Are your family images ones you look back on and say “those are unapologetically us.”? When your family looks back on images that you have taken, your legacy as a photographer and family historian, are they going to be happy with the amount of images with you in them? Do the images with you in the frame tell the best story of who you were as a parent and part of your family? Will your children have the same feeling when they look through images of their parents in their childhood that you have when you look at pictures of your parents?
The pretty dolled up images are great. They are beautiful images to have hanging around the house or on the face of a Christmas card. But they don’t have the same kind of emotions that regular, everyday images have. The ones that scream “I’m not taking these for the glam or to be pretty for social media.” They are the ones that are most unapologetically us.
Let me give an example. I print photo books every year and have been doing so since I was married. I just recently let my boys start printing their own photo books of their own favorite images. When they are going through the images to put in their books, they choose the images most meaningful to them. Those images include the ones with loved ones in the frame. Or a special vacation we went on. Or playing in our yard or home with their favorite toys. Never have they included the staged family photos, or even the more lifestyle images that I take of them sometimes. I include them all in mine because I want to remember it all. But they want to remember the most important details.
The images that feel staged and the ones that don’t show any part of your parenthood but the connection you have with your kids are not a true testament to the “I was there too” mindset. To me, the “I was there too” images are the ones we all secretly want our significant others to take of us when we aren’t looking. They are raw and real, no matter how bad we look that day. No matter if we don’t have the right clothes on or we still have a 3 day old hairdo. We secretly want those images because they mean the most. They mean that someone stopped to appreciate you being present with your family.
Granted, even when we try to be as raw in our self portraits as we can, there is still the mindset that we are going to be in the image, and there is still some sort of set up. But unless we could clone ourselves, there isn’t an easy way around that. However, I want to talk about the ways that I try to be as real and as present as possible when I am in images with my family.
The first and easiest way around this hurdle is to hand your camera off to someone. In this case, I have taught my husband how to use my camera (very basically). When I want to be in the frame, I pass the torch and let him decide what images are most important. Yes, I am aware that I am being photographed. Meaning that, I am constantly engaging in the activity with my kids. I am constantly loving and laughing with them (maybe turned up a couple of notches, because of the awareness of the camera).
What I really want captured, though, is the event and that I was there enjoying it as well. These types of images are usually the ones where we are out somewhere as a family. The most common for us is hiking our being out in nature. Sometimes the outfits are coordinated. But most of the time that’s because I can’t turn it off in my head and match our clothes subconsciously. Nevertheless, I still have minimal control over the shooting angles and moments he chooses to capture, which is really what I want.
However, there are many times I want my husband to capture everyday things around the house. Things like washing dishes or folding laundry. The purpose for these shots are to show the different ages the kiddos learned to do things or become interested. Whatever I choose to photograph is usually reflective to where my kids are in that stage of life and my role in it.
For example, a photo of me folding children’s laundry on my bed and my youngest rolling around in said laundry to play with the dogs feels fitting for a self portrait with a 3 year old. These are usually a little less coordinated. They are in more of a “drop everything and take a photo” kind of outfit. If I had to choose though, I would say using my husband is my favorite way to capture me with the kids. This is because I can get him to move around us and get different angles. And usually, when I come to him with an idea but give him freedom, his shots turn out better than what I had in my head.
The second most used way I photograph me with my kids is with a tripod and timer. This allows my husband to be in the shot as well. Or it’s the more convenient of the two options if he is busy during the day. I tend to utilize this one to get more of the “around the house/everyday” kind of shots. It’s easy to set up and just be as you are with a timer going. And the camera taking more than one shot allows for a series of images as well. I recently used the timer for a family shot. I loved so many of the shots for so many different reasons. So it turned into a series.
Most of the time these shots are done with one of my kids and stuff around the house. But other times, I will use it for more simple shoots to get in the frame with both of my children. In this type of self portrait, to get the truest emotion, I give almost no direction. And the direction that I do give, it’s something that sparks their interest or something I have never had them do before. This almost guarantees that they will be present and interested, even for a short while, on more staged images. For a simple session I did recently, I wanted to capture the feeling of being a boy mom when I get turned into a jungle gym. For their direction, I told them to climb all over me. The images were absolutely perfect for what I wanted.
The last technique I use to get in the frame is to include the fact that I am a photographer. This means capturing my feet in a birds eye view shot. Or capturing my reflection when shooting through a window. I don’t use this technique often. But when I do, I make sure it will strengthen the story to have a part of me in it. Most of the time, it’s shot with the intention of being more of a storytelling shot rather than a self portrait. But it works just the same as a self portrait. Including part of yourself in the shot as the shooter can be tricky. However, when done well, it’s a nice reminder of the fact that you are the one in the family capturing the memories.
I know getting in the frame is the least of what we want to capture as family historians. But it’s also the most important. How do you view yourself as a photographer (whether professional or hobbyist)? My goal for every session, whether for a client or myself, is to capture the story of that moment and tell it through photographs. That means all of the details and everyone there interacting as they are. In my life, right now, the most important people to my kids are their parents. And that is what I think is the most important thing to capture. My kids will soon be in the age where they think I am not the coolest person in the room. And I will find a way to photograph that too. But for now our relationship means everything to them.
I have always tried to make a point to get in the photos with them. This year I have set a goal for myself to get in the frame during the important and ordinary moments. The moments that are proving to be most important this year so far revolve around my youngest being home before starting kindergarten full time in the fall. And also, my oldest learning new skills, like cooking on the stove.
My mindset with getting in the frame is for my own fading memory to look back at when the kids have moved out. But also for them for when I am not here anymore. I want them to look back through the images with me in them and be filled with memories and sound and love because they knew I was present and the images that were captured was their childhood growing up. Not just the pretty staged images. Just Unapologetically Us.