6 styling tips for family photographs
Beautiful and natural family photographs take careful planning, so here’s some advice on what to wear to ensure your family looks its best. The most important thing to remember is that your choice of clothes must enhance your photographs, not dominate them.
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1. What to wear: clothing don’ts
Let’s start with the “what not to do” stuff, because if you avoid these things, you’re already set for success. These what to wear tips apply to everyday documentary style photography, as well as the more formal arrangement of setting aside time to go somewhere with the goal of getting great photographs. For example fruit picking or a picnic. (That is as formal as we get here at The Lens Lounge.)
If you photograph your children regularly just going about their days, having fun, playing and being themselves then it makes sense to buy clothes with photographs in mind. I’m not talking about stuffing their wardrobes full of designer wear to impress anyone looking at the photos or to go over the top creative and dress your kids head to toe in magical, make believe outfits.
Can you imagine what you’ll be paying in therapy bills if your child has to be a fairy, a superhero or Huckleberry Finn on a permanent basis? You’d have to sell all your camera gear to pay for it. But I digress. I’m talking about everyday clothes that just work well in photographs. So, the big things to avoid are: text, characters, logos and strong patterns. Why? Well, these things will draw the viewer’s eye away from the faces in the image.
If you’re planning a family photo shoot, remember that everyone needs to be able to move, to sit down comfortably on the ground and to play. If you’re in the woods or the countryside, white jeans is never going to be a good idea – far too much potential for mud. Add a dog to the mix and you’re just asking for trouble with white jeans. Or anything white.
What a great characterful shoot that would be though! Totally my kind of thing. Suddenly all sorts of messy fun ideas have popped into my head. Also, this proves that when it comes to photography, rules are there to be broken. But for now, and the purpose of this blog post, we’re being sensible.
2. What to wear: clothing do’s
Wear clothes that fit. This may sound like a strange bit of advice, because why wouldn’t you wear clothes that fit? However, using myself as an example…there are days (more than I’m prepared to admit to) when a great big slouchy jersey combined with a pair of leggings seems like a really good idea. Those days should never happen when being photographed. If I wore that outfit in a photo I would be a shapeless potato on legs. Not a good look.
Conversely, wearing clothes that are too tight is not flattering either, as the material bunches and creases in all the wrong places. Pretend to yourself all you like that you’re a size whatever, but if you’re going to be photographed, wear the size you actually are….just cut the labels off and nobody will know!
Checks and stripes are good mixed with complementary solid colours, as are delicate patterns. Notice I say delicate patterns, because you really do need to watch those patterns. They could dominate the photo.
If you want to add interest and a polished, professional look to your photographs, you need to add layers and textures. This is easily done with jackets, cardigans, hats, scarves, colourful tights and even headbands. Just be aware that if you go Rambo on the headband it will leave a mark, so it will have to be worn all the way through the shoot, or just at the end. Otherwise, you face hours in Photoshop.
Various fabrics offer great opportunities to add texture. Just think of the contrast between denim, lace, thick wool knits, crushed silk and tweed. Textured fabrics can also be added in the form of accessories, such as scarves and hats, not just as clothing.
3. What to wear: shoes
Shoes matter a lot and should complement the look. In fact, if done right they could absolutely complete the look and tie all the elements together. Your youngest’s favourite wellies that she wears all the time show her personality and if the colour matches a scarf worn by your oldest daughter, the shoes become relevant and complementary. Photographs are about personality and history. Her wellies mark that stage in her life, so are important.
Leather is best for shoes or boots. Sandals beat flip flops any day. In fact, I should have added flip flops to the avoid list.
Wellies, ballet flats, Converse and other similarly funky shoes look great if they suit the outfits. Shoes with cool colours that tie in with the colour palette are great. While you’re at it, think about sock choice too.
Bare feet, depending on the context, look adorable – that is in a meadow, the garden, at home or at the beach versus in an urban graffitied parking lot. Okay, so that is stating the obvious I know, but I’m making a point so that you think about the details. In photography, details are everything.
Time and place, as always, is so important. Leather boots on the beach are going to look daft, but the right kind of leather boots in a forest environment look great.
4. What to wear: colors
A family group looks better when everyone wears colors that blend well together. The key is coordination, not matching. In other words, don’t put everyone in white shirts and jeans. Apart from the fact that this is visually boring, it is outdated. It was a thing for a while, but then so were studio shoots with a bright white background.
Now we’re all so much more natural looking in photos, thank goodness. If you’re going to be shooting your family in your home or out and about in nature, you need to think about how the colours everyone is wearing will work in the environment.
For woodland and countryside shoots earthy, blues and neutral palettes work really well. Pale and neutral palettes work really well for a beach scene. When photographing at home pale and neutral palettes that complement your decor are ideal. Alternatively, if you have a monotone home, strong colours would look great.
Bearing this in mind, choose a palette that you like, then put together outfits that have elements of that palette. I advise keeping within three colors, maybe push it to four, but definitely no more.
To make things interesting, make one of the colors an accent color, such as a splash of red, orange or yellow. This will add a lovely punch to your photos. If dad wears a shirt with a red check, mom might wear a scarf with red or a child might wear red trousers or red wellies. Hey, maybe even the dog could get in on the act with a red bandana!
Before you get carried away, it is really important to remember that you don’t all have to wear all the colors you’ve chosen. In fact, please don’t all wear all the colors, because then we’re going into the realm of matchy-matchy…just with more colors.
For more information on how color impacts your photography, read: How to use color for eye catching photography composition
This applies to the more formal arrangement of “we’re going to get some family photos today”.
In a photo documentary style recording your everyday family life, stubble is relevant and part of it. Sometimes a really beautiful part. I have great memories of our dad teasing us with his Sunday morning stubbly chin when we pounced on our folks in bed. He would scuff his chin against our bellies and make us squeal and giggle. Documentary style photography captures these memories.
So, for formal family photographs (i.e. the ones where you’re all going to look good and well put together, as opposed to everyday life) I advise men to shave an hour or so before heading out for the great big family adventure. Unless of course dad has a beard or favours the “designer stubble” look. In which case, you’re good to go.
As for us women, well we all know it takes more work being a woman than a man. Unless you’re a makeup free woman, in which case every woman on the planet is secretly jealous of your freedom.
I’m not saying that you need the nightclub look at 10am on a Sunday morning, but an extra coat of mascara will make your lashes appear longer and fuller. Lip gloss will add a sparkle. However, avoid frosted lip colours, as they can give the illusion that you’re not wearing any lip colour.
Advice for the whole family… Hands are very important in photographs, so make sure nails are neat and tidy. You’d be amazed how often people forget this one crucial detail.
Get out there and have some fun. Don’t worry about getting everyone smiling and looking at the camera, even for the more formal group family photograph. That puts pressure on everyone, especially children. Besides, contemporary portrait photography is much more natural than it used to be, so go with it. Capture the love the laughter and even the tears and tantrums. This is your family, these are your memories. Make them count and make them last by taking great photographs.
Walk, play games, roll on the ground. In that order preferably. Grass in the hair at the start of a shoot is not advisable.
You might encounter a dragon or two along the way, so consider toy swords. As dragons are optional, however, props aren’t essential to great family photographs. I’ll tell you more about props in another blog post, so keep an eye on our weekly posts for some amazingly fun ideas. Sign up for our weekly bulletin, Through The Lens, to make sure you don’t miss out on any of the good stuff.
When you look through your family photos now, can you see where you could have improved on what to wear?
Don’t worry – now you’ve got a great excuse for a reshoot. Start planning your next family photo trip. Afterwards, compare the differences. The way you shop for clothes will never be the same again.