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How To || take a not-lame family portrait

A photographer tells how to defuse the process of taking a family portrait(as well as big-box-store confrontations)

© Jami Baker Nato

Jami is a wifey-mommy-photographer-blogger...not one of the annoying ones. Really, I promise, she's not.

(Not that she cares what you think.)

She decorates like Martha Stewart would if she got the stick out her ass.

She wears polka dots like a boss, and rocks a pixie cut better than anyone I've ever seen that wasn't Meg Ryan in a movie.

And one time, she accosted an abusive mother in a Wal-Mart and when things got heated, got the best of her antagonist by making weird faces until the woman backed off. (Watching her act this out is even funnier than the story itself.)

And this is her family Christmas photo...

Jami Nato photography

Recognize those jodhpurs? This year, the Nato family Xmas card is an homage to Ralph Lauren.

Last year, the honoree was Wes Anderson.

© Jami Baker Nato

The year before it was...I don't even know.

Hyannis Port, perhaps? Mad Men? Grey Gardens?

Somewhere where the ladies wear furs and the men smoke pipes around the children that both of them pretend to adore even though they farm out the rearing of them to kindly ethnic help.

(Incidentally, Jami's appraisal of the fur coat situation is funny stuff. Read it.)

© Jami Baker Nato

Jami's whole take on the family picture thing is that it's kind of ridiculous. I mean, how many families actually dress in coordinating colors and serenely stand in close proximity, smiling beatifically at each other?

Zero families, that's how many.

© Jami Baker Nato

It's pretty much Jami's style  to take the obvious by the balls and turn it into a joke. Everybody hates making the annual Christmas card out of brags, lies and a grueling photo sesh. Everybody hates reading each other's Christmas cards and comparing their internal truth with other people's lies.

So each year, she and her family protest this absurd tradition with a pointed send-up of that artifice.

And send it to everybody.

And a good time is had by all.

For those who'd like to achieve the disarming authenticity and cheeky charm of a Nato Xmas photo, with or without fancy dress, here are Jami's helpful tips:

© Jami Baker Nato

  • Don't just stand there.

Play on a playground. Interact with each other over something--toys, flowers, furniture. Tell each other jokes or stories.

Without movement, Jami says,

"you don't get any emotion. The kids are fake smiles, the mom is the stress smile, the dad is the annoying smile.
"If I can get real movement, I can get real smiles."

© Jami Baker Nato

One of Jami's favorite behind-the-camera techniques is to get people walking toward her.

"Have them do it the way they would do it. Some will hold hands, some will look at each other."

Another proven success for smiles is making fun of posed pictures.

"Look! You LOVE each other!" she'll say in a cloyingly sweet voice. "I've gotten a lot of good pictures by making fun of family pictures."

© Jami Baker Nato

  • Give it a time limit.
"Kids are tortured by having to sit there and pose," she says. "I tell them, 'If you guys will sit here and really smile five times, then we're going to have a race.'"

Another thing that works, to break the stress of trying to look all perfect and pleasant, is to take a few with everyone looking as serious (or mean, or sad) as they can. It's hard work, after all, looking like you're having a great time.

  • Reassure the mom.

The only reason this picture is happening, after all, is because Mom wanted it to. Everyone else is likely there under duress. And rest assured, Mom feels it--not only that it's on her to get a good picture, but to not annoy the photographer.

"I tell moms, 'I'm not stressed out. I'm going to capture your family's personality.'"

And those photos--with everyone going different directions, making crazy faces, looking away from the camera--are the ones they pick over the posey-matchy ones.

"Usually their favorites are of the kids being themselves. That sheepish grin, that snaggle-tooth smile--those are the things you'll look back on and say, 'That was so our kid.'"

© Jami Baker Nato

  • Know what you're getting...and giving.

If you're getting hired, make sure you know what style these people are looking for...and make sure it matches the kind of photos you are best at taking.

"If you're really traditional, I'm not your photographer. I will turn down a client when I know they want a super-posey studio situation."
  • Think about the end destination.

What do these people want to look at on their mantel all year?

"Painters paint, and photographers stylize. I think about what would be fun to be on someone's mantel. People will be like, 'What are these people up to?'"

© Jami Baker Nato


I know these photos are intimidatingly great. But don't be a hater. Read Jami's blog...you'll be really glad you did...and follow her Instas and Tweets.


P.S. Here are a few shots from a portrait session I did in Lancaster, Pa. This was before I received Jami's advice, but I feel now as if her spirit must have been hovering over me.

Frese family portrait, Lancaster, pennsylvania