How to Dress for Having a Family Picture Taken


Tomorrow is our dreaded annual tradition, when my amateur photographer friend and I attempt to take holiday pictures of our families.   I’ve been doing all my photo prep to look my best; watching the carbs, skipping the wine and hitting the gym so my package is about as good as it gets these days.

Still, I can’t stand being in front of the camera. I love being behind the lens; it gives me great joy to use my camera to show people the beauty I see in them.  But in front of the camera I freeze and somehow always look like I have to pee.  Or I do the “I’m self conscious so I’ll throw my child in front of me” pose.

And then there’s figuring out what to wear.

Fortunately, thanks to years of trial and error (and working with photographers in my day job), I’ve stashed away some survival tips to turn my DIY family photo shoot into something that doesn’t make me cringe:

1. Ask yourself what you want to convey and who the audience is.

My goal is for my family and I to look casually charming and happy (with my son being the hero) for a holiday card that will go to everyone we know – extended family, friends, school parents, some colleagues, etc.  To help us get channel that effortless J. Crew family glow, we’re taking a  photo-journalist approach to shooting, so it looks as though our friend just stumbled upon us looking playfully adorable.

This will take all day.

To stack the odds in our favor, we’re shooting outside because natural light is a Godsend for amateurs.  Lucky for us, NYC also provides great backdrops which gives nice context to wear we live, and makes it easier for us to move around and pretend we’re adorably spontaneous.

Bonus extra: I get to wear a coat which, you know… hides things.

Well this makes a statement

This basically says the really like Colt 45. Not what we’re after

2. When it comes to wardrobe, think complimentary colors and patterns.  Not match matchy

I understand the temptation to just say screw it and get a family uniform of white shirts and khakis, but you want to look like a family, not a cult.  Instead, think about a palette and colors that don’t clash.  In my case, I have a navy coat I like so because I’m starting there because I’m the most vain challenging to dress.  From there I used camel and deep red (sparingly) with accents of  black, gray and green.


3. Don’t wear head to toe solid color, especially solid black, red or white 

White can overexpose, while black and red can easily create too much harsh contrast.  You can use them in small doses or in patterns.

4. Dress in contrast to your background

We’re going to be shooting in Central Park where there’s a mix of autumn gold leaves lingering, pine trees and green on the fields.  So for us, too much solid green and orangey rust colors are out because we’ll could into the background depending on where we shoot.

5. A little bit of detail goes a long way

As much as I like faux fur, statement necklaces and tiaras, for a casual ensemble shot like this it’s easy for them to distract.  Instead, I’ll go with simple studs (pearl or something diamond-ish) that adds light to my face.

On the other hand, patterns can be surprisingly great, provided you don’t go nuts with anything overly large.  As you can see above, I actually like my patterns to clash just a wee bit to offset anything looking too fussy.

Too much detail

Too much detail

6. Resist the temptation to hide your body behind something shapeless — or another person

You will only look like a tent.  Stick to clothes that have some structure and tailoring to them.   No puffer coats or ski jackets unless they’re fitted.

7. Bring a bag of accessories, props and stuff

If anything, this provides visual interest and gives you something to fiddle with, which relaxes you.

Last year, our son wore this ridiculous fur trapper (see collage above) made the shot cute.  And scarves are the unsung heros of wardrobe styling.  Just a simple wrap around your neck adds a pop of color that lights your whole face up.  Even though the Burberry scarf moment is kind of over, it’s great for photos because it has just enough red to give it pop.

Props can also help you have fun.  Friends of ours always do this with their ski equipment, tennis rackets and Santa hats.  It’s silly, but everyone looks like they’re having a good time in that Royal Tennenbaums meets The Hilifigers kind of way.

And if no earmuffs.  You’ll look like Princess Leia.


8. Get lit

More important than hair, make-up or looking like Miranda Kerr and Orlando Bloom is excellent lighting.   My preference is natural light early in the morning or late afternoon before the sun goes down.  Avoid noon if at all possible; it’s harsh and flattens the features on your face although if it’s an overcast day you might be able to get away with it.  Flash is evil to women, although if you’re stuck shooting at noon you can use a more subtle fill flash to compensate for any shadows.

9. Don’t just stand there, DO something

Lets face it; most of look constipated in pictures because it’s completely unnatural to stand there and look happy when someone says “cheese”.

Move damn it!

Move damn it!

A good photographer is like a good director who can draw out your inner ham by getting you to do all sorts of nutty things.  Here are some that have worked well for me.

  • Do 10 jumping jacks before the shot, just to relax the muscles and get the blood flowing.
  • Instead of cheese, try saying your vowels, “A.E.I.O.U.” to relax your jaw and get more natural smiley expressions.
  • Do NOT let yourself be photographed from below.  The photographer must be at your eye level or higher to avoid the dreaded double chin
  • If standing makes you feel awkward, sit cross-legged, use steps (leaning forward, with your elbows on your knees).  Or lean against something so you’re not just standing straight on.
  • Equally important, the photographer should try multiple angles – never just straight on.
  • Lastly, try doing some of the things you would naturally, like eating a hot dog, sipping a cup of coffee, hail a taxi, checking your phone or try a family reaction shot to something.  Or just let loose and have fun; play hopscotch, take a swing, get a balloon and play on the monkey bars.

Lastly, just remember that the camera LIES and that we’re always more attractive in person.  And that’s why there are friends and Photoshop.

Happy shooting!

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