Family Events – Be Involved AND Photograph It

As photographers, whether you want to or not you usually end up “documenting” family events.  Here is how to do that and still be part of the event!

[gap size=”5em”]Everyone has had a special occasion – a family trip, a birthday milestone, a family reunion – where you want to capture every minute of it, but you want to enjoy being a part of it while it’s happening. You want to tend to your guests, but you want to photograph the party.  Even if you aren’t comfortable in front of the camera, your friends and family want to see you there in the photos. Striking the balance between being the photographer who documents the event and being truly present and engaged with your event is a challenge. Here are some suggestions for you that will help you get those memories captured without looking back at the photos and wondering if you were actually there.

Keep It Simple

If you are going on a family trip for a few days or even only a day, pick one lens to take with you. Don’t be tempted to bring a lot of gear. For one thing, that bag of gear seems to get heavier as the day goes on. Think about what you plan to be doing, what time of day you will be using your camera, and how you plan to use those photos when you get back home. Look through what you gear you have and pick one lens that would be generally the most useful in all the scenarios you anticipate.  Go with that one lens for the duration of your trip. It’s unlikely that even the best gear in the world will make a landscape shot at 2 o’clock in the afternoon look as good as one taken during the golden hour.  If that’s when you will be there with your family, then taking an extra lens probably won’t really improve the scene much. If you plan to use your vacation photos in a smaller format, such as a slideshow, or digital frame, or even a small photo book, the extra sharpness you might get from using a set of prime lenses instead of a possibly lower quality general purpose zoom lens also won’t be noticed. What will be more useful are a few small accessories – such as polarizing filter, a spare battery, and extra memory cards in a card wallet.

You benefit in both in quality time with your family and in testing your creativity from this minimalistic approach. Your family will appreciate that you can be more involved with them, and less involved with your gear. Your creativity is tested because you can’t just reach into the bag for a different lens. Move your feet, change your position, try a higher or lower angle.   You also get an opportunity to learn what you can do with that one lens inside and out. And, your back will thank you for not hauling all that heavy gear around all day.

Except When You Don’t Want To!

Sometimes, you need the “good stuff” with you. I know what you’re thinking, “You just said only one lens!” True, but if you are going on a trip where you can fit in some photo time, take that tripod, landscape lens, or zoom lens. I try to do this on family vacations every year – I am up before dawn and back before anyone notices. I will also add that I only do this on trips where I know I have a secure place to stow the extra gear while I am out and about with the family – using just one lens.


Get Everyone Involved

Start them at an early age.  Photo credit:  Gina Gallagher
Start them at an early age. Photo credit: Gina Gallagher

Introduce your kids to photography at an early age. You don't need to invest in a new DSLR for your budding photographer – a cheap point and shoot digital is all that they really need to start developing an eye. Let them play around and see what they find to shoot. Sometimes the perspectives they choose will really surprise you. I know I’ve come home from vacation, unloaded a card, and found a few really impressive compositions from my young ones. Consider making the young photographers part of the event by “assigning” different things to different family members – one person in charge of video, one person in charge of people, one person in charge of flowers, etc. – then making a slideshow or photo book from everyone’s images that really captures the event from differing views. The best part of getting your kids involved with you – it’s a great hobby that you can enjoy together more and more as you all get older together.


[gap size=”2em”]Detail Shots In Advance

Before the party starts, photograph the details so you can you turn your attention to your guests when they arrive. Think of the details you want to remember – perhaps it’s a birthday cake, party decorations, or food preparation for your event. Videographers call it “B-roll” footage when they take video of the things that aren't necessarily anticipated as being part of the main topic or video presentation.  The same applies for great memory making slideshows and photo books.  Capture everything you created, and then enjoy your creations!

Hand Off

Hand the camera over to a friend, and get yourself in the photo. Take a minute to check the camera settings before you do, unless you surround yourself with knowledgeable photographers. If you have a camera with a fully automatic setting, switch into that mode before you hand it over. If you have a camera without a fully automatic mode, remember to set the camera up so that all your friend needs to do is press the shutter. Check the exposure mode, autofocus mode, ISO, and white balance. Program auto exposure mode is a safe bet. Don’t assume your friend will understand that the little square that lights up in the viewfinder is where the camera will focus. Disable back button focus if you use it, and switch your autofocus into automatic mode before handing it over. Maybe you could have taken a better portrait yourself with a wider aperture and choosing the focus point manually, but your friend may not understand how to use the camera. Better to slide it over to auto and have a usable photo rather than a well intentioned blurry mess.

Self-Timer or Remote

Use the self-timer, and dash into the group photo. It can be done. It may take a few tries, but it can be done. I actually really love these shots. To me, the interaction that occurs while the timer is waiting to fire the shutter is just part of the fun.   Make sure that you place your camera in a spot that can support the camera and not permit it to fall. Frame the shot a little bit wider in case you are unable to get the camera suitably level so you will have room to straighten out the photo later. If you have your tripod on hand, now is the time to pull that out and set up your camera on it.

A remote shutter release allows you to remotely trigger the shutter without touching the camera. This little device is handy not only for hopping in your own photos, but also for situations where reducing camera movement is critical.  Some camera models are compatible with an IR remote, which is a fairly inexpensive piece of gear. Just be careful to make sure that the remote has line of sight to the camera’s sensor or that the signal can bounce the signal to the camera’s sensor. You may have to set your camera up to receive the signal from the remote. Check your user manual to see what applies to your particular model.

Be sure that common sense prevails and don’t put down your expensive DSLR in a high theft area!

Hire a Professional

We all want to be the one behind the camera, taking the photos. Sometimes, though, it’s really important to get IN FRONT of the camera. The best way to do that and get great photos is to hire someone to cover your event. Think about your wedding – you didn’t walk down the aisle with a DSLR strapped to your neck, or hit the self-timer just before the first kiss. These were important moments that you entrusted to a professional to capture for you so you could focus on your day. You can certainly be choosey here since you are paying for the service, and as a photographer you may know as much or more about it than someone you hire, but remember to be polite and professional.  Imagine how you would feel if you were hired to cover an important event of a professional photographer.  You may even see if a photographer friend might be willing to trade events and hand over the RAW files when it is all done, can't hurt to ask.


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