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How to Dress for and Plan Great Family Pictures

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Plan Great Family Pictures

Photography by Jylare Smith

Hello! I thought I’d post about something I get questions about a lot – how to dress for and plan great family pictures – outfits that represent your style and coordinate well without being too matchy, and an overall photo shoot that works for everyone. Any women out there – whether you have no kids, 1 child, or 6 – knows how hectic it can be to get yourself, your kids, your pets, your husband, dressed for family pictures, let alone dressed in nice clothing. After years of family pictures with outfits that go together but aren’t matchy-matchy I’ve found a system that works. I thought I’d share here.


2016 // Photography by Jylare Smith

Plan Great Family Pictures

As a note I have to say that family pictures mean so much to me, even if they are just a snapshot with a phone camera or taken with a tripod. Whenever my kids are having a hard day (or if I am!) I can look at our family pictures and remember what it’s all about. They are the most important part of my life.

2015 // Photography by Jylare Smith

How To Dress for Family Pictures | Shannon from Plum Street Prints

1) Dress Yourself First

If you don’t feel good, no one will feel calm or happy about the pictures. Start by choosing your outfit and base the whole outfit scheme around this. Even if you feel most comfortable in a super wacky colored dress or a really muted shirt, or a funky tribal jump suit, just make everyone go with what you’re wearing and what your style is. Trust me on this one. When mom’s happy, everyone’s happy. I had three babies in three and a half years and gained a lot of weight with each, then had to lose it. You bet on those baby years I was super self-conscious about my appearance and clothing. When I felt more confident, the whole shoot seemed to run better. If there’s a pose you think is better for your body, let your photographer know!  Also a note, even if you don’t look just how you want, force yourself to do the family pictures. Even looking back on my baby weight gain years, I’m still so glad we took photos and have our kids at each stage.

2015 // Photography by Jylare Smith

How To Dress for Family Pictures | Shannon from Plum Street Prints  How To Dress for Family Pictures | Shannon from Plum Street Prints

2) No Matchy Matchy – Coordinate Colors Don’t Match them Perfectly

First off, we’ve all been there and had huge family photos where everyone is instructed to wear the same color shirt and pants. And for a family reunion with 30 people or a last minute shoot, that may work well, but my favorite family pictures are ones that go together without matching too perfectly.

Once you start with your outfit, gather the 2-3 colors from it and get outfits for your family in various shades of those colors, but not the exact same hue. Also, have one person wear a color that pops or contrasts slightly from the rest (while still going with the whole look).

For example, one year I really wanted to wear a blue chambray dress I found that was cute and very flowy. (This kept me from feeling self conscious! Bonus.) Also it was a neutral palette to start with. My husband wore a light blue linen shirt with a navy tie, my son wore a white button-up with tiny blue stripes, and my youngest son wore a royal blue plaid button-up. I had a green sweater on, so I found a green bow tie for my youngest that had a bunch of wacky colors as well, so it wasn’t too matchy but still went. We all had a similar color palette, greys and blues, with a hint of green. Then I had my daughter wear a light pink dress with a floral scarf. One pop of color so we weren’t all perfectly coordinated. It’s my favorite thing.

In 2014 we all wore greys and light blue, & my husband was the pop of color/pattern with a brightly checked shirt. In 2013 we all had two different distinct colors on. Henry had white and navy, I had navy and green, Emerson had navy and red, Genevieve had red and grey, and Mitch had orange and navy. In 2012 we all wore bold primary colors, but none of us matched. This was one of my favorite color schemes.

So to recap, 2-3 basic colors for the outfits. Buy varying shades of those colors, not exact matches. And don’t forget one item in a new color or pattern to pop.

2014 // Photography by Jylare Smith

     How To Dress for Family Pictures | Shannon from Plum Street Prints

How to Dress for and Plan Great Family Pictures | Shannon from Plum Street Prints

3) Layer Layer Layer

Layering in photos makes it look pulled together. Even if your daily outfit is a t-shirt with jeans, you can take that to a nicer level for family photos – perhaps add some booties and a blazer with a necklace to that t-shirt and jeans, and then you have a nicer outfit for photos. Think about what pieces you have and how you can layer them. In 2011 I really wanted my husband to wear a khaki corduroy blazer. We tried it on with a button up underneath but it just wasn’t enough visual interest for a photo. So we added a sweater vest and a tie, and it was visually great – more depth to the outfit. I had a button-up and cardigan on but the colors were too similar, so I added a turtleneck under the button-up. I usually don’t wear that many layers, but the neck came higher so it would be visually another color and layer in the photo. Play around with your clothes and see how you can add a layer to your outfit.

Sweaters look great with button ups under them, blazers look great with with a sweater or sweater vest under, cardigans are a quick way to add a layer to any outfit (male or female), a scarf can quickly make a plain shirt look layered, and a tie or bow tie is a great look for boys or men.

2013 // Photography by Charlotte Archibald

How To Dress for Family Pictures | Shannon from Plum Street Prints

4) More Accessories than You May Normally Wear (men included)

Family pictures look best when you add some points of interest and varied components of each outfit. If you don’t love accessories, an interesting shoe, funky glasses, or unique dress adds more visual interest. My husband and sons usually don’t wear accessories so one simple accessory or pop of color is good for them (a tie, a bow tie, a cardigan, a blazer, glasses, an added layer of clothing). My daughter and I usually wear a necklace or scarf and bracelet, or shoes with interest like boots, or she’ll wear knee-high socks. She can also wear a bow in her hair. One year my daughter wore green glasses and it was the perfect cute addition.

If you live in a cold place, you could get some pics in the snow with winter ski coats and hats on. Or a nice place in the summer with summery dresses and linen shirts. I love a shoot my friend did where all the kids had yellow Hunter boots on. Find accessories that work for you, your style, and your location.

2012 // Photography by Charlotte Archibald


5) Location & Season/Weather

Your outfits could be great but with a less than stellar location the outfits won’t look nice. I always love natural settings because they really let your family be the focal point.

One reason I love fields and tree-d areas (as opposed to city shots) is that the trees add another layer to your photo. Be assertive about where you want your photos taken. One year I scouted spots and found just the spot I wanted, and brought our photographer there. She was happy to do it in a place I loved. Come to think of it, most years I scout my location and decide what will work best for us.

Lighting is also important of course. Morning or evening are best. Avoid the middle of the day! The bright sun and shadows are no bueno for photos. Another note to this is think about your family needs – my kids are early risers and cranky in the evening. We always do early morning shoots. However if you have teenagers or kids that sleep in, try for an early evening shoot as the sun is going down.

Try to say no to studios. I have seen some good studio shots (and definitely think these are great for newborns) it’s just hard to get a natural looking family photo in a studio.

Regarding weather / season, the fall is always a great choice because the scenery is usually lovely, you can easily layer, the clothing looks classy, modest and nice, and it’s not too cold for kids. That being said, you may not have time in the fall and find summer better. Also it’s nice to mix up the seasons. If you can, choose a time when your kids won’t be too cold (when we lived in Minnesota, fall was only September and the first 2 weeks of October – after that it was freezing). If you have to do it in freezing weather, make it fun and wear coats and hats. If you have to do it in sweltering heat, go for a breezy summer look with dresses and linen. Minimize the layers and use accessories like frame glasses, ties, hair bows, or skinny belts to dress up your kids outfits without making them too hot.

Vacations can also be great times to get photos taken. Bring your outfits with you and get someone to take a great photo of your family on the ski slopes or at the beach. You can still coordinate some great outfits and location while traveling. My husband and I traveled to Europe for an anniversary once and how I wish I would have found someone to take some nice photos of us in Paris or London.

2011 // Photography by Jylare Smith

   IMG_5621  IMG_5623

6) Take a Photo of The Outfits Together

When you get an idea of your outfits, lay them out on your bed to see how the colors look together and take a photo of them. A shirt that looks light pink in person could look light grey next to the other colors or in a photo. A bright pop of color that you thought looked nice could just clash. Ask a friend or sister to borrow any last minute accessories you need but don’t want to buy.

2010 //Photography by Rene Clark


7) At the Shoot

You need to begin prepping for the shoot well before it happens. These are easy things but important. First off, get your kids really excited about their new outfits (or even if you’ve used clothes you already have on hand, still get them excited about how it goes together). Show them photos from previous years and get them excited for the shoot.

The day of, be sure to give yourself more time than you think you need to get ready and help get everyone else ready. Be sure things are washed/ironed/laid out the night before. Get yourself ready first. This goes back to bullet #1 – if you feel confident, and put together it’s easier to help everyone be calm and happy for the photos. Give yourself more time than you think you need. You may try the shirt on and realize it doesn’t look as good as you used to think and have to make a last minute switch (been there, done that!), you may need more time to do your hair or makeup than normal, but most importantly it’s nice to just have a relaxing time getting ready. Kids always look cute so if they have less time to get ready than you, it will be fine.

If you’re trying a new hairstyle or makeup trick for photos, be sure to test it out another day, well before the shoot to make sure you like it.

Tag team with your husband or other family members-  ask them for any help. If your kids have nicely ironed shirts and you’re driving for an hour, you may want to keep the shirts on hangers and wait until you get there to put them on.

Next, bring treats. NO chocolate! Too messy. We’ve found skittles and gummy bears to be great options. Unless you’re morally opposed to bribing your kids, bribe away! “Every time you smile you get 5 gummy bears!” “If you hug your sister I’ll give you a handful of skittles!” Seriously.  But also remember even if they aren’t smiling, and even if they’re mad (!) it can make for some fun photos. I always love the Christmas Cards where all the kids are screaming 😉 And the most important thing is you’re capturing that stage of your family.

For older kids and teenagers, they may not need to be bribed to sit still but you can still give them incentive to be excited – maybe letting them have device time or pick out something they’ve been wanting if they are helpful and happy for the shoot. This might not be your parenting style but photoshoots can be tiring for kids so anything you can use to aid them in liking the experience is helpful at making the day run more smoothly.

Next, don’t drive too far. You don’t want your kids (or self 😉 cranky before the shoot even starts. If you have to drive far put a movie on for them in the car or their favorite CD. Get them excited for it.

At the shoot, don’t stay for long. Most shoots should be done in 30 minutes. Pick only 1-3 spots at the location for photos. Don’t traipse your kids all over the forest! Pick one spot for a couple family photos, another for individuals of the kids, maybe a couple of mom and dad, and be done! In and out. It always feels hectic but it’s better to go fast.

Think beforehand what shots you want. We are so lucky to have an amazing photographer as a close friend who knows just what shots to get. Jylare is a genius at this. She gets shots of us playing with the kids, of us laughing, or siblings, and then parents. If you can’t find a great photographer like this, then write a shot list beforehand. I’d include these:

  • Family photo standing
  • Family photo sitting
  • Family photo walking holding hands
  • Kids running to parents
  • Siblings together
  • Individuals of kids
  • Parents together
  • Dad throwing toddler or small child

2009 // Photography by Matthew Lyon

How To Dress for Family Pictures | Shannon from Plum Street Prints How To Dress for Family Pictures | Shannon from Plum Street Prints

8) Photographer

If I could force you to, I’d have you call or email Jylare to get your family photos. She travels for shoots around the U.S. often so be sure to email to see if she’s in your area soon. I say this not only because she is a great photographer, but she is so good with kids. Whoever you find – just get someone who is good with kids (or pets if you have them). And let me tell you, this is honestly more important than anything. Any photographer should be able shoot a nice scene in nature. But can any balance an elmo toy on their head, a gummy bear stuck to their forehead, and dance around singing a fun song that makes your kids smile, WHILE capturing that beautiful scene in nature? I’m not joking even a little bit. Find someone that will have fun with your family.

Of course check out their website and social sites to see what style you like. You can quickly tell any photographer’s aesthetic by looking at their Instagram or website.

On years when we haven’t been near our photographer, we’ve had friends or family do our pictures because honestly our kids are happier with people they know and that was more important to us than the perfect lighting or scene. If you have a professional photographer who isn’t happy and energetic, that doesn’t know your kids and is trying to get up close and photograph them, they could get scared, scream, cry, etc. If anything, just talk with your photographer about how she handles cranky or active kids. This is of most importance to us. If you have teenage or grown children, you should be fine if they can’t entertain and shoot a photo, but if you have young kids or grand kids, be sure to ask about this.

Lastly, during the shoot, ask your photographer to show you a sneak peak of a photo or two on their camera. Double check your hair, the lighting, the background. This helps you get an idea of what they’re looking like.

2008 // Photography by Jylare Smith

IMG_5627 IMG_5628

Overall, do what works best for you – clothing you’re comfortable with, a location you love, and a photographer or friend you trust to take great photos of your family. The most important thing is doing it! Whatever you do, even if it’s just a tripod with your family in the backyard, get a family photo each year! They are so special to me (especially on those hard days 😉 . xo, Shannon

// How to Dress for and Plan for Great Family Pictures //

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