Whoever decided it should be customary for parents to round up their kids for a photo shoot — ideally with a scenic background, coordinated outfits, maybe a giant bow around the dog's neck? — that's worth printing and sending out to everyone you know probably did not have small children, who aren't exactly known for their modeling skills. Crying? Squirming? Pulling at the itchy wool Christmas sweaters you're making them wear? Sure. Smiling and looking at the camera, at the same time, not so much.
And yet, as another holiday season draws near, countless families are once again finding themselves tasked with posing alongside their wailing, fidgety offspring, hoping to God that their clenched smiles telegraph "holiday cheer" and not "rictus grin." The good news is that it is possible to get a mantle-worthy family photo, with the help of some professionals.
Melissa Cole has been photographing families in the Austin, Texas area for the better part of two decades. As a mom of three, she knows more than most that the best-laid plans often blow up. Her biggest piece of advice is that parents be realistic, and flexible.
"Keep your expectations natural and low," Cole tells Yahoo Life. "If you go in with an idea of the perfect family portrait, then you may be disappointed during the shoot."
That might mean scheduling your holiday photos earlier in the year, when the weather is milder, versus expecting your toddler to flash a huge smile in 30-degree temperatures. And do your restless kids really need to be dolled up in matching three-piece suits and dress shoes that pinch their toes?
"I encourage parents to dress their children in something they will not hate," Cole says. "Kids have their own strong-willed opinions. If they do not want to wear something, I wouldn't fight it."
Atlanta-based photographer Hedley Wilson agrees.
"Kids prefer to wear regular clothes [in which] they are comfortable being themselves," the owner of the wedding and family photography business Wilson Photos says. "I've found that to be the most effective."
While babies often get a bad rap, in Wilson's experience it's kids between the ages of 2 to 6 who make the most difficult subjects. "They do not want to cooperate," he says.
Getting kids to smile on cue is typically the biggest challenge, Wilson adds. To help a child focus (or at least look at the camera), he'll wave a lollipop or small action figure; if they cooperate, it's theirs.
Cole says treats can be effective bribes, but won't hand them out until after a shoot is done, lest a kid get messy. Her preferred hack is to simply talk.
"[Try] acting natural, engaging with them, getting them to open up or tell you about their interest," she recommends. "Once they warm up, you and the camera are not so uncomfortable."
Photographing multiple children — say, a newborn and her 3-year-old big brother — and "getting everyone on the same level" is the hardest part of the job. "Some are totally into pictures, while others are not."
Cole suggests that parents prepare ahead of time by talking to all family members about what will be involved, and what behavior is expected, in a shoot. But if all else fails and the kids are having a hard time, she'll switch things up by taking a more "documentary"-style approach. That means fewer still, posed photos and more action shots that ideally capture the group at their best.
if a meltdown happens in the middle of your own shoot, it's not the end of the world. But Cole and Wilson both say they've seen it all — Cole remembers one mom trying to put lip gloss on her newborn baby — and take a sympathetic view.
Being a mom and having an atypical child has helped Cole "understand a bit more how different all kids are," she says. "I have a few more tools to use."
And while it may not seem like it in the moment, those so-called imperfections — a tearful toddler, a rogue tongue sticking out — will soon be, well, perfect.
"Parents put a lot of pressure on getting the perfect holiday photo," Cole says. "I would say: Appreciate the season of life you are in. If your child has an awkward smile this year, well, I hope that you embrace it, because life goes so fast, and before you know it, they will outgrow that awkward smile, and you will miss it."
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