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How to Capture a Family Event – Filomena’s 86th Birthday

Invariably, if you have a ‘fancy camera’ you may well be asked to photograph at your next family reunion or special birthday. The thing is, how do you do it?  Do you do lots of combinations of family groups, looking at the camera and smiling awkwardly, or do you find a way to capture the event in a way that really takes you back, every time you look at the pictures?  Personally, I think it’s great to approach an important family event with the mindset ‘what’s the flow, what’s the vibe, and what’s happening here that these people will want to see again and again in the future?’

Recently I was commissioned to photograph Filomena’s 86th Birthday.  Her daughter-in-law Genevieve arranged the gathering and for me to come and photograph it. This particular event comprised of just 6 adults. Regardless of the volume of participants, I think the principles that I outline here apply. A ‘fancy camera’ helps, but it’s how you choose to use it that this how-to is about.

Ok, here we go.

We begin with Filomena and her son John.
I suggested we take some photos of just the two together
because he was next in her blood line at the party.

The trick for interesting ‘look at the camera’ portraits is in varying the composition,
and to take the photos in-between the photos…if that makes sense?

Then move around and following the flow.
In each composition, look for someone to focus on.
First John, then Gen in the middle

Step back for a wider image, then step in for a closeup.

Now something happens – the doorbell rings.
Everyone’s attention is drawn to the front door as Andrew arrives.
You can see down to the front door, and John and Filomena
looking down the hallway in the foreground.

Then follow what happens.
Continually refocus as you go.

Janina, the second grandchild has also arrived, with her hubby David.
I figured a) this is an Italian family and b) the grandchild relationship would be significant,
so I waited nearby till something happened – the cheek grab!

Wait, watch and capture what you see.
Support what people do and allow them to express themselves in their natural way.

Time to mix it up and step outside to see David.
People freeze up quickly with a camera to look at so the trick is to be….quick!
And remember with the change of light means a change of ISO.

The garden here is incredible, which you will see more of later.
Capture the happenings, and closeups as you go
With the Italian context, I thought it would be cool to capture the plonk too

Remember to keep moving and looking.
Gen had gone back into the house and came out again with the tray.
She’s perfectly placed coming down the stairs, she’s on the job

And again, step back, then step in.

Elements of the place can add context.
Here I loved how they came together under the umbrella.
It’s like a protective canopy that unifies them.
The garden is out of this world, so why not shoot something of just that?

If you’re making a book, then still life pictures give your eye a rest.

Back to the action.
Shoot it as you see it
Notice how there’s always one central thing that’s been focused on?
First Gen, then Missy the cat

Now, at these events the expectation can often be to do group pictures.
Can I get a picture with…so and so…
How to make these engaging and interesting, without fake smiles?
A photo before the photos – Gen waiting for John to come up the stairs.

Then here, a sequence of spot-the-difference can be fun.
Relationships are layered and complex.
Don’t kill it, capture it!

If you have lots of combos to do, then mix it up.
Find a different place for each grouping.
Watch what’s going on – see proud John at the far right?
What a darling.

And unexpected happenings that generate a real laugh.
Don’t wait for that to pass – this IS the moment!

And again, John’s in the background adding dimension to the picture.
This one was a very quiet moment – a great expression captured from Andrew

Now they want John with his two children.
I could see how proud he was – so I made the picture about that.
Zone in on what’s going on, and shoot for that,
rather than try to manufacture something that’s not real.

Sometimes it’s what’s going on in the background that makes the picture.
Janina was having some fun in the foreground,
but I also liked the mini-army climbing the staircase, back on the job

They’ve had fun sitting there, so by the time we do the ‘real shot’ they are calm and relaxed.

Same again, for John with his son Andrew.
There was plenty going on with conversation and laughs,
so the trick is just to wait and shoot when you see something cool happen.
If you give people space, they will give you great pictures


Remember to keep moving and looking around.
Filomena had slipped off again, stage left, to check on the lasagne

Then I turn back to see Gen and John calling Missy the cat in from the garden.
Think about the composition.
I bobbed down low at Gen’s level, and kept half the frame empty
so your eye can see in the direction they are looking.

It’s time for Janina and David to have some pictures.
A little make-up moment between the ladies occurs which is worth the capture
Moments like this are fleeting so you’ve got to be quick.

And we’re off and running.
David and Janina have a very exhuberant style – big smiles and big laughs.
The trick here is to say and do things to generate a real reaction,
rather than a strained laugh

Extraverts will give a lot visually.
The trick is to give them a stage for them to ‘perform’ on

The heroine of the day.
Filomena gets a beautiful portrait all by herself.
First, look for a setting that suits your subject.
Then, sit them down, talking and chatting all the way –
and click quickly so the moments and smiles captured are real
I took a few, but this was the first one, and the best one, as is often the case.

Back inside, and a fly on the wall style.

Janina asked for a photo with her Grandmother, her Nonna.
This is a very affectionate relationship.
Perish the thought to kill that by making them look at the camera.
Better yet, get them talking and click what you see

Filomena is such a darling.
She’d been cooking all day – at her own party!
So a photo about that is worth the capture in itself, actually happening, in real time.

Capturing a particular element of a person’s energy is great.
Here you can see the pride on Filomena’s face, laying the lasagne down for Andrew’s priceless!
You just know she does this any chance she gets.

Then around the table.
Wide angles, and move fast so people don’t have time
to fix their thoughts on being observed.

Another detail to give the eye a rest.

Then, everyone together.
Again, the expectation is to get a ‘shot of them all together’.
Cringe worthy – yes. And if that’s what photography was about I wouldn’t do it.
So how to get pictures that they’ll love?
Wait, watch, then shoot what you see.

In this case I took in more than the people.
The backyard is just an incredible backdrop, so I included it.

And then they sat down and this happened.
There is no way I could have directed this to happen.
Why? Because they are all intent on…something..

Missy the cat!
And I love that arm around Janina. It’s for real.

Then here we go – move fast, keep them laughing, easy does it.
Keep back a little bit, so they don’t feel crowded in by the camera.

And the hero image of the day – the very last in the collection and the one that sums it all up.

So there you have it. How to approach capturing a family event with variety and creativity, without painful pole-up-the-bum portraits.

Now your turn…


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