Professional photographers insist that a photo session for a family portrait should be fun. But if you've ever had a family portrait made, you'll recall having had so much fun simply getting ready for the sitting that it was hard to recognize what a good time you were having at the shoot.
Typical preparations for the sitting include shopping for clothes, deciding that the colors clash, returning clothes and shopping again ...
Getting fresh haircuts, washing hair, curling it, adorning it with plenty of styling gel to keep it immobilized, and then walking through 40 mph winds on your way to the studio ...
Waiting to see who'll wake up on picture day with itchy eyes and a runny nose or an unfortunate case of red blotches of unknown origin ...
Getting dressed at home and then, en route to the studio, having the baby drool on your outfit and soil his own, watching the older kids crease theirs, and realizing that someone forgot to change out of his sneakers.
Are we having fun yet?
Whether it's possible for your family to enjoy the portrait experience or not, there are some basic photographer-recommended guidelines that will help bring about a more pleasing end product.
And, after all, the portrait on the wall is what really counts.
Schedule the appointment for your children's best time of day.
After work and after dinner may be your preference, but that's when 90 percent of the children are crying, whining or sleeping, report several professional photographers. An early appointment or one after nap time and a meal will ensure a more cooperative child. Set aside enough time for a leisurely session. Although many department store studios schedule photo sessions every 15 minutes, a private studio may devote from 30 minutes to several hours for a "sitting" -- although that includes get-up-and-run-around time for children between poses.
Concern yourself with clothing. Start by agreeing on clothing styles, either informal or formal. Then, make sure no one clashes. Johnny can't wear lime green while Sue wears purple. Also note that solid colors work better than prints. Predominant colors should be darker than skin tone. Match colors or density of colors -- for instance, rust, muted blue and burgundy can work together. Most important, wear clothes that look good on you.
Have all family members come fully dressed for the occasion.
That means head to toe, with no jeans or sneakers unless that's the look you're trying to achieve. Although you may expect only upper torsos to show, you may be surprised at what is seen in the finished portrait, especially if you have a lot of family members.
Women should always wear makeup. Otherwise, their faces tend to look washed out. And remember that pictures don't hide the facts. Look the best you can.
People who normally wear glasses should probably keep them on during the sitting. Otherwise, that individual just won't look right to acquaintances who see the portrait.
Choose a traditional background, something nondescript. That usually means a hand-painted, mottled backdrop that gives a sense of depth. Or select an on-location site where the scenery is especially meaningful or will look good where the portrait is to be hung. One photographer recalls a session in a park for a casually dressed family that was planning to hang the portrait in their cabin home.
Bring a favorite toy for your infant or very young child. They respond best to familiar objects.
Let the photographer work with your children. He or she is experienced and most likely knows how to bring out the expression you're hoping for.
Don't rehearse the children and don't have them practice smiling. Just tell them they're going to have a good time. A clenched "cheese" of a smile is not what you really want.
If someone is feeling under the weather, postpone. You'll never get a great picture of someone who isn't feeling well.
If one child is uncooperative during the session and is getting all the attention, make sure to divert some of that attention to the child who is cooperating. Otherwise, you'll end up dealing with attention-seeking behavior from the formerly cooperative child.
Even if you don't get 100 percent cooperation, particularly from the youngest family members, remember you may still be pleased with the final portrait.
Robin Reid, who has her own studio in Alexandria, says some of her favorites are those "where the kids have finally said, 'I've had enough.' " That's when she captures a pout or a single tear. This works best on individual portraits.
Of course, a pouty toddler will likely look a lot more appealing than a belligerent teenager. Photographers warn that children in certain age groups present a special photographic challenge.
"The 17-to-19-year-olds would rather face a shotgun than a camera," says Sam Berger, photographer and co-owner of Prestige Studios in Silver Spring. "Adolescents don't want to be there, so they're often made an offer they can't refuse, such as 'Show up or we'll cancel Christmas.' "
Judy Gramm of Photography by Judy in Centreville says 2 1/2-year-olds are probably the hardest to work with. "They're developing a will of their own," she's observed, which means that these toddling tyrants will do just what they want to do. But the 4-and-older set often enjoys the time in front of the camera.
Photograph the whole family.
Parents with their children is what makes the final product meaningful, says Gramm. Rather than propping up an infant for a solo or kids-only pose, Gramm says that "when the children are young and are being held, you can capture a special emotion."
Also, youngsters tend to feel more comfortable with a parent next to them. Berger reminds families that grandparents are a vital element of the portrait. "Mom and Dad in their golden years are an important part of the family." It often happens after a parent dies, says Berger, that relatives go through the expense of having old photos restored because no recent photos had been taken.
Although not all photographers would agree, Berger says that pets belong in the family portrait. He recalls an extremely satisfying photo of diminutive twin boys in sailor suits who sat on either side of their oversized family dog wearing a sailor hat.
And Berger insists that working with pets is no harder than photographing without them. He says that pets normally cooperate and it's only harder to include them "if you have to get them to smile."
But make sure confusion doesn't reign when you're all ready to pile into the family chariot for the trip to the studio. Berger tells of a family with six children, which, quite by accident, left one ... Home Alone.
Sample price ranges for family portraits:
JCPenney Portrait Studio: $24.95 package includes one 8 by 10, one 10 by 13, two 5 by 7s and eight wallets.
Montgomery Ward Portrait Studio: $64.95 package includes two 8 by 10s, two 5 by 7s and eight wallets.
Olan Mills Club Plan: $69.99 includes four 8 by 10s or 5 by 7s, 12 wallets and proofs.
Sears Portrait Studio: $26.95 package includes one 10 x 13, two 8 by 10s, three 5 by 7s, 15 wallets and 26 "minis." Prestige Studios, Silver Spring: Average sitting fee runs $35 to $50. Custom 8 by 10 portrait costs $60, 16 by 20 portrait costs $240.
Jeff Lubin, award-winning photographic portrait artist, McLean and Springfield, whose work is on display at Galleria at Tysons II until Dec. 24: $350 minimum fee includes clothing consultation, sitting fee and 8 by 10 portrait. A 16-inch wall portrait with Marquis finish costs $1,275.