What makes a great family photo

I am always telling my clients that we all need to become the editors of our own life story, but sometimes figuring out what makes a photo worth keeping and adding to our story isn’t so easy. I’ve been a photo editor for years, but the criteria I used for professional editing and what I might consider for editing family photos isn’t necessarily the same.

What they both have in common is story telling, that’s what editing is. But while a professional edit requires a certain level of technical quality, family photos are more about emotional connections to people, places and things, the stuff memories are made of.

 A close-up of my son. I used a photo technique called Depth of Field to keep his face sharp and the background softer, that brings the viewers attention to his face.

A close-up of my son. I used a photo technique called Depth of Field to keep his face sharp and the background softer, that brings the viewers attention to his face.

So if the only picture you have of your Uncle Joe is a little under-exposed, that’s OK, keep it, it is the only photo of poor Uncle Joe. If the few photos your have of your graduation are a little out of focus and the camera happens to be tilted (they were probably excited), that’s fine, it’s the moment you want to remember, not the technical mastery of the camera.

 My mother and and my fiance’s father both grew up in Brighton Beach Brooklyn. This was a day we all spent walking around the old neighborhood, and I love this shot we took at the end of the day on the boardwalk of all the happy faces.

My mother and and my fiance’s father both grew up in Brighton Beach Brooklyn. This was a day we all spent walking around the old neighborhood, and I love this shot we took at the end of the day on the boardwalk of all the happy faces.

So here are a few things to help guide you. These tips can work if you are creating a slideshow or printing an album or even if you just want to weed out some of your photos. Remember it is a lot easier to get rid of the bad shots when you have identified and marked the good and great ones. So go forth.

So lets start with the obvious things like events and trips. I would also include those special days spent with a spouse, significant other, family member, good friend or even a day you spent alone exploring or walking along a favorite spot. These things usually have beginnings, middle and endings, so look for the photos that might tell the story in the sequence they happened in. You can even start with the trip getting there and the trip returning as bookends.

 This shot is grainy and poor quality, but it was taken the first night of our family trip to Zion National Park and what turned out to be a great vacation. It always makes me happy when I see it.

This shot is grainy and poor quality, but it was taken the first night of our family trip to Zion National Park and what turned out to be a great vacation. It always makes me happy when I see it.

Capturing all the people you spent time with should of course be included as well as any special moments. But try to find some shots of the details that you photographed, perhaps a cake at a wedding, a funny or interesting sign or even a great meal you had. I love to include detail and close-up shots in my stories, it breaks it up visually and can really add to the flavor of it. Conversely one or two overall shots can give you the big picture and remind you of the scale of the subject or event.

When it comes to weeding through a group of photos of a person or persons, expression and pose is everything. The thing is you may not be able to see them clearly unless you zoom in a bit, so click on the thumbnails to see a larger preview of the images to compare. The subtle changes in a person’s expression can be the difference between a great photo and a ho hum shot, so try to find that expression or pose that gives you a little window into the person’s personality. Big smiley shots are fine but can come across as a bit generic, include some if you wish, but see if you can find a shot that makes you smile when you see it, that will be the big tell.

We also tend to take a lot of snapshot type pictures, which I like to define as having way too much stuff in the photo. Do we really need to see the person’s feet in the shot? I like to find closer shots that give a more intimate feeling of the person. See if you can find some, they are much more enjoyable to look at.

 I had taken my son down to the beach to take some pictures but he cried the whole time and just had a miserable time (and so did I) until we finished and I gave him this banana. His impish smile really represents his personality so well, and his expression always says to me “so hey dad, how was   your   day, heh, heh?”

I had taken my son down to the beach to take some pictures but he cried the whole time and just had a miserable time (and so did I) until we finished and I gave him this banana. His impish smile really represents his personality so well, and his expression always says to me “so hey dad, how was your day, heh, heh?”

Group shots can be difficult to wade through, there always seems to be at least one person blinking or mugging at the camera when everyone else looks great. Welcome to the history of group photos! I admit I have no great advice other than to try to find the best one or else learn Photoshop and switch a few heads. Counting to 3 and saying cheese (or something else) actually works well as corny as it may seem.

Lastly, I would say that we all have a little bell or alarm or something that goes off in us when we see a photo that we like. It’s a reaction to something in that picture that connects to us emotionally. Learn to listen for it and recognize that feeling and use it to edit your photos, it’s the best tool you have to do it.

So you may be thinking, well that’s great Peter, but I don’t have any detail or close-up shots of the events or trips I photographed, and I really don’t take any intimate photos of my family or kids. But that’s the point, you can the next time. One of the best ways to learn how to take better photos of your family and personal life is to look at the ones you already took and ask how you could tell the story even better next time. Its not hard and no one is asking for professional level photos, just some good, fun story-telling.