Balancing Documenting Your Family and Being Present

Growing up, I remember my mother (the self-appointed family historian) taking out her Pentax K1000 and taking photos of myself and my 4 siblings during momentous occasions in our childhood. The camera always carefully stored on a shelf, brought out only during the special moments that punctuated our childhood. I vividly remember standing patiently in front of the camera, my mother carefully composing each photo. The photos were then printed and placed in the huge albums on bookshelves.

Just as my mother before me, I rarely ever find myself without some type of camera. We live in the age of photography, where every moment (momentous, and not-so momentous) is recorded. In this age of documentation (and some over-documentation) it begs the question:

How do we balance the need and desire to capture each special moment, while still being present and interacting with the people we love?

As my own children have grown, I have tried different approaches to capturing the precious moments of my family. I have tried finding balance by hitting every extreme. I have arrived at dance recitals, preschool graduations, or soccer games juggling three different cameras; and I have casually showed up armed with only an iPhone, stressing out that I would run out of storage, light, or battery halfway through my daughter’s dance solo. While I am constantly adjusting the equipment I use, and altering my approach to documenting as my children enter into different stages of life, there are few ways I’ve helped myself stay centered. The following list describes a few strategies I’ve adopted to help me balance my desire to be fully present for my family, without missing out on capturing the moments that are most important to myself and my family, for us to cherish and pass down to future generations.

 

Timing

When your son or daughter scores the game winning goal or performs the piano song they have been working on for months and they proudly look in your direction, the last thing you want to give them is the memory of you with a camera for a face. So drop the camera, and share in the joy and triumph. During those pivotal moments, I try to anticipate the key moment, whether it be the piano song finale, or the game-winning basket, and take the shot before or after those moments. That is right, I take THE shot, and then I put my camera down. There is no need to immediately scroll through the back of camera screen to see if you got the shot or keep shooting “just in case.” Trust your instincts, it is a great feeling to take the shot you want, then put the camera aside and experience the excitement of the moment first-hand with your family.

 

Limit Your Role Of Family Photographer

When I am photographing my children, I give myself a time limit and then the camera gets put away. For example, with three daughters, I have been through enough dance recitals to know that the dress rehearsal looks the same in photographs as the actual performance. I limit myself to photographing my daughters only during the dress rehearsal so that I can sit back and enjoy their actual performance. The same point is applicable to a lot of different events, take photos of the pre-game warm-up, then then sit back and enjoy cheering for your child in their big game. Likewise, take photos only during the first 15 minutes of your child’s birthday party, then put the camera away and enjoy interacting with your guests.

Limiting your time as the family photographer extends into your editing time too. The excitement of an event can last beyond the event itself. After a big game, or performance, take some time to talk to your child and family about what they liked or how they felt during in the events. Looking through your new shots may be tough to resist, but try to save the editing and culling until after your kids have gone to bed, and you have a few moments to yourself.

Manage Your Expectations

When I take photos on vacation, I have lofty visions of perfectly timed and composed photos; when in reality, those magazine-worthy family photos are few and far between. Knowing this, I approach my vacation photos differently than how I approach a family session. I always make it a point to take one photo with everyone in it, but that is it. If I set up my group photo, I take one or two photos and then I stop. I cut myself off because I know that my photos will not be on par with perfectly posed family photos that come from photo sessions dedicated to capturing the perfect group photo. If I can’t get everyone together on my own, I will try to get everyone in a frame without setting it up. For instance if my four kids are playing in the waves at a beach, I will take that shot and call that my group photo. It is okay on some occasions, to view your family photos as a “take what you can get situation.” Remember that the purpose of documenting the group is to capture the happy family memories. Pushing and prodding your family for that “perfect photo” will only make everyone miserable, and that will show in the photos.

Observe, Don’t Direct

I love every opportunity I can get to stop and simply observe my kids interacting with their surroundings. I find that this is the perfect time to take the photos that end up meaning the most to me as a parent. The candid moments are when your family is unaware of the camera and they are simply being themselves, these moments highlight the personalities of your family members, and often turn out far more honest and meaningful than any posed photo. The moment I start giving directions, I get vastly different photos. There really is something beautiful about the spontaneous interactions that happen when your family is relaxed and not trying to act a certain way for the camera.

Shoot Film

When I switched over from mainly being a digital photographer to using film to document my family, I noticed a big change in the way I shoot. Not only does film give you a hard and fast limit on how many photos you take, I’ve found that it inspires me to concentrate less on the gear, and more on being there for my family. With a film camera, I don’t have the screen on the back of my camera to distract me, and I become better about taking only the shots that I feel are important. It is liberating to take a photo and know you got the shot, then relax and be both mentally and physically present for your family.

I love that we live in this era of photography, it has never been easier and more fun to document your family; it has also never been easier to over document your family. It is an amazing feeling to be able to have the photographs from different occasions, and also have the real memory of being present for the experience. Photographs are not the only way to create memories, being present in the moment is just as important for creating lasting memories for your family. I encourage every self-appointed family historian, to time your shots, limit your photo taking time, change your expectations, and try your hand at shooting film. Once you shift your focus to making memories, and capturing only the highlights, you’ll find it easier to let go of your camera when it matters, and be present for your family.

 

Charlene Hardy
Charlene Hardy is a Kennewick Washington based photographer and educator that specializes in families and children. She is also an avid black and white film photographer.