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The New Rules of Taking Family Portraits

Yasmina Cowan likes to take photos in the "golden hour" before sunset. Photo by Yasmina Cowan.

Family portraiture today is a welcome departure from awkward studio shots. Here’s how to capture the memories.

Pick a Setting

Family rooms and outdoor spaces are the best spots for documentary-style photos. DC photographer Yasmina Cowan prefers to shoot at a client’s residence because of the sentimental value. In fact, her favorite photographs of her own daughter were taken at home. “As a mom, I wanted to remember her childhood as it was,” she says. At-home sessions can also make shy children feel more comfortable.

Headed outside? Schedule the session for “golden hour”—the 1½ to 2 hours before sunset. “The light adds a magical glow,” says Cowan.

Strike a Pose

Think of simple activities that allow for natural interaction. With young children, try reading a book or playing with toys in their room. Cowan once documented a mother and daughter making ice-cream cones together.

Frederick photographer Emily Gude keeps sessions to two hours max. “The first hour is a warm-up, so that’s the sweet spot,” she says. “You don’t want to push it too long with kids.”

Avoid forcing images you saw on Pinterest, and take snack breaks when the kids get restless. “If you’re willing to go with the flow,” says Cowan, “more often than not you’ll be happy with your pictures.”

What to Wear

Keep clothing true to your life and the activity at hand. Don’t put on heels if you’re hiking, or formal dresses if you’re building a fire at home. Definitely don’t all wear the same thing. Cowan recommends choosing a palette and picking solid-color, classic clothing in those hues. She also encourages layering—“It adds depth to photos”—and suggests bright pops of color in scarves and jewelry. Avoid logos or anything else that will date photos.

When to Take Pictures

Once a year isn’t a requirement. “It really depends on the family,” says Gude.

Cowan suggests documenting milestone moments, such as moving out of a first home. “These will be the photos you love most, because they represent what was so special to you at a certain point in your life,” she says.

District photographer Philip Bermingham considers vacations ideal settings. “There’s no better place than the beach,” he says. “Kids can run barefoot and jump in the air. It reflects who they are much better.”

The online service Pinhole Press customizes sleek calendars and other items with family photos.








This article appears in the March 2017 issue of Washingtonian.

Sarah is the Editor-in-Chief of Washingtonian Bride & Groom, and writes about weddings, fashion, and shopping. Her work has also appeared in Refinery29, Bethesda Magazine, and Washington City Paper, among others. She is a Georgetown University graduate, lives in Columbia Heights, and you can find her on Instagram at @washbridegroom and @sarahzlot.