The Truth Behind Professional Family Photos

By Published On: November 2nd, 2022

We might look like we have it all together, but I assure you it’s all an illusion.

Every year, as the days become shorter and the air gets a little chillier, I am reminded to get my family photo session booked now, otherwise, my photographer’s schedule will fill up and we’ll be out of luck. 

Any parent of little kids knows how much they change in a single year, which is why I insist on getting family pictures every autumn. Even though we no longer send out holiday cards with our professional photos—a choice made completely out of frugality on my part—I still like to squeeze in our annual session during peak family picture season because I am the epitome of a basic millennial mom who loves the colorful fall foliage. 

So, like clockwork, I tell my husband we need to get something booked, he rolls his eyes and groans, and we open our family and work calendars to find a time that accommodates everyone. Then I cross my fingers and hope our photographer is miraculously free on that day and time to snap a few pictures of us. 

Audrey, photographer and owner of Rose Trail Images, never ceases to amaze me with her photography skills. Somehow, in each quick 20-minute session, she is able to capture hundreds of photos of my family of four looking happy, laughing, and carefree, as if we were the most well-organized and put-together group to ever have our photos taken.  If you were a stranger scrolling through Instagram and you came across my post of one of my family’s photos, you’d want to gag a little before quickly reminding yourself this is just a highlight reel, her family doesn’t always look that good. And you would be absolutely right. 

In real life, I have yet to take a photo where my husband, my 3-year-old daughter, Indy, my 6-year-old daughter, Eva, and I are all looking at the camera and smiling simultaneously. There is rarely a moment when one or both of my girls isn’t whining because “Eva did this” or “It’s not fair that Indy gets to do that!” And, even when those occasional moments do occur, my husband and I are usually too exhausted from running interference to even think to get a picture of all of us together. 

All of this is to say, the only conclusion I can come to here is that Audrey is an actual magical wizard. There is no other explanation for her ability to capture so many beautiful photos of my crew. Don’t bother trying to convince me otherwise. 

So, as the holidays approach and your mailbox begins to overflow with cards reading “’Tis The Season!” featuring the smiling faces of your friends and family, I want you to remember what went on behind the scenes to get these pictures. Trust me when I say, if they are anything like my family, it probably wasn’t very pretty.

The Prep

Some people have the ability to let their kids decide what they want to wear in their family pictures, and they just go with it. They have the attitude of “I want them to look like themselves.” I admire this attitude, but I am not one of those people. 

Sure, I want us to all look like ourselves, but in a nice, coordinated way. If we were to show up dressed like we look every day, my husband would be rocking his oxford shirt embroidered with little robots, Eva would be dressed head to toe in pink and sparkles, Indy would show up in a Minnie Mouse shirt and pajama bottoms, and I’d be in leggings with my dry shampooed hair in a messy bun and remnants of yesterday’s mascara settled nicely into the fine lines under my always-tired-looking eyes. So, no, I have no interest in spending $300 or more on photos of that hot mess. 

Instead, I start planning out outfits a few weeks in advance. I usually begin with dresses for my daughters, typically buying them each something new that works with their individual personalities but also doesn’t clash together. Then, I go through my side of the closet to find something that coordinates with what they are wearing, and I finalize our family’s look by picking out two shirt options for my husband to choose from (so he feels like he has a say). Then, I tell him he chose wrong and have him wear what I wanted him to in the first place. 

Literal Blood, Sweat, and Tears

We tend to schedule our family photo sessions first thing in the morning. This gives our photographer some really pretty lighting to work with and two kids who are much happier than when they are exhausted after a full day of daycare or school. However, while this does give us better pictures, in the end, it also means having to wake up at the crack of dawn in order to get myself and my kids ready on time. Somehow, my husband seems to be able to just wake up photo-ready (and it’s really not fair). 

This year, our air conditioning stopped working the night before our session. Even though it was early in the morning in September, I live in the South, and it didn’t take long for the bathroom to heat up, leaving me sweating off my makeup and re-curling my hair trying to fight the humidity. Eventually, I dropped my arms in defeat and accepted that there was nothing else I could do. Then, I turned my irrationally-angry attention onto my family. 

Indy had managed to get a particularly rough, skinned-knee the day before pictures and was not pleased about having to put pants on over her BAND-AID. Eva was crying because she would be wearing her glasses in the pictures even though she firmly believes that “princesses don’t wear glasses.” And my husband was silent and still, almost as if he thought if he didn’t move I wouldn’t see him. Apparently, family picture prep sends him into survival mode. 

Finally, after a few candy bribes (“but please do not get any chocolate on your dress!”), navigating through morning rush hour traffic, and getting lost along the way, we managed to make it to our scheduled photoshoot 15 minutes late. By that point, though, I considered it a win. 

End Result

After less than 20 minutes in front of the camera, we were done. Finally, we all relaxed. It was over. Now the girls were free to kick around as much dirt as they wanted, my husband no longer felt the need to hide away like a chameleon, and I could put on my leggings and do a backward Cinderella transformation. All was right with the world.

As an outsider looking at our photos, you’d never know all of the drama that went into creating them. (I’m not proud of who I become at family picture time, OK?) You see a smiling family snuggled together and having fun because that’s the image I want you to see. If the photos depicted real life, you’d likely feel like the only responsible way to respond would be to send me a heartfelt text asking, “are you guys OK over there?”. And, in this scenario, I’d see the text, think to myself, I will respond in a few minutes when I’m done with this task, and totally forget about it until three days later when you send a follow-up, “you alive?” message—because that’s my actual everyday reality. 

Still, even though our clothes were carefully chosen, my tired eyes are Photoshopped, and my family would otherwise never be caught dead hanging out in the woods at 8 in the morning, the smiles Audrey always manages to capture in these photos are authentic. I think those real-life expressions are worth all of the money and stress that goes into our family photo sessions every year. Though, my traumatized family might not agree. 

This year, when you’re opening up holiday cards at your kitchen counter, surrounded by dirty dishes, and standing in Goldfish crumbs, fight the urge to compare one family’s curated image to your everyday life. I promise you, they are just as much of a dysfunctional mess as your family. They’re just hiding it behind their coordinated outfits.

All images courtesy of Rose Trail Images