The first time my husband visited my parents' house, he spotted the family picture that has hung on their wall for the past 25 years and zeroed in on my older sister. Sizing up her thick free-form hair and sulky slouch, he asked the question that should never be asked of a family portrait: "Was your sister in Lynyrd Skynyrd?"
'Tis the season of gathering in front of the fireplace or trekking to Sears Portrait Studio in an effort to preserve the family for photographic posterity. But rather than simply sitting in front of the camera and hoping to avoid double chins, half-closed eyes and the ghost of Lynyrd Skynyrd, consider borrowing a page from Paris Hilton's book and learning how to work with the camera.
"There is no 'right way' or 'wrong way' [to take a picture]," says Margot Schulman, a professional photographer from Falls Church, "but there are certainly ways that work better than others."
With a little thought and some careful posing, you can be on your way to saying cheese without looking cheesy.
Bridget Bentz Sizer
FIND THE RIGHT PHOTOGRAPHER: Makeup artist and stylist Kim Steele of Springfield makes a living helping people look their best in pictures. Over the years, Steele has worked with local families and brides, as well as celebrities such as Rachel Hunter, Andie MacDowell and R&B singer Mya. Her first tip? Don't assume that all photographers are created equal.
"While it may be appealing to do an inexpensive portrait, if you spend a little extra money, you might be getting more from your pictures," Steele says. The cost difference can be significant; a session at the portrait studio at the local mall typically costs about $50, while independent photographers' sitting fees begin around $150, with an extra charge for prints.
To find a shooter, check out the Professional Photographers of America's Web site (www.ppa.com, 800-786-6277), which has more than 14,000 members worldwide and allows users to search for shooters based on location and specialty. Schulman recommends scoping out the photos on your co-workers' desks or your friends' walls; if you see something you like, ask who shot it, and call the photographer. If you're not sure which format to go with, discuss it with the photographer. "Sometimes clients don't realize what they want," says Schulman. One client initially requested a casual color family portrait shot outdoors, but after talking to Schulman, she decided that she wanted a formal, black-and-white studio portrait.
DRESS FOR TIMELESSNESS: As any celebrity who has landed on a worst-dressed list knows, the pink leopard-print blouse that looks fierce under dimmed lights can turn frightful when the flashbulbs hit. The solution? "Stay away from patterns, go more for solids, especially jewel tones," says Steele. "You want people to look at you, not the wild printed shirt you choose to wear."
Schulman agrees that "simple clothes bring the picture together in one cohesive unit." For group shots, she recommends everyone select an outfit ahead of time and lay them next to each other on a bed. "See [which outfit] screams at you," she says -- it should be reconsidered. Steer away from turtleneck sweaters, since they tend to shrink, rather than elongate, the neck. Schulman advises families to dress in the same color, or at least the same color range.
STRIKE A POSE: Ever notice how celebs tend to pose at an angle on the red carpet? That's because a slightly off-kilter pose is more slimming than a straight-forward shot. To imitate the slenderizing pose, Steele recommends planting your legs at a 45-degree angle to the camera and then "twisting at your waist toward the camera." If you're sitting, be sure to "sit up straight, and think of having a long neck like a gazelle," and tilt your chin down just a touch to avoid the appearance of a double chin and also to prevent the camera from "getting a view right up your nostrils." Also, unless you're going for a broad-shouldered Arnold Schwarzenegger look, try not to pose with both arms stretched around the people beside you.
Where you pose can be as important as how you pose. D.C. photographer Michael Wilkinson advises playing up the hometown advantage when selecting a backdrop. "One of the easiest tricks to good portraiture in the D.C. area, particularly for families who plan to send the photos to distant relatives, is to suggest a quintessentially Washington setting," he says. He recommends posing in front of one of the monuments, the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, the National Cathedral or the National Arboretum.
SHOW OFF YOUR BEST FACE: Try not to look as if you just had a haircut, or you desperately need one. If it's time for a trim or an eyebrow wax, go one to two weeks beforehand. The same rule applies to facials, says Steele, since they "tend to push toxins out of the skin, and can cause a break out." And if you don't usually wear a lot of makeup, don't turn yourself into Dolly Parton for the portrait. Instead, Steele recommends keeping makeup simple and using a matte powder.
A professional photographer can adjust the light so that it's not too harsh on Uncle Bob's bald spot or help coax a smile from your grumpy 5-year-old niece. (If your family portrait includes children -- no posing during nap time!)
THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS: "Make love to the camera" might not be appropriate for a family photo, but the spirit of the adage is worth following. Try to enjoy it: "Keep it simple, fun and casual, and in the long run, you'll have a photo that you'll love," says Steele.
So, what if you don't like your teeth? You can still go for a Mona Lisa smile. "Don't think of your flaws," advises Schulman. "Most of them can be reduced."
Hiring a photographer with good people skills can be as important as finding one with an artistic eye. Wilkinson relies on light conversation and the occasional "bad joke" to get his subjects to relax. "If you tell them to smile, their smile will be much less natural looking than if they're just, well, smiling on their own," he says.