Finessing the Fine Art of Family Photography

July 28, 2015

By Laura Brauer

Photo © The Paper Deer Photography

Committing to a career in photography can be intimidating, especially in a time when the camera is so ubiquitous to popular culture. Finding space and standing out in the competitive genre of family photography takes more than hard work—it’s about using one’s passion for the subject to define a personal vision.

We spoke to three family photographers—each of whom have soared above the herds of hobbyists into a league that is more akin to fine art than to the subjects they shoot—to hear how their own families influenced the way they tell stories, see light and find beauty in the chaos.

Jayme Ford, who offers one-on-one mentoring as well as family lifestyle photography workshops, doesn’t pose her clients—she believes in photographing the day as it unfolds. Photo © The Paper Deer Photography

JAYME FORD | Capturing Quiet And Chaos

“It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I realized just how significant and important this genre of photography is,” says Jayme Ford of her Alberta, Canada-based business, The Paper Deer Photography. “Those tiny fleeting moments that only happen once, photographing children with the stuff they will soon grow out of, giving [parents] memories that may not have happened if not for the images”—these are the aspects of family photography that she seeks to capture in her work.

Transitioning from the girl who “always had the camera at events, social gathering and parties” to a serious photographer in 2007, shooting in both digital and film, her photographic vision now shines with the tenderness she’s cultivated behind the lens as a mother of two. She upholds the “let them be little” philosophy and her “insatiable need” to photograph her clients and her children as they are now.

Photos © The Paper Deer Photography

At the beginning of this year, Ford was approached by The Bloom Forum and Rock the Shot to teach lifestyle family photography workshops. Titled “Beautiful Chaos,” she says teaching has “sparked an unexpected but welcomed fire” in her and has opened up her eyes to the importance of photography as a medium.

In her workshops, she encourages attendees to develop their personal projects alongside photographic commissions in order to help them become self-reflective in their work and “see past the rigid family photos of the past.”

Photo © The Paper Deer Photography

In order to get past what Ford terms the “Grandparent Shot,” where everyone is posed and smiling at the camera, she makes sure to keep moving, making images from various vantage points.

1. Coming in close, Ford takes portraits that fill the frame while the family is still huddled together and smiling.

2. The family starts to warm up and she photographs them laughing, tickling and the parents kissing, which “grosses the kids out and makes them laugh, giving me another shot.”

3. Ford then steps back and takes in the environment, shooting how the family fits within it.

4. From there, she does individual shots of the family members, and she encourages them to interact with the environment.  “If we’re near water, I tell them to jump in and get wet. If we’re on a mountain, I tell them to explore. It’s all about having fun,” she says.

5. To keep her editing to a minimum, Ford practices getting the shots in-camera and then doing most of her post-production work in Adobe Lightroom.

Photo © The Paper Deer Photography

EXTRA TIP: Do you take photos of your own kids? “Get in the shot” every once in a while, says Ford (above, with her sons). “They will thank you later.”

In Jayme Ford’s Gear Bag
Cameras: Canon 5D Mark III, Leica M3, Polaroid Land Camera
Lenses: 35mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.2


Summer Murdock uses all types of light, playing up each to its own individual strengths and moods. Photo © Summer Murdock

SUMMER MURDOCK | Making Natural Light Ignite

Summer Murdock’s unique vision began when she was a child, living in Southern California with the beach as her playground. She’d find beauty in moments of solitary exploration biking around her neighborhood with her “ghetto blaster duct-taped to the handle bars,” listening to mix-tapes and taking pictures with her 110mm film camera of things in her neighborhood, including her “dolls posed in trees.” And although she admits the photos weren’t good then, she does recall the magic in the process of picture-making.

At first, she decided not to pursue photography because of the fear that she wasn’t good enough, studying human and child development in college instead. “I don’t have a lot of regrets in life, but that is a huge one for me,” she says—though in 2007, she found her way back to the medium and bought her first DSLR.

Photos © Summer Murdock

She says “drawing inspiration from life and from art in general—not just photographers” has been influential to her vision and the way she distinguishes herself as an artist. Murdock seeks out those magical, yet fleeting moments of childhood. When she photographs children now, she sees them light up with the wonder she remembers feeling as a child, and that’s what makes her photographs come alive.

But more than anything, it’s about light.

Murdock teaches the “Magic of Light” workshops through the Bloom Forum, where she encourages students to break the rules and experiment with their photography, learning how to be creative and make pictures “in every kind of light,” she says. “I walk into a room and whether it’s light and bright or dark and dreary, I start looking around and trying to figure out how to make a picture out of it. It doesn’t take a lot of light to make an interesting image. All you need is a sliver.”

Photo © Summer Murdock

Any Light, Anytime
Summer Murdock shares her tips to conquering some of the tough obstacles in illumination.

Many photographers are scared of shooting in full sun. Let the sun fall directly on your subjects and take advantage of the bright colors the sun produces. This may not seem like the ideal time for a portrait, but the sun screams life and movement—make images that reflect that.

This is the light that typically falls through tree canopy. When used correctly, it can make dramatic and interesting images. Place your subject strategically so the highlights and shadows of the dappled light fall where you want them to. Try to make sure the dappled light highlights are on the focal parts of your subject and that nothing important is in the shadows.

Shadows have just as strong of an impact as light. Find dramatic pockets of light and dark, and frame your subject in the slivers of light. Expose for the light and let the shadows fall where they may.

I love the look of backlit images, but the haze that can be introduced when shooting directly into the sun can be problematic. I like to angle myself in relation to the sun a bit and make sure it’s hidden just outside of the frame—in other words, not hitting my sensor directly. This causes a much softer haze in your images and less loss of detail and contrast.

In Summer Murdock’s Gear Bag
Cameras: Canon 5D Mark III, Fujifilm X100T
Lenses: Canon 24-70mm L f/2.8 II, 28mm f/1.8, 50mm L f/1.2, 85mm, 135mm L, Sigma ART 35mm f/1.4
Other: SPL underwater housing

Anna Jones puts herself in a child’s shoes when she’s shooting her clients, opening up her more curious side. Photo © Anna Jones Photography

ANNA JONES | Seeing Like a Child, Shooting Like an Artist

Although Anna Jones has always had an interest in photography—having learned on film cameras she bought at garage sales as a child—supporting herself with her wedding, family and editorial work seemed unattainable until close to a decade ago. Then, she says, “people started loving my work, seeing my vision, and (gasp) paying me to create imagery for them.”

Her dynamic photography is the natural outcome of the way she sees life, in “constant motion,” and family, as full of “movement, love, laughter and fighting.” Having grown up in a family of five, Jones notes she sees beauty in the endearingly manic moments of her clients’ family dynamics.

Photos © Anna Jones Photography

The images of childhood that resonate with her the most are those that capture glimpses of life without grand gestures, “the ones that my mom probably took to make sure there was still film in the camera: me pouting with my arms crossed or naked and eating cereal in the kitchen with my sister,” says Jones, who attempts to convey this feeling in her own work by “staying connected to that little girl in me who picked up a camera for the first time, who found every part of it amazing and who wasn’t afraid to make a hundred mistakes to get one amazing frame.”

The photographer says social media is an important part of her business, though she maintains the best way to distinguish oneself from the crowd is to always “create with compassion and intention” with a sense of “wit and curiosity.” She’s not too concerned by the influx of family photographers today, stating her clients are attracted to the style she’s refined over the years and the respect and trust they’ve developed with her. When an artist really pays attention to his or her surroundings, which is at the heart of good storytelling, she says, it results in a “crucial artistic vitality that cannot be mimicked.”

Photo © Anna Jones Photography

Representing the Family Dynamic
1. Go someplace where children feel like they can play and be themselves.

2. Look for the interactive moments—a child’s hand grabbing their dad’s, or a mom making a silly face at her son to make him smile.

3. Don’t overthink the album. Sticking to the order in which family photos were captured is a safe bet.

In Anna Jones’ Gear Bag
Cameras: Canon 5D Mark III, Leica M9
Lenses: 24mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2, 85mm f/1.2

Related Links

“Haru and Mina” by Hideaki Hamada, A Father’s Photographic Ode to His Children

How to Price Your Photo Biz for Profit

It’s a Kid’s Life: Sarah Sloboda’s Lifestyle Photography for Children