Family It's What Matters Most

This video, featuring a series of family portraits made in Hamilton, Australia and outlines my approach to photographing family portraits from both a technical and conceptual point of view.

I spent a recent Christmas break with my mum and a few members of the family in my hometown Hamilton in southeast Australia. A few days before heading home I was contacted by a former classmate, Pauline, who asked me if I’d be available to photograph her family while I was back in town. I was very happy to oblige and had a lot of fun making lovely photos of a great bunch of people.

Some Opportunities Should Not Be Missed

Here’s what I know about family. Time scatters as much as it can divide us and the tyranny of distance acts to keep us apart. The entire family may only reunite every few years. That’s an occasion not to be missed and a fantastic opportunity to preserve that memory through the art of photography. It’s hard to describe how, in years to come, those photos will grow in importance as time brings the inevitable changes to the structure of the family.

Three Generations of Women in Hamilton, Australia.

Whether you are a professional or enthusiast photographer I’d ask you not to let such opportunities pass you by. And remember that it’s the photographer in the family that is so often (physically) excluded from their own photographs. When it comes to your own family, seek the assistance of an amply qualified professional to do the job for you. Knowing someone (e.g., Uncle Harry) with a good camera just doesn’t cut it. I wouldn’t buy an expensive hammer and call myself a carpenter. Would you?

Clearly it's important to know how to use your camera. But, more importantly, you have to understand light, contrast and exposure and be able to work with people. For some folks that means coming out of your shell and turning, at least temporarily, from an introvert into more of an extrovert. But don't overdue it. Remember the event is always about whom you photography. It's never about you. While you need to project confidence and demonstrate an ability to organize people into harmonious groups, you are not supposed to be the centre of attention. Although, when the weather turns foul or your flash recharge begins to crawl, a little soft shoe shuffle may well save the day.

A relaxed group portrait at a family bush camp in South Eastern Australia.

Keep it Casual, Make it Fun

My brief for the job was simple:

“The family is together, it’s Christmas and we want some photos to record that special time together.” “We have set up a Christmas Camp (i.e., a bush camp over the Christmas period) down the back of the property, where a number of us will be staying, and we’d like the photos made there.”

It was clear to me that the photos needed to reflect the families relaxed approach and the setting where they grew up and were celebrating Christmas together. I absolutely understood and was going to make the process as enjoyable as possible, given the amount of people involved and the limited time I had available to make the photos.

Couple with dogs, Hamilton, Australia.

Color or Black and White

All of the original images were color but, to my way of thinking, some called out for rendering into black and white. The above picture, full of texture and a full range of tones, was a case in point. I think it’s a great example of a black and white photo and one of my favorites from the day.

Where ever possible I like to provide my customers with a mixture of color and black and white images. It’s another way to add value to the job by providing the customer with a greater variety of images and a range of moods. What’s more some skin types, clothing and/or locations are better suited to being reproduced in black and white.

Momentum and Organization

As well as a number of large family group photos I also photographed a whole bunch of couples and smaller groups. When there’s so many people involved it can be tough for the photographer to keep track of everyone and their exact relationship to each other. It’s always important, under such circumstances, to have a list and a marshall (in this case Pauline) to organise the participants of each group. It’s then a pretty simple job for the photographer to get on with what they do best: bringing out the natural beauty in their subjects.

An attractive couple on a sunny bush trail in Hamilton, Australia.

One of the younger couples, looking like three million bucks, provided great opportunities for photos. Actually everyone involved was so incredibly easy to work with that I really didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to keep doing what I do. Of course it’s all fun when you’re working with easy going folk.

A group photograph featuring three generations of men on a tractor in Hamilton, Australia.

Approach is Critical to Success

From my point of view I don’t have to worry about being anyone other than who I am. If your intentions are pure and you understand the reason you’re there and the value your work will hold for the family, over many years, the process is about as much fun as so-called work can be. If you’re genuine, don’t fuss or draw attention to yourself you have nothing to worry about. Just get on with it and the event will flow seamlessly.

I like to work quite quickly so as not to give those being photographed too much time to worry about how they might or should look for the camera. Of course you want to make beautiful portraits, and you control that through lighting, exposure, composition, image processing and your ability to relax those being photographed. I think, out of all the photos here, there was only one where I took more than a minute or two before I was done and ready to move onto the next group. The one that was hardest was due to very difficult lighting (e.g., high contrast conditions), but I wanted to make it work as it was where one of the couples wanted to be photographed.

Light Gatherer

Photography is all about light. In fact the word photography comes to us from Ancient Greek (i.e., photo meaning light and graphy translating as writing, drawing or painting). As long as you situate your subjects in a location where the light will produce pleasing results you’re half way towards making great portraits.

If you’re attuned to light you’ll see their faces glow and their eyes come to life. You’ll be excited by what you see and you’ll communicate that enthusiasm back to the folks you’re photographing. They’ll begin to understand how beautiful they are and will be happy to linger while you make your photos. Needless to say their attentiveness, cooperation and enthusiasm is also heightened during the process. Not only are they in the spot light, so to speak, but they are also very much in the moment. And that’s really were life is supposed to be lived.    

Couple embracing in a leafy outdoor setting in Hamilton, Australia.

Experience and Memory

This is what the art of photography is all about. The experience of the event during which the photos were made, in camera, and the power of the finished photograph to elicit an emotional response as we remember the time, place and circumstances under which the photo was made.

I feel that in today’s digital age of overly retouching skin folks are far more concerned with what they look like in a photo, when compared to the sand blasted skin of celebrities on the front page of magazines, rather than whether the photo has accurately recorded any sense of their true nature. The world is full of blondes, brunettes and red haired folk. But there is only one you and that’s why, while it’s okay to borrow from others, you never really want to copy anyone else’s look. You'll do so at the loss of your own uniqueness.

I’m talking here about the difference between surface beauty and that of a real person who has experienced, rather than merely existing within, the world.

I’m so luck to live my life through the art of photography. It’s helped me to experience the world around me and to better understand my place within that world. And when it comes to portrait photography I’m always pleased to be given the chance to create and record a moment in time that deserves to be preserved.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru