Attention: Dad grins stupidly! The art of authentic family photos

A fake smile, awkward poses and a stock-stiff line-up like at the military parade: family portraits can quickly look pretty embarrassing. We spoke with two exceptional photographers who offer tips for more dynamic family photos and authentic images.

Why do official family photos often appear as if everyone was uncomfortable at the time the picture was taken? Posed as if glued to the parquet floor and with a questioning expression on their faces, as if the photographer had just said to those pictured: "The little bird is about to arrive". It really does get better than that!

Beth Yarnelle Edwards is an internationally successful photographic artist. Born in 1950, she has been photographing families in their own homes since 1997 for her project "Suburban Dreams" - combining the two essential approaches of family photography: carefully staged shots and the narrative, spontaneous photo reportage.

Both approaches have their raison d'être. Which approach suits your shots better depends on factors such as the time available, the family's wishes, and the intended use later.

For group photos at weddings, for example, a precisely defined family constellation must be brought in front of the camera, which is virtually impossible to capture in a natural situation within the time available to the photographer. And grandmother would ultimately prefer to have the classic Christmas card with the smiling grandchildren posed on her dresser instead of a wildly rampaging mess. On the other hand, group portraits today seem rather out of date when all those depicted are lined up next to each other like organ pipes. Statically positioned people with artificial grins are more reminiscent of mannequins and advertising motifs and have lost all naturalness.

Organized spontaneity

"I'm a storyteller," Beth Yarnelle Edwards describes her work. "Instead of posed shots, my images are about the everyday life of a family; instead of a bill, those pictured get a signed photo at the end. The basic building blocks of my approach are transparency, honesty and individual interaction." Before her photo session, Beth first meets with families, shows them pictures from other family shoots and explains what her project is about. She asks a lot of questions during these preliminary meetings. Questions about the family situation, routines and routines in everyday life. After signing a model release contract, a tour of the house follows, often combined with initial snapshots. Together with the families, Beth then works out the idea of a representative portrayal of family life from the information they have gathered, which is to be implemented in the following shoot.

On the day of the shoot, the chosen backdrop is first illuminated, the desired picture frame is set, and the actors are invited to the selected locations. Then a phase of improvisation begins. Once, twice, three times everyday situations are run through until the naturalness initially lost in this exceptional situation returns to the picture.

Every portrait photographer can apply Beth Yarnelle Edwards' approach to his or her own family photos: Think about a situation in which you would like to photograph the family. Find the time of day with the best lighting conditions for your shots, frame the shot, and then just let the family act spontaneously. Stay alert behind the camera and always take several shots in succession, preferably using the continuous shooting function. Important: A whole family in action moves quickly, so make sure the shutter speed is fast enough!

Reporter in the family circle

If you prefer a completely natural shooting situation, you can accompany a family with your camera for some time instead. Renate Niebler, photographer and lecturer at the Munich University of Design, introduces her students to photo reportage, exposing their talent for capturing emotion and atmosphere. Her credo: Look for the pictures that would have been taken even if you hadn't been there. "The environment should be perceived as a design element. I cannot determine where I am in accompanying family shots, I can only capture the situation." It is precisely this non-controllability that later makes the difference for the viewer of the image between the quasi-real staging of Beth Yarnelle Edwards and a reportage shot. Both approaches are in vogue - across all genres, even in food photography, as Renate Niebler reports.

Conclusion of the PHOTOPIA editorial team: Reduce static setups to a minimum in your next family shoot and place more emphasis on authentic everyday portrayals.

Beth Yarnelle Edwards lebt in San Francisco und hat ihr Fotoprojekt „Suburban Dreams“ bereits international in Museen ausgestellt.