because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits

by Sarah Wilkerson

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

“Yes, honey, I was there, too. I was just the one taking the pictures.”

Is that the way you want your children to remember you? As the ghost in the frame? We all talk about how important it is to document life, to capture memories for our families, to have a visual history of the day-to-day because the years are fleeting. Well, I have news for you: you’re a part of that. You need to be in pictures.

So you don’t like to have your photo taken, huh? I don’t, either. Get over your vanity. I say that lovingly. Take a shower, put on a little makeup, throw on that shirt you love but never wear because you’re afraid someone will wipe his little ketchup smeared face on your shoulder. This goes way beyond pictures – when you feel good about the way you look, your whole attitude changes for the better. Take care of yourself. Or don’t. Maybe you don’t have time to blow dry your hair today. Your children don’t care. What they will care about is that they can see what their mom looked like at 25/35/45/55, that she played with them, that she gazed at them lovingly, that she laughed with them … capture that for them. We need more than just the memories. We need pictures. You know that better than anybody. Stop making excuses.

Not sure where to begin? I’ve got you covered there …

1. Haul out the Tripod

It’s not necessary, but it sure does help. You could certainly hand your camera off to a willing helper or set up a mountain of books to get your camera to the right height, but a tripod allows you to really be in control of the shot as you fine tune your settings and work to get your framing just so.   In many cases, it’s also much more secure for your camera.  For my own purposes, a tripod is a necessity.

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

2. Choose Your Setting, Then Choose Your Settings

Identify your setting and prepare it as you would for normal shooting. Pick up (unless you’re going for that this-is-what-our-house-really-looks-like feeling), pay attention to your light as you choose your camera’s vantage point, and try to avoid a lot of unnecessary background distractions in the frame, especially objects that could potentially appear to come out of your head once you place yourself in the frame. Then set everything you can before even bringing the other subjects onto the scene: aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and white balance.

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

3. Prefocus

Prefocusing is key. If it’s a more formal group photo, this is fairly easy (focus on someone else, then join the group yourself), but even if you’re capturing more candid moments, you can ask someone else in the group to stand still for a moment so that you can prefocus (or even use a stand-in such as a stuffed animal just to get the camera focused approximately where you will be located). After prefocusing, be sure to set your camera’s focus to manual. If you don’t, your camera may re-autofocus on the wrong plane when the camera actually fires.

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

4. Close Down

Use a smaller aperture than what you’d normally select for the scene. I usually close down by 1-2 stops as compared to the aperture I’d choose if I weren’t in the image and could grab focus and fire all at once. The last thing you want is to finally get an image of yourself that you (actually!) love, only to find that your face isn’t quite in focus. Hedge your bets with a smaller aperture (for a full body self-portrait with my kids fairly close by, I’m often shooting at around f/5.6).

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

5. Let Your Child Press the Shutter

If you have a child that is four or older (or younger than that, if you’re a brave soul!), let him/her play photographer a bit. Place your camera on a tripod or identify a specific spot for your child to stand, then preset exposure, white balance, and focus.  I also recommend turning off continuous shooting, else your child is likely to fire off dozens of shots in quick succession. Next, show your child what button to press, and take your place in front of the camera.  You may be surprised how seriously children take the job of “photographer”!

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo
Image by Jackson Wilkerson (kind of), age 5

6. Use a Remote … AND the Timer

We’ve all seen the images in which group is smiling nicely at the camera, and there’s a blur of clothes and hair entering from the left side of the frame. Don’t be that blur. You can, of course, simply give yourself a little more lead time with a longer timer setting, but you’re still running back and forth between the camera and the group. I recommend getting yourself a remote … then adding a short timer setting. That way, you have time to tuck the remote in a pocket or set it to the side before the camera fires. You’re not running back and forth, and you can pose naturally for each shot instead of producing a series of images with your remote-clutching-fist (you’re not fooling anyone) pointed at the camera.

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

7. Hand Off the Remote

Like letting a child physically press the shutter button on the camera, letting the child be in charge of the remote allows her to feel invested in your “session” together. It’s a fact of life that kids love anything with buttons, so you’re also more likely to get more extended cooperation (and consistently cooperative sessions down the road) if you let him/her be involved in this way for at least a few of the shots.

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

8. Use an Interval Timer

Better than the remote/timer combination, especially for lifestyle or candid photographs, is an interval timer. While interval timers are traditionally used for time lapse photography, they work beautifully for capturing a series of self portraits, firing automatically at your specified interval. That means that you and your children/family can relax a bit in front of the camera and perhaps even ignore it, letting it fire at will much like a third party photographer would photograph you.  Newer Nikon models have a built-in interval timer; to date, no Canon DSLRs have native interval timers. However, you can purchase external intervalometers for most any DSLR. I typically set mine to shoot 25 images at 10 second intervals.

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

 

9. The One Person Rule

When you’re taking photos with more than just one other person, arrange it so that one person is doing something different than all of the others. Depending on the setup, it can allow that person to really shine and be the subject of the photo. I encourage you to allow yourself to be that main subject. Some ideas:

  1. You look at the camera, but ask your family to look at you or one another.
  2. You sit (or stand) still, but have your children run, dance, or jump around you.
  3. You face the camera; kids face away.

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photobecause you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

10. Get a New Perspective

Set the tripod up low (kid height) so that full body shots don’t completely include the adults. Or set things up so that you’re shooting from behind.  Or pull way back and get a ton of context and just let be as your family prepares dinner in the kitchen or plays together in the backyard.  Get creative. You don’t all have to be smiling and facing the camera. Sometimes it’s great to capture life unscripted.

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

11. Document your Day 

Charge your battery, load a fresh memory card, mount your camera on the tripod, and spend one day setting it up and shooting lifestyle scenes wherever you go – from breakfast to bedtime. This will be easiest if you’re spending the day close to home. Not only is it a fantastic documentation of life that you and your children will surely appreciate having, but it’s a great way to start really paying attention to your surroundings, such as the color and quality of the light in the various rooms of your house at different times of day.

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

12. Shoot Your Own Perspective

This one doesn’t require a tripod. I am talking about going beyond your regular hidden position behind the camera and shooting yourself actively involved in your scene.  Basically, I want you to bring some limbs into the frame! It helps to have a wide angle for these shots, which are some of my personal favorites … THESE are the moments I’m experiencing as a mother. They don’t just capture my observations – they truly capture my experiences and – most importantly – my involvement with my family. I close down quite a bit for these shots, since my depth of field usually needs to extend from behind the camera (where I’m located) out towards the other subject(s) in the frame.

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

11. More Ideas

Here are a few more ideas that can help to generate interesting and natural family self portraits:

  1. Have everyone make a silly face or do a silly pose. It may not produce the picture you want to hang over your living room mantle … but then, again, it may. Either way, there’s a good chance that it will help you and your kids/husband/etc loosen up.
  2. Ask your kids to deliver the same expression that you do, or play Simon Says with them. It’s a great way to get them to engage with you instead of with the timer light flashing on the camera.
  3. Let someone else be the director. Ask the oldest child what he/she wants to do, or have your youngest give everyone else instructions for posing or making a certain face. Letting your children be the boss for once makes the experience fun for them, and they may just think of something fantastic that never would have occurred to you.
  4. Make sure everyone is touching, especially if you’re posing. It’s a classic rule of family portraiture, and yes – it still applies here.

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo
14. Use What You Know

Most of the same rules apply here that would apply if you weren’t in the frame. Don’t be above bribery to get extended cooperation, make sure kids are well fed and well rested, and wipe faces and style your subjects ahead of time (if that’s something that is important to you).

15. Put Your DSLR on Autopilot for a Friend or Family Member

Whether you’re running a three legged race with your six year old, giving birth, or giving a speech at your little sister’s wedding, there are likely to be plenty of times when you know you need to be in the frame, but the logistics of setting up a self portrait  are impossible. Know how to turn your camera into an oversized point-and-shoot so that someone else can get some shots for you. I understand that you love manual mode, BBF, and toggling your focus points — but if you hand your camera off to your brother-in-law that way, you may not get anything salvageable. My “autopilot” settings before handing over my camera are:

1) aperture priority at f/2.8-f/5.6 (depending on the situation)
2) auto-iso (maximum iso 12800, minimum shutter 1/100)*
3) auto-wb
4) matrix metering / evaluative metering
5) auto area focus selection
6) shutter button autofocus

* If your camera doesn’t have auto-ISO, set your ISO a stop or so higher than you’d use yourself … better to have the camera using an excessive shutter speed than to risk motion blur!

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photoImage by Malcolm Wilkerson (just moments after our fourth baby was born!)

16. Have Fun

It may sound obvious, but allow yourself enjoy the experience. While I emphasize not putting off your pictures until “tomorrow” (and tomorrow, and tomorrow), also keep in mind that there will probably be more opportunities to set up these “sessions” if this one doesn’t work out. This probably isn’t a one time deal, so if your kids are truly not cooperating or you just can’t get into it, cut yourself some slack. Odds are that your goal here is not to document tension or holding your three year old in a headlock to keep him in the frame (unless that sounds like fun to you).  When it’s no longer fun, cut your losses and go upload your card … I bet you got some unexpected keepers anyway.

Have some of your own favorite family self portraits? Have other tips or approaches that have worked well for you? Share with us in the comments!!

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photoSarah Wilkerson, Virginia
CEO | CMU Instructor
website | facebook | twitter | pinterest | instagram | mentoring | ask a pro
Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. In 2010, she held CM’s first forum-based workshop and spearheaded the development of CMuniversity, an online photography school that provides educational programming to over 2000 photographers each month.Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in Charlottesville with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses (Elements of Design, Composition and Creativity, and Story and Vision). In her free time, Sarah loves research and writing and enjoys lattes, mojitos, flip flops, and reality tv.

because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits photo

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96 Responses to “because you were there, too: 16 tips for family self portraits”

  1. Nov 30 2011 at 1:03 am #

    This was a great post !

    Just hate it when people look like the did it themselves..but so hard to always ask someone!! WOuld love to use these tips !

  2. gina stansberry
    Dec 05 2011 at 7:02 am #

    can't see all the pictures…..great article, just wish i could see all the content….don't know if it's because it's an older post or if content has been removed.

  3. Feb 04 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    Just found this on pinterest. Really helpful tips thank you. I need to get myself a tripod!

  4. Feb 13 2012 at 9:03 am #

    Thank you for inspiring me to learn how to use my camera timer! I will now be able to be in the pics, not just behind the lens, or the seldom pic my husband snaps. :)

  5. Apr 09 2012 at 5:43 pm #

    This is such a great article. I'm always behind the camera but haven't made much effort at putting myself in the frame. The shots were gorgeous and have inspired me to give it more effort. Even one great shot will be well worth it!

  6. Apr 20 2012 at 5:03 am #

    OK, I just loved what you said about you being there too. I think there's a commercial on tv about that as well and it makes my tear up every time I see it. Anyways, I blogged about self portraits today and have linked this to it, thanks for sharing!

  7. Jul 08 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    Revisited this blog post after reading it awhile back (from a pin!) — I'm now a member of CM and used the tips in this article for one of the CM classes I am taking! I really, really love this article because we photographers never seem to get into the shots ourselves. I love all the great tips on using my own photography knowledge to take those special shots for ME with my own kids! Thanks!!

  8. christinajirwin
    Oct 07 2012 at 7:21 pm #

    I was just thinking the same thing the other day!
    http://mymommymakes.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/momm

  9. monetteanderson
    Oct 08 2012 at 5:43 pm #

    Thank you for this article! It was a great reminder that I need to be in the story I am telling. And not just when I hire someone for formal pics- but for everyday. I ordered a wireless remote and can't wait to use it. This inspired me to start putting myself in the frame.

  10. Apr 21 2013 at 2:44 am #

    Thank you!!! this was such a brilliant post!! Will try out everything you said!!

  11. May 27 2013 at 3:54 am #

    I feel that is one of the so much significant info for me. And i’m happy studying your article. But want to remark on few general issues, The web site style is wonderful, the articles is really nice : D. Good activity, cheers

  12. Jul 17 2013 at 10:57 am #

    I’ll eventually get to the point where I can photograph myself. I’m not exactly attractive so I don’t want my photos taken and used for meme’s or whatever… someday~

  13. Joanna
    Jul 13 2014 at 4:21 am #

    I’ve been wanting to do this so much lately, and this was a wonderful post with some great tips! I’m so happy that you posted this because I think it will bring so many moms into their pictures, memories to cherish for generations!

  14. Janny Beimers
    Jul 14 2014 at 3:31 pm #

    Yes, you are wright, I want to be more in the photo, my children are already out of the house, but with my grandchildren I’m always the one who makes the pictures and they will have always grandfather with them but where is grandma??? Yes she makes the pictures, hmmm, I have to change that!!!

  15. Jennifer B
    Jul 16 2014 at 10:15 pm #

    What a great article! I finally used my interval timer remote the other day and am looking forward to using it more!

  16. staci
    Jul 18 2014 at 12:37 am #

    great post! love your tips.

  17. Emily
    Jul 20 2014 at 9:48 pm #

    I need to pull out the tripod and dust off the remote & capture some day to day moments with my little ones who are growing bigger by the minute! I am also intrigued about using an interval timer. My camera does not have one so I need to investigate purchasing one; it would be great for birthday parties, storytime, and even Christmas morning. Thanks for the tips, Sarah!

  18. Jul 21 2014 at 6:01 pm #

    This is my all time favorite post. I reread this every now and then to remind myself to get in the game!

  19. Alison
    Jul 23 2014 at 1:19 am #

    I love this post. It is such a good reminder to get in front of the camera with your kids.

  20. MelissaU
    Jul 25 2014 at 7:43 pm #

    Thank you so much for the tips. Recently, I have been made quite aware of the fact that us “mom-togs” are so often lost in history as we’re behind the cameras, and have been making a true effort to rectify that for our family. These tips are so wonderfully timed for us :)

  21. Melanie Johnson
    Jul 26 2014 at 5:43 pm #

    On my honor, I will try to be in the picture more. Great post!!

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