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5 Pro Photography Tips to Help Families Look their Best During the Holidays

A little planning upfront, before a photo session, can do incredible things to the outcome of a final print. During the holiday season, when families are in a rush to get amazing images to give as gifts and holiday cards, educating them on a few key points will make your job as a photographer (and their life as a parent) easier. In this article Dale Benfield, author of The Five-Minute Fix, explains how timing, outfits, professional stylists, and more can affect the photo session.
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A little planning upfront, before a photo session, can do incredible things to the outcome of a final print. During the holiday season, when families are in a rush to get amazing images to give as gifts and holiday cards, educating them on a few key points will make your job as a photographer (and their life as a parent) easier. In this article Dale Benfield explains how timing can affect the photo session, planning every little detail, down to when to shoot and even when the subjects should eat before the session. He discusses planning outfits and gives a great resource for building complementary colors (for outfit choices), and shares that hiring professional makeup artists and hair stylists can make a world of difference to take your clients to the next level. Lastly he explains how he shoots sessions and what he does after his session to make sure his clients have the best possible return on their investment of hiring him to photograph their family portraits.

After more than a decade of shooting family sessions, I tend to get the same questions over and over again. Of course, I’m always happy to help my clients look their best for their family photos; after all, getting portraits taken can be quite an investment, and helping my clients get the most out of their investment is not only good for them, it makes me look good--and that’s good for business.

I’ve condensed all the questions I normally get from an anxious mother as her family shoot approaches into five mega tips for you, as well as some information I think photographers need to know before the session day arrives.

Timing is Everything

I can’t stress enough how important it is to meticulously plan out the session, both from a photographer’s standpoint, and from a parent’s standpoint. From the photographer’s standpoint, lighting is everything. Even the prettiest family with the best clothes in an amazing location can look terrible if shot in bad lighting. I always plan my sessions to begin around 90 minutes before sunset. Yes, the sun is kind of my boss in that sense, and I rely on it to determine when I start and stop the work day. By beginning 90 minutes before the sunset, I’m sure to catch that pretty, warm light that my clients have come to expect and love. Since my family sessions last around an hour for a full session, I typically finish before the sunset turns blue in color, and I love to shoot into this setting sunlight for some gorgeous imagery (my clients affectionately call this “Benny Backlight”).

Timing is also so important from the parents’ standpoint. I make sure to educate my parents on how to prepare for the shoot. Nap times and meal times are of the utmost importance. I often ask my parents when nap time is for their child (or children, if they have multiple toddlers). Usually moms will answer back with a window… say, noon-2pm. If it’s a toddler I’m photographing, and I want the child awake, I stay far away from that time period; and I rarely shoot before a nap time. In this case, I’d schedule the session for 3pm (which happens to be perfect for a November family session with autumn leaves). For newborns, I want to get that sweet baby sleeping, so I’ll schedule the newborn session (which I do in a studio and therefore don’t care about the sunlight outside) during their typical nap time schedule.

Now that I’ve taken care of nap time, I address feeding time. For newborns and infants, feeding right up until the photo session is key, because I want a full, sleeping baby (newborns often eat every three hours, so shooting as close to the feeding as possible is best for a happy, sleeping infant). This actually is pretty good advice for any child. Oh wait, it’s also good advice for any adult. I get hangry in between meals and find that I’m most happy just after I’ve finished eating. Timing is everything here, and we want our subjects to be happy, rested, and full. This gives us a fighting chance at creating some great images.

A happy, sleepy baby.

Coordinate Outfits

Again, I approach coordinating outfits from both the photographer’s standpoint and the parents’ standpoint. As a parent, it’s important to make sure the outfits coordinate with each other. Using color palettes that complement, avoiding clothing with words on them, and staying away from being completely matchy-matchy all are great tips for parents to make sure the shoot looks as good as possible. I’ve sent parents (and even couples planning engagement outfits) this link to Adobe’s color palette generatorfor assistance. It’s pretty fabulous in helping pick out coordinating colors.

From a photographer’s standpoint, matching outfits with appropriate locations is a skill in itself. I give a couple examples in The 5 Minute Fix, but using a client’s style and clothing choices to determine where the shoot will take place is something I do for my clients that sets me apart from my competition. I always ask my families to text or email me their outfit choices a week before the sessions, as well as my engaged couples. I even ask brides to email me a picture of them in their wedding dress before their bridal session to help determine the location of the bridal portrait. By planning out the session ahead of time, I can relax and focus on my subject instead of worrying about location and lighting at the shoot.

Coordinated outfits.


This is another tip I go into detail in in The 5 Minute Fix. I learned years ago when I still shot film that “film is cheap” when it compared to getting that one perfect shot. Blazing through a roll of 36 exposure film is a minuscule cost compared to capturing a beautiful, smiling baby. Furthermore, now that I shoot digital, where it’s even cheaper to shoot rapid fire exposures at my subject, I overshoot. . Don’t lower the camera to see if you got the shot, keep paying attention to that child… overshoot. As a photographer, we can always go through the images on the computer later and cull, or eliminate redundant shots, out of focus shots, or missed moments. However, the photographer who doesn’t overshoot doesn’t have the luxury of perusing superfluous images for that one perfect image.

Overshooting will let you find that perfect photo.

Hire Hair and Makeup Artists for the Session
As stated before, portrait sessions are an investment. I make sure my clients know that spending a little extra money will have a huge pay off when it comes to the final outcome of the portrait session. One way that families can vastly improve the final outcome is by hiring a professional hair and makeup artist. Families are trusting a professional to take the pictures; they should also trust a professional to help them look their best. I have a short roster of my favorite hair stylists and makeup artists I make sure all my clients have months before their session and encourage them to book their appointments early.

Use a Quality Lab for Prints and Cards
Lastly, it’s important to finish strong. It would be a waste of time, money, and effort to shoot a wonderfully timed, planned, and executed session just to send digital files to a low-quality lab for prints or holiday cards. I’ve been using Miller’s Lab for more than ten years because they make me look great by offering the best quality products for my clients. I’ve done side-by-side tests with other labs and I promise you, a quality lab makes a huge difference. I’m passionate about my brand and about how my clients view my services and products. I like to think I offer them the best possible, and that their investment is worth the end result.

A quality lab can make all the difference.

These tips require us as photographers to avoid taking shortcuts. By giving photo shoots our “all” we are committing to our clients to get the best images possible. It’s that pride and discipline that will create returning clients and raving fans for your company.

Dale Benfield started photographing weddings in 1998 and later taught college photography courses while growing his photography business. In 2006, Dale moved his business from Joplin, MO, to Fayetteville, AR, to begin shooting full time. The move proved beneficial, and as the face of Benfield Photography, Dale has become the most sought-after wedding photographer in Arkansas, expanding to include destination weddings as well. He is on the speaking team for Miller’s Professional Imaging and has spoken at major photography tradeshows such as Wedding Portrait Photographers International (WPPI). 

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