is obvious shadowing/bleedthrough on thinner paper weights), but the reasonable prices (low per-page pricing + lots of great sales) and ability to print large books (I make books of 200+ pages) make it a great option for my needs.

How do You organize YOUR pictures?

The first step to creating a photobook…is managing your photos. There are a lot of different ways to approach this, but the following system works well for me.

  1. During each calendar month I regularly go through the photos on my phone. I’ll do this when I’m waiting in line or need to unwind for a few minutes. I’ll edit them – remove duplicates, boost the colour, straighten crooked images – before I move the best ones over to their permanent folder which leads me to #2…
  2. At the end of every month I move all my photos from that month off my iPhone and into folders in OneDrive (once they’re backed up to the cloud, I delete them off my phone).
  3. I have four master folders within each calendar year (Jan – Mar; Apr – Jun; Jul – Sept; Oct – Dec). Within each of those quarterly folders, I have a series of subfolders. For example, Oct – Dec would include folders like: Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas (which would likely have further subfolders like Christmas Tree, Christmas Eve, Decorations), Levi’s Birthday, Outside Play, Friends, School, Sledding. I have a lot of nested folders. Because of the sheer number of photos we take, I find it much easier to organize photos this way. Also, if I put all of the pictures in one cateogorized place (say pictures of the kids with their friends), it’s easier to identify the best shots to highlight in the photobook. Within a photobook I often do themed pages – say a spread of an outdoor activity like sledding or skating – and will regularly have photos from various dates on a single page.
  4. I try to sift through the categorized pictures several times before the end of the year, slowly whittling it down to my absolute favourites. It makes the next step – creating a photobook – so much more efficient.

what’s your process for creating a photobook?

Tip #1. It helps to have well-organized pictures! See above, or find a system of your own that works for you.

  • I go through the year chronologically and tackle one folder/subfolder at a time. I came up with some of my own templates within Bookwright – the software from Blurb – and just drag and drop photos.

Tip #2. Have a highlights page. Some people hand-write their captions and others include long descriptors to accompany each spread. You do you. But I find having a “Highlights” page is a great way to summarize the major events from the year, leaving the pictures free to speak for themselves. I like to put a few fun pictures on this page to signify special memories.

I have a Highlights page at the beginning of each photobook. I’ll write about how we celebrated birthdays, trips we took as a family, career milestones, and other little tidbits I don’t want to forget.
  • I really like interspersing portrait shots of the kids with detail shots of our surroundings. So a picture of the kids fishing AND a picture of their tackle box. This obviously requires capturing certain types of photos, but I do think it makes a more striking photobook. This is very much personal preference, though!
One page (of many) from Grand Lake 2020. This is all I do for captions, so the pages that follow from Grand Lake won’t have any text at all…

Tip #3. Consider using auto-fill features. If you’re not particularly fussed about having things “just so,” there are some great auto-fill modes for most photobook companies where you can dump in photos and they’ll arrange them chronologically or by theme. I’ve never used these features, but know others do with great success.

this sounds like a lot of work!

It is. The way I do things, it generally takes about 30-40 hours (!!) to complete a book. This doesn’t include the many hours spent taking, editing, and organizing photos. 40 hours is a lot of time to dedicate to a single project. But it’s a labour of love and I genuinely enjoy the process (most of the time; even for me it can start feeling tedious after a while).

It can also be significantly faster! Some of the auto-fill features could help you create a book in under an hour. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the done. Most companies now allow you to hire a designer to help you create the books; some even provide subscription monthly books. (I’d hate having that many separate books, but a friend of mine did exactly that. She was living in New Zealand with her newborn and made monthly photobooks and had them shipped to both sets of grandparents who were living back in Canada).

Grand Lake 2019 – the year of drone shots and visiting cousins…

How much does this all cost?

Photobooks can be pricy, but to me they are worth every penny.

I usually pay for a hardcover photo-wrap cover. It’s a few steps above the basic softcover option, but there are other premium features available. You can buy matching protective sleeves, get the book bound in linen or other fabrics and more. There are different gauges of paper, each with their own price point (which can impact the final cost significantly). You can get lay-flat pages (beautiful but expensive and almost always severely limits page count), gloss vs. matte, and various other upgrades and tweaks.

I like to highlight favourite pictures, so don’t necessarily maximize the space on pages. I like uncluttered aesthetics and am happy to pay more for extra pages to get the desired effect.

With Blurb I typically opt for one of their more expensive paper options (still some bleedthrough, but better than the basic paper), but always wait for a sale. Sometimes I’ll sit on a completed book for over a month. I have never had to order a book with less than 30% off; I’ve even managed to combine promotions and get a percentage off + free shipping.

Last year my book, with a discount and including shipping, was $115 CAD. Not bad for a custom photobook with 1,000+ pictures. I’d pay double that without hesitation.

I’m deeply nostalgic. I love photos and I love my crew. Put it all together and what have you got – a permanent position for me as head memory-keeper, with photobooks being one of my greatest allies.