Heart lights

How to evoke the warm and fuzzy

Every family portrait photographer aims to capture the bright, genuine smiles and warm cuddles of a loving family. But eliciting natural, affectionate behavior during a staged photo session is easier said than done. “Ideally we would all possess the super-natural qualities of being an amazing person, a great and wonderful sensitive soul, and a communicator of the highest order—a person who can make anyone feel special,” says Toronto portrait and wedding photographer Storey Wilkins. But “this is not common. It certainly isn’t me, unless I’m having a great day.”

Instead of counting on her supernatural self to emerge for each and every photo session, Wilkins relies on a few tried-and-true tricks that warm clients up to her and the image capture process: 

  • Learn the names of the family members before the session. Write them on a small cue card to help.
  • Pop out from behind the camera to make eye contact. Don’t hide behind the lens.
  • Smile often. Subjects will mirror you and smile back.
  • Remind subjects to breathe. After a few takes, tell the group to take a deep breath.
  • Speak clearly and with gestures. The more chaotic the environment—a park or public place—the more gestures required.
  • Don’t steal the shot. When doing candid work, if someone notices that you took a photograph of them, don’t look away. Instead, smile and mouth the words “Thank you.”
  • Make their day better than expected by attending to little things: Supply bottled water and facial tissues, let the kids take 10-minute breaks when they get tired.

“I try to remind myself of my own little motto before each lifestyle session,” Wilkins says. “The sun is my strobe, Mother Nature is my backdrop, and patience is my assistant.” Waiting out tantrums and chaos can save a session and reap priceless portraits.

Amanda Arnold is the associate editor of Professional Photographer.