Tips for a Successful Family Photo Shoot

Mom and son annual family photograph
Photo by Katie McCall of Her Side Project (

Hey there, Mama. My guess is you’re a little stressed out right now. School and extracurriculars are in full swing, Halloween is upon us, Thanksgiving is basically tomorrow, and don’t even get me started on Christmas. On top of all the things, you’re probably attempting to schedule annual family portraits for memory’s sake and holiday cards, adding yet one more thing to your ever-expanding to-do list.

Even though you’re probably happy with the end result year after year, the actual process of preparing for and taking family photos can certainly stir up a lot of emotions for the entire family. Here are a few tips from a portrait photographer to help reduce stress and actually get you excited about capturing your family this fall. 

Schedule at Least Six Weeks in Advance.

If possible, get on your photographer’s schedule at least six weeks in advance. Not only will you have a better chance of booking the photographer, date, and time of your choice, but you will have plenty of lead time to take care of everything that needs to be done before showing up on location. 

  1. Outfit Planning: Whether you’re styling directly from your closet or going on a shopping spree, it takes time to plan what everyone is going to wear. I recommend choosing a color palette so everyone in your group can coordinate outfits (this is especially helpful for large group portraits). Pinterest has a wealth of visual suggestions when you type “photo outfit color palette” into the search bar. Always remember you can (and should!) reach out to your photographer ahead of time to discuss your vision for clothing, especially as it pertains to the location. They’ll serve as a great sounding board and help make sure you’re aware of any do’s and don’ts. 
  2. Book necessary appointments. Some clients like to complete personal grooming maintenance in advance of a photography session. From getting your eyebrows waxed, hair cut, roots touched up, lashes filled, Botox or fillers, or hair and makeup done; you’ll probably have to scatter these appointments across a few weeks in order to get them all done. To be clear, none of these things is necessary for family pictures. However, if you want to do one or more of them, make time well before the big day.
  3. Reserve time on all family members’ personal calendars. This is key, especially if you have opinionated teenagers involved or a partner who needs significant notice in order to take off work. Everyone involved should be given plenty of time to prepare for pictures or simply come to terms with the fact that a photoshoot is happening. I’ll never forget getting picked up from school in the ninth grade and feeling blindsided when I was told that we were headed straight to a photoshoot. I thought we’d be swinging by home first, but unfortunately, I didn’t have time to put on makeup or straighten my hair. 14-year-old me felt really insecure in front of the camera that day. By providing everyone with a heads-up of what to expect and when, you can avoid meltdowns and scheduling conflicts.

Set Clear Expectations With Your Photographer.

Chances are you’ve selected a photographer because you like their style and portfolio. Great! There is still room for you to discuss your hopes and dreams for the session, including the kinds of photos that are the most meaningful to you. Create a shot list (entire family, parents, siblings, grandparents and grandchildren, etc.), as well as specific poses and backgrounds that are important. It’s also helpful to mention desired photo orientation (landscape or portrait) if you have specific frames you want to update in your home. Open communication helps your photographer decide what to prioritize during the session and increases the chances you’ll be pleased with the outcome. 

If you don’t have a specific vision or requests, no worries. Some people prefer to show up and be told what to do, which professional photographers are completely fine with! However, if you want to have a say, say it as early as possible! 

Don’t Expect Perfection.

I recently overheard a mom saying, “I don’t want to spend money on a photo just to have my young children act up and ruin it.” First of all, I completely understand that point of view. Of course, the reality is that children throw tantrums, sullen teens refuse to smile, and your husband may be counting the seconds until it’s over. That being said, please trust that the photographer will capture microseconds that illustrate the beautiful moments between you and your people. 

Believe me, professional photographers work their magic by capturing the split second that your child breaks into a wide grin, or by making a screaming baby in Mom and Dad’s arms appear to be an intimate, loving moment as a family. Even if it feels like a “bust,” remember that the entire point of all of this is to document your family right here, right now. Don’t let personal insecurities, a difficult season of child-rearing, or a bad mood rob you of capturing these important snapshots in time. 

Schedule Around Your Children for Optimal Results.

When deciding when and where to meet your photographer, speak up if your children will be in better spirits at certain times of the day. Maybe your teen refuses to emerge from his dungeon before noon on the weekends. Maybe you need to get home by a certain time for dinner and a bedtime routine with babies and toddlers before cranky attitudes take over. Whatever the case may be, set your entire family up for success by selecting a date and time that works well for all included. 

In the event that your preferred time is unavailable or your kids behave out of character during a “good window” (which they may do), don’t underestimate the power of a good bribe. Ice cream after the session? A trip to the toy store for keeping it together in front of the photographer? I’ve heard it all, and frankly, they’re all effective motivators. 

Get Yourself Ready First.

Read that again. Yes, I know the kids need their hair combed, your partner needs their clothes laid out, people need to be fed before you leave, etc., etc. Let all of that go and get yourself ready FIRST. Once you’re feeling good and ready to go, I guarantee 75% of your stress will melt away and everything else will come together before it’s time to depart. I promise. From one mama to another, a good rule of thumb is to get ready over the course of a day or two. For example, wash and style your hair the night before and do the majority of your makeup in the morning. That way you’ll only have to make touch-ups within the hour before leaving. 

Be Early, Stay Safe, Chill Out. 

Speaking of departure, plan to leave about 15 minutes before you actually need to. If you show up early and hang out in a parking lot, so be it. It’s a much better alternative to sweating behind the wheel, running red lights, and praying you get there in time before you lose daylight or your photographer moves on to their next client for the day.

Take a Deep Breath and Relinquish Control.

Don’t laugh… hear me out. After managing the entire photoshoot process up until this point, I understand it may be laughable to give up a sense of control. But Mama, the key to looking natural, happy, and your best in front of the camera is to relax and trust the professional. Your role is to show up and be present with your family. That’s it! The photographer is responsible for everything else. 

I urge you to get lost in the moment and forget that anyone is there to take pictures. When you get out of your head, the stiff poses, forced smiles, and general awkwardness fades into the background. Best of all, when you’re actually making a happy memory (and not faking one), you can view your beautiful images later as a means to transport yourself back to that very moment after it’s slipped away.

Look, moms already carry more than their fair share of mental load. Do your future self a favor and reduce stress so you can actually look forward to picture day. When all goes well (notice I said when, not if) send me a message when you post your family portraits online this year! I can’t wait to see your relaxed, smiling faces (especially yours, Mom). Xoxo


(You can find contact information for Katie of Her Side Project & other local photographers on our directory page.)

Originally from the Live Music Capital of the World, Katie moved about the country (Nashville, TN, Seattle, WA and Athens, GA) for several years before settling in the Alamo City with her husband and young family in 2018. She's a lifestyle portrait photographer (always finding the good light), outdoorsy (…as in she likes to drink on patios), and an audiobook and podcast enthusiast (especially psychological thrillers). When she isn’t behind a camera or laptop, Katie is exploring the world with her husband, delightful daughter (2018), cheeky son (2021), and tiny pup. You can find her on Instagram (@hersideproject). Favorite Restaurant: Paloma Blanca 🕊️ Favorite Landmark: Mission Marquee Plaza Favorite San Antonio Tradition: Cascarones