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Evasive Action: The Family Portrait.

October 7, 2009

Not a single person looking at me, I must be doing something right.

I’m not really a family portrait guy. I shoot these images, and sometimes I like what I get, but I don’t do a lot of them, and I’m okay with that.

Photographing adults is an entirely different deal than photographing kids, and typically these shots bring to the table far more tradition, baggage, etc, than do my other images.

Here in Southern California we have a lot of traditions in the family portrait industry, white shirts and jeans on the beach being the first that comes to mind.

If you travel to other places in the country they have their own white shirt and jean style images, but for me, these traditions have never fueled my fire. I find them intensely interesting in terms of their tradition, but as for me shooting them, I always look to do something else.

Kids are loose, and often times don’t have the knowledge of a “good side” or “bad side.” They are not aware of their own image, and consequently, they are in most ways very easy to photograph.

Just look at how many “photographers” with little to no training launch their professional careers with kids photography. How many launch their careers shooting adults? CEO’s? Yep, an entirely different story.

“You have five minutes and don’t screw it up.”

This might be something you hear from the CEO portrait client which is a lot different from, “Oh isn’t he cute,” in regards to the kid you photograph. And, you mess up a kid shoot, you can go back. You mess up the CEO shoot and your toast.

Somewhere in the middle is the family portrait.

Family portraits are a little like weddings in the sense that a lot of people do what they feel they HAVE to do and not necessarily what they WANT to do. Or, they don’t have an idea, and the fallback is to conform.

I think getting a group of people to all look at a camera at the same time and “act normal,” is nearly impossible.

But more importantly, it’s boring.

I much prefer the fractured moment, the broken family gathering, where things have begun to fall apart.

My brother and I have been making the same faces for our family portraits for years, ruining every single one. My dad used to go mad knowing my brother and I would be secretly exchanging covert singles as to when to apply the faces. Dinner table, formal shots, casual shots, etc, always with the face.

Posed, stagnant images are just that, posed and stagnant. They have no feel or atmosphere, and most people in these images look like they are about to pass out. Frozen smiles, and that behind the scenes look of “Mother of God, when is this torture going to be over?”
is typically what you get.

My goal with a family portrait is one frame. One image. Yep, that’s it. What more do you need?

I’m looking for that one split second where the stars align and you find an actual moment.

I think a big misconception, especially in the digital age, is that shooting a lot of frames is a good thing. It really isn’t. Not only does it show you, as a photographer, that your brain has completely shut down, but it’s a reminder that great images don’t happen frame after frame after frame. They happen once and are never seen again. If there are seen again and again it means you are either setting it up, over and over, or it really wasn’t that great a moment to begin with.

And what is worse than sitting down at a computer and looking at an entire monitor of the same image with slight variations. UGH. This is the time when I’m thinking about the fifty gallon drum of cheap whiskey I keep in the garage, and what would happen if I shotgunned the entire drum. Please. This isn’t photography, but I know it’s happening night after night, day after day, all over this great world of ours.

I’ve included a photo of what happened to me the last and final time this occurred.

It wasn’t pretty and I had to check myself into a brain reactivation clinic in Malibu.

So, back to the portrait. I just want a moment when the family is together. That’s all.

The image at the top, I like. Not one person looking at me, which tells me I did my job.

It also looks like these people were dropped into the image on a green screen, and look as if they are all in their own world, which is precisely what happens in NORMAL family life.

I think I like these because my background is in documentary photography, not portrait photography, so waiting and waiting to get one moment is what I have been doing for years, so it was only natural it would transfer over portraits.

Hey, look, I’m speaking on experience folks. I didn’t just come to this photography game last year, or with the dslr, and I’ve had my portrait made by portrait photographers, and looking back…it wasn’t always pretty.

The last time our family portrait was done I was wearing a plaid sportcoat and my dad thought he was Burt Reynolds.

Is there anything worse than having a photographer standing in front of you saying, “Okay everybody, over here…look at me….ready….okay smile.” Your face crumpling in and out of the fake smile as the photographer chimps after each frame trying like hell to understand the hyper-complex metal and plastic beast they are wielding.

Oh God, and I’ve done this myself, as the photographer, and always feel like such a tool when I’m doing it, like a photo-mouse who will get a nicotine pellet if he runs enough on the treadmill. Calgone take me away.

I think these horrendous experiences helped hone my current skills, and also make me keenly aware of who the real photographers are.

When I was fourteen I had my portrait done, with brother and sister, and the guy spent ten minutes at our house. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, DONE, and a cloud of smoking tires and dust. It wasn’t because he was so great, it was because he was a machine stamping out a widget.

In short, if you are doing what everyone else is doing and don’t know why your doing it, then do everyone a favor who you are doing it to and with and stop doing it. Just do it, or don’t depending on how you translate this last sentence.

So onward I go, forging through portrait after portrait, hoping to find myself making a decent image here and there. But I know when it comes to the family portrait, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

But I’ll not go down with a whimper of conformity, oh no way my friends, I’m gonna put it on the line, waiting quietly for those split seconds when I truly am the fly on the wall and I feel like I’m watching the world from a bubble, and not like the “bubble boy” movie from the 1970’s with John Travolta.

That was a bad bubble thing, mine is good.

Fenmore 200909
Family #75657556575647464746 waiting in LA.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Perez Christina permalink
    October 7, 2009 6:55 pm

    lol, in the first pic, they look like they are modeling

    • October 7, 2009 7:20 pm

      Yep, one of those quirky moments that I love. Few and far between but worth the wait. Thanks for reading.

    • David Wissinger permalink
      October 7, 2009 10:17 pm

      Yeah…the guy in the sunglasses definitely sees himself in the J.C. Penney catalogue.

  2. David Wissinger permalink
    October 7, 2009 10:31 pm

    OK, time to reveal your professional secrets. But first let’s set up the situation. The family calls you to do the family portrait. What they have in mind is exactly what hangs on the walls of all their friends’ houses. Maybe even including the white shirts and blue jeans. But, instead, you show them the image above. Do they say, “Dan, you genius, how did you capture the essence of our family dynamic so effortlessly? Here’s another five grand for your unexpectedly brillant results!”. If so, how do you get that response? How do you sell them on the alternative idea?

    Similarly, how did you sell the corporate event that you wrote about a while back on the idea of doing it with Polaroids? A cool idea, oh yes, but so far outside the realm of traditional things that people pay for that I, personally, would be frightened to suggest it. I think it’s only fair that you share the formila now.

    Last: Pacifico is Mexico’s way of making us pay for the territory that they think is righly theirs. A brew so delicious that it can only end in the scene you have shown to us. Our spring break cruise stopped in Mazatlan within an easy walk of the Pacifico brewery, and I was tempted to go there and yell, “Why…why…!?”

  3. October 7, 2009 10:49 pm

    I especially like to have the family roll around on the ground while I shoot. Breaks up the tension. Then I pose them loosely – and pull stray pieces of grass out of their hair before shooting my wad of 200 images. I then spend 10 minutes editing and I’m done! Easy as pie! đŸ™‚

  4. October 7, 2009 11:57 pm

    I’m stealing that Scott. Why take so long on the edit?

  5. October 8, 2009 12:01 am


    If a family calls and wants exactly what their friends have, and it’s not what I do, I would tell them to ask their friends who made the image, and then have the client hire them.
    I’m not a jack of all trades, nor do I want to enter the game doing something that someone else is doing.
    I think the idea might not be alternative, it’s just my idea, so I don’t do a hard sell. I just show examples.
    NEVER be afraid to suggest anything. YOU are the photographer. If someone is hiring you, it is because you are providing something they are interested in. Or, it’s because of your price, in which case you are beholden to their demands, wishes, etc.
    You gotta do what you gotta do to use a bad cliche.

  6. Leigh permalink
    October 8, 2009 3:04 am

    I usually tell the group of [whatever family from young to old etc…] in front of me to say: “1,2,3 oh Shit” This with out fail get’s great and totally naturals expressions from everyone. Give it a try.

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