There are hundreds of family portrait photographers in New York City and many of them have hyper-specific bailiwicks. The list includes superhero cosplay specialists, fertility goddess maternity photographers, ironic glam shot experts—the list is extensive. However, one specialty is noticeably absent: photographers who make your family look like your family. No gimmicks or stiff, awkward looking poses, but your beautiful, loveable, often imperfect family just as they are. Where are the authentic family portraits?
I caught up with photographer Raquel Frechette—a master of the perfectly imperfect family portraits—to discuss her process and approach for avoiding cheesy family photo pitfalls.
1. Minimal Direction
Photographers instinctively want to direct portrait sessions—they have a specific set of shots that they want to get and position the family accordingly. This checklist approach to portraiture gets the job done. However, it isn’t ideal if you want to capture the feel of a family.
“The way to get [authenticity] is by creating an environment where people feel like they can be themselves and hang out with their kids,” Raquel explained. “In more of a playful, ‘we are just hanging out as a family’ sort of way, versus,” she sat up stiffly, “a ‘we are getting our photos taken now,’ sort of way.”
2. Choose Familiar Spaces
When asked about her favorite places to shoot, Raquel underlined the importance of choosing locations the family is familiar with. Her game plan is often to start at a client’s home. Then, go for a walk around their neighborhood and stop at a coffee shop or playground the family frequents. Not only does it make the client’s photoshoot experience more personal but it also adds a unique edge to the resulting photos.
“It’s really nice to incorporate home in peoples’ photos because it makes it more meaningful; it’s where they spend all their time so you can [better include] elements of their lives.” Years later, when clients look at their photos they’ll remember that homeyness rather than think this is pretty, but we have nothing to do with this place.
“The nice thing about home is, it’s everybody’s natural, comfortable, environment. So, I think immediately it just takes the stress down a little for everybody, both the kids and the parents.”
3. Manage Parental Expectations
One of the things that struck me most about Raquel’s photos is how thrilled the kids look to be in front of the camera (not clown happy, but really happy). When we sat down, I asked if she has any tips and tricks for parents about prepping their kid(s) for a shoot.
“I mean, I think a lot of it isn’t even prepping kids. It’s prepping the parents,” she chuckled. “Kids are going to be who they are. You can’t tell a kid not to react a certain way.” She’s dealt with children who instantly want to be her best friend and others who mistrust her at first sight. Either way, she needs to be ready for whatever the child brings to the table.
“When I talk to parents I say ‘don’t worry, your kid can show up however your kid wants to show up that day and we’re going to work with it. You guys need to be relaxed, need to roll with the punches. Don’t worry if your kid is not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.’ I’m ready for all that stuff. What I’m not ready for are parents who look upset because their kid is not doing what I asked them to do, or constantly fussing over their clothes, or worried that they’re not behaving.”
“If parents are just laughing the whole time and smiling, and like ‘look how ridiculous my kid is,’ then that’s going to be beautiful in the photo.”
There is also the issue of parental preconditioning. “Parents can sometimes feel awkward about getting their photos taken because they’ve had wedding photos before where they’re the center. But when you throw a child into the mix, there’s so much unpredictability and so much that is being dictated and led by the child. You can’t really pose.”
“I’ve yet to walk out of a session saying, ‘sorry, nothing. We’ve got to do this again.’ That doesn’t happen. But, you know, people are human, they’re going to come with whatever stuff they have to the session. That’s my job is to work with whoever these people are and whatever they bring.”
4. Know Your Equipment & Read The Room
There are two levels of knowledge behind a good shot: technical intelligence and emotional intelligence. Photographers have to work to understand both but technical knowledge is a bit more straightforward.
“I would say shoot as much as you can,” Raquel said about mastering her craft. “Shoot as much as you can, in as many different environments you can, in as many lighting situations as you can. It’s all practice.” When your equipment is an extension of yourself, you can focus more of your attention on your subjects.
“You don’t even want to be thinking about the technical,” she explained. “When I go into a session, I have an hour… So, I’ve got to assess the situation extremely quickly and figure out who these people are. What are they about? What’s going to work for them? what’s not going to work for them? Is this a shy kid or an outgoing kid?”
“How do I need to modify my behavior, my approach, in order to make this thing happen? Because at the end of the day, I need to deliver photos, regardless of if the light is bad, or if the kid is crying.”
5. The Less Gear, The Better
“I know what I am trying to accomplish, but there’s so much unpredictability that I need to be able to shift very fast. So, I try to keep things minimal and natural light just makes it easier.”
However, her methods aren’t without limitation. “There are some days where I have to cancel because the light is just bad. Or if I want to shoot in a person’s home I have to be right up against the windows because their place is darker and doesn’t get a lot of light. I find that I’m most creative when I have the most restrictions.”
“So, that would be my other advice; try really hard lighting situations and see what you can do. See what you can push your equipment to do.”