When my clients ask me what they should wear for a shoot, I tell them to just “show up as yourself* and let the kids dress themselves". The days of families wearing all white shirts paired with jeans smiling nicely for the camera are over... or at least they should be. 

Times have changed and many people want to be seen for themselves and leave the extra fluff out of their family pictures. They are less concerned about staged studio shots, and more interested in having their personalities shine through. The T.V. show Modern Family aired an episode last year where Claire (the Mom) hired a professional photographer for an extended family portrait. She dressed everyone in white shirts (of course), but the “family picture” that Claire eventually chose was one where the kids were fighting, people were laughing, and life was documented much as it is lived. That is the family portrait that I love to shoot, and that my clients love to get.

photo by: Wendy Laurel

I believe that letting the kids dress themselves is the surest way to getting a fantastic children’s portrait. That obsession with the Superman shirt will be gone before the parents know it. And who says that stripes and polka dots don’t go together? It is the essence of their personalities that are important. Not their hair perfectly combed and dressed up looking like a child out of a catalog - a child the parents don’t recognize. When it is all said and done, it's important to provide photographs of children and families that bring them right back to that time.

Similarly, the focus should be on the people. People are the best detail in any shoot. The focus on details and props in portrait photography has spun out of control. Baby photography blogs are showcasing the best baby rooms and the cutest first birthday party decorations instead of the baby, and wedding blogs are just as guilty. I recently saw a wedding shoot where the photographer and the couple managed to work in almost every cliche prop there can be: balloons, scrabble board, chalk board, antique cameras, vintage soda bottles, analog records and a record player, just to name a few. The couple and photographer were so busy finding the hottest and newest props that their focus shifted away from the couple themselves. Who are they? Those details and the images told nothing about the couple, except that maybe they read wedding blogs. And it is a shame. The love, the connection, the relationships, and the moments- those are the things that are important and what will be really valued when they look back. I mean, when is the last time you saw a photograph of table decorations up on the wall? 

photo by: Wendy Laurel

I love details as much as the next photographer, and it's always fun to shoot people in cute clothes and with colorful props. but I just love the people more. If you're going to use props, then they should be relevant and add to, or help tell the subjects story. If the girl loves her tutu and always wants to wear it? Well, that’s a relevant detail. If the couple plays Twister all the time together, then yes, it's a relevant detail. The question is, does the detail have emotional meaning for the client? Is it something that will trigger memories for them down the road? If yes, then it can be an important element to shoot.

When my mom was first diagnosed with cancer, I hired a family photographer to come take photographs of her, her home, and my family. There were a ton of detail shots - shots of her straw beach bag hanging on the doorknob, shots of her holding some of her own pastel oil paintings, shots of her collection of miniature tea cups. But they were important details. Details that meant the world to her and tell her story. Details which combined with the wonderful family shots of us together gave us a full story. Details which showed my Mom and who she was. Those are the details that matter. Not details for the sake of details.

photo by: Tory O'Leary

Showing up as yourself just means being YOU. If the family you are shooting doesn’t walk around town in matching white shirts with collars, then don’t suggest to them to show up at your photography session in that type of clothing. When documenting a person or a time, there's no need to get caught up in trends and unnecessary fluff.
photo by: Wendy Laurel

(* The saying 'show up as yourself' was assumed from photographer Jonathan Canlas.)


Contributor Bio: Wendy Laurel is a wedding and family photographer in Maui. She runs the photography website Let the Kids along with Tory O’Leary, a newborn and family photographer in Southern California. 

Letthekids.com is a blog that features people photography of all kinds (family, kids, couples, even weddings and fashion), and is always looking for creative and unique images where the photographer’s voice can be heard and the subject’s personalities shine. Babble.com recently said in talking about the top twenty baby photography blogs, “The emphasis on the people, unburdened by details or props, gives [Let the Kids] a touch of humanity that is infectious.”