Deconstructing our grocery store family portraits: A learning experience

I am still chuckling over the irony in the post I wrote back in 2006 about getting our family portraits done at the local grocery store studio. That was the last time I was ever in a big box store studio, for good reason.

Nine years later, I’ve learned a thing or two about portraits. While my “mommy goggles” love the subjects of these portraits, which made me love the portraits themselves, I can’t help but pick out some significant faults that make me cringe when I look at the finished product, some more egregious than others. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Ten things that are wrong with these portraits:

1. That backdrop

Seriously? It’s stained. It’s wrinkled. It’s AWFUL. And that colour? Is that brown or grey or khaki or what? I remember having the choice between this and a stark white and some sort of 70s inspired print, and this was the best of the three. It’s the stains that kill me, though. They completely detract from the portrait subjects. This is a “professional” portrait studio – at least have some not-filthy backdrops, for goodness sake.

2. The seam in the background

See that seam running down the middle of the background? First of all, it shouldn’t be there AT ALL. There’s a reason the most popular background you can buy for your studio is called “seamless”. And while it would be distracting anywhere in the frame, it’s horrible that the seam runs directly down the centre, effectively cutting the family in half. It would have taken just a few seconds and a critical eye to slide that out of the way. Better yet, a larger aperture and moving the subjects forward a bit would throw the (really really awful) background pleasantly out of focus. Backgrounds should either be complementary or practically invisible and certainly not so obvious – that curtain and its seams and stains and folds draws all the attention away from the portrait subjects, and also makes us look rather slovenly.

3. The posing

While I forgot that I wrote this blog post, I haven’t forgotten the actual experience of having the portraits taken. We received no direction about posing ourselves AT ALL. I had grabbed Simon and pretty much dropped myself into the photo, leaning in a bit to see past him. By fluke, our heads line up to make a moderately pleasing diagonal line, but look how unflattering that pose is for me, from the tension in my extended hand to the way I almost disappear leaning between the boys. I wasn’t posing, I was acting as a human corral trying to keep Simon in the picture. A photographer’s job is to give advice to the models about posing for flattering body shapes and pleasing composition and to capture family dynamics, not to simply activate the shutter once all the required bodies are inside the frame.

4. The outfits

Okay, mea culpa. I can own this one. It’s only been in the last two or three years that I’ve really come to understand how to dress a family for portraits. In this case, I had simply dressed everyone in their favourite outfits without really thinking about pulling everyone’s outfits together for a cohesive look. I’m not talking about dressing everyone in white shirts and jeans, either – we were close with the shades of blue in Beloved’s shirt and jeans and the blue strip in Tristan’s shirt and my blue jeans – but the colours in Simon’s outfit aren’t echoed anywhere else and my stark white t-shirt is a little too plain. The electric blue toes on Tristan’s socks keep yanking my attention to his feet and away from his face. Our outfits are not at all harmonized; coordinated outfits would have helped pull us together as a group.

This is what I’ve learned about dressing the family for portraits: coordinate the family’s outfits together in the same way you’d coordinate an outfit for yourself. Go for mostly complimentary neutrals and choose one colour (or two, if you’re bold!) to run as an accent through the outfits. Maybe mostly blues and cool greys with an orange strip in dad’s shirt, an orange scarf on mom, a warm yellow pinstripe in daughter’s plaid skirt and an orange t-shirt underneath a grey shirt on junior. Or something similar. You don’t have to be matchy-matchy, but you should consider everyone’s individual pieces of clothing as part of one big family outfit.

5. Cropped limbs

See how my leg is cut off right at the knee? See what it does to my leg? Just call me stumpy. There’s an old rule in photography that you never cut off a limb at the joint. If you must crop, and you should try whenever possible to avoid cropping limbs like this at all, cut in mid-bone. On the other side, the crop on Beloved’s leg is better, but I would have worked harder to ensure the entire family was whole with a bit of room to breathe on the sides for good measure. Same with the picture of Tristan and Simon – see how Tristan’s jeans tangent the edge of the frame, but there’s room on the other side between the edge of the frame and Simon?

6. Tristan not looking

It’s hard photographing excitable toddlers. Trust me, I know this. However, it’s the photographer’s job to WORK to ensure that the kids are actually looking at the camera, if that’s the goal of the portrait. If I need to take five snaps and do a head swap to get all the kids looking into the camera, that’s what I’ll do. It looks awkward and unbalanced to have one kid looking and one not. (And it would have been so much nicer had the photographer suggested the boys have some sort of contact or interaction with each other in that photo of the two of them instead of having them look like they were randomly plunked there, which is actually what happened – Beloved and I each dropped a boy on the rock and stepped back and SNAP.)

7. No attention to detail

I’d’ve loved it if the photographer took a second to tell me that Simon’s pants were riding up his legs like that, so I could tug them down. And all that crumpled leftover backdrop going every which way in the foreground is really distracting. It could have been smoothed and straightened in two seconds. As it is, both compete for attention with our faces.

8. The props

A big styrofoam rock? What’s a rock doing in a studio portrait anyway? You know I love props in my own portraits – wagons and apple boxes and cute kid-sized furniture. But this just doesn’t make any sense to me. I know I chose it – but it doesn’t help tell any sort of story, or contribute anything to the photo. It’s jarringly out of place. A nice bench or stool or even a crate would have made more sense.

9. The lack of direction

The photographer gave us no direction at all. I would have been grateful for suggestions about posing, props, or even any attempt to interact with the kids beyond looking bored and impatient when they acted like the two- and four-year-olds they were. I admit, I tend to err on the side of pushy during a portrait session, but I think direction is the job of the photographer, not the subject. The photographer should absolutely listen to the input of the subjects – they’re the customer, after all – but at the end of the day, being a photographer is about more than just pushing the button.

10. The abject lack of creativity

I get it. These are high-volume, low-budget operations. The idea is to get people in and out as quickly as possible: line ’em up, take the photos, get ’em out. But there’s no story here, and there are so many ways to elicit reactions that will result in a capture of the family’s personality and dynamic: have the subjects touch each other, have them look at each other, make them laugh by telling a corny knock-knock joke (I got a million of ’em!) or asking who has the stinkiest feet in the family, ask dad to tickle one of the kids, tell mom and dad to kiss and watch the kids react… or just change up the poses a little bit, so everyone is feeling less stiff and anxious in front of the camera. Zoom in, zoom out, shoot from anywhere except dead-on straight.

What we have here is a picture, but not a portrait, and while it’s us, it doesn’t really show who we are.

What do you think? Are my expectations too high? Am I being overly critical? I mean, it took me five years of running my own portrait business to develop all of these skills, so should I be expecting them from someone who is probably told to get behind the camera, don’t touch the settings, and sell as big a package as possible while still getting the clients in and out as quickly as possible? Have you had similar or opposite experiences with grocery store or department store photo studios?

Author: DaniGirl

Canadian. storyteller, photographer, mom to 3. Professional dilettante.

2 thoughts on “Deconstructing our grocery store family portraits: A learning experience”

  1. I look back on the portraits of my kids taken at the very same studio you went to and I love them. I did it every six months when the kids were little and then yearly, and it was both convenient and affordable. I found they did a better job than the schools and never bought their school pictures. Not every portrait session has to be art, and I would rather have 10 years of portraits for the three hundred dollars spent than a single portrait session that costs that same amount.

  2. I’m glad you had a better experience, Karen. Maybe the same chain but a different location? We tried this particular location three times over four years or so and the experience was uniformly awful. I didn’t even mention the time the photographer (a different one) made baby Tristan in his Halloween costume cry. Oy.

    I get what you’re saying, but I am embarrassed by these photos now and never did hang them up on my wall. There’s no value in that, even at $25 a pop.

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