What to capture: family reunions | Athens, PA photographer / by Lisa Robinson-Howeler

This is part of my weekly post, What to Capture, where I give you ideas what photographs you will want to capture at an event or family gathering to be sure you document the day for your memories.

For more in the series click HERE.

Family reunions. The butt of many sitcoms jokes but actually a gathering many families look forward to. 
My family is small with mostly older members and family reunions don't happen often, or really never. But for many a family reunion is an annual event where members of their extended family gather, catch up and reminisce about each other, their childhoods and crazy Uncle Bob.
For the most part what to capture with your camera at a family reunion is pretty straight forward. You photograph the family all together in one shot.  Of course that is the most important photograph of the day but it isn't the only photograph you should snap.

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First, a little advice on that big family photo:

One, make sure you don't let anyone leave the reunion early, before that group photo is taken. The timing of the photograph should be somewhere near the middle of the event so enough people have arrived but also so not too many have left. If someone does announce that they need to leave then that's your cue to stop what you're doing and announce that it's time to gather for the family photograph. 

This is your chance to be bold and a bit forceful because you know at least one family member is going to try to duck out, hide behind a plant or whine that their hair looks horrible. Don't get into a family brawl over it because that's not great for family bonding, but do what you can to convince that family member that their presence in the photo is needed to show a true representation of the entire family. Remind the reluctant subject the photograph isn't about them but about future generations knowing who their ancestors were. 

Once you have convinced everyone to be in the group photo, I would suggest chairs for the older generation to sit in and that young children sit on the ground in front of the chairs. File the teenagers and adults standing behind the younger and older generations and try to group immediate family members together when possible. Do your best to layer the groups so that they don't spread out to the sides too far. Six to eight people in a row is a good number  to avoid the photograph being taken too far back and leaving you squinting to see faces because you, or the photographer had to stand far away to get everyone in.
 

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If you have risers to place the teens and adults on to keep the rows short, and make sure you can see everyone's face, then use them but chances are most people won't be that prepared, so improvise with picnic tables, rock walls, chairs, or benches. Just be sure all the items you stand a person on are stable because you don't want to have an ambulance trip ruin all the fun. Should an ambulance have to be called, though, be sure to take photographs because that's going to be an awesome story for next year's family reunion as long as there are only broken bones and no serious injuries *wink*.

When you look through the viewfinder make sure you can see everyone's face. Tell cousin Steve to come from behind the tree and Grandma to stop hiding her face behind her fan. Make sure to take more than one photograph in case someone blinks or moves or a child spits up. Ask everyone to look your way for the final image but don't be afraid to snap a few shots while everyone is getting set up because sometimes those in between moments are the most memorable. If you have two people photographing, have one person focus on the people as they line up for the photograph. Some of the most special interactions can come while setting up for the photograph.

In addition to the family photo there are some other posed photographs you will want to make sure you take.

Immediate family units

If you have a large family, gathering immediate family members from each branch of the tree for individual images is a good idea. This would include, for example, a husband and wife and their children. If you then want to add in the parents and siblings of the spouses you can do that too, but don't get too crazy or you'll be taking the entire group family photo again. You don't have to be too fancy with these photos but try yo make sure everyone is looking at you and nothing appears to be sticking out of the top of their head when take the photograph. Pay attention to your backgrounds. Be aware that if you place dad in front of a certain background, he could end up looking like he has deer antlers unless you either move him or yourself before pressing the shutter.

Grandparents and grandchildren and great grandchildren

Gathering the great grandparents together for their own photograph is a good idea. Then gather together the grandparents for their own photograph and then gather together both the great grandparents and grandparents for a photograph. Add in the great grandchildren with the great-grandparents and the grandchildren with their grandparents as well. Depending on how large your family is this could be quite an undertaking so you will need to decide if you want to do just one large group photo or the individual photos.

New additions

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Each year can bring new additions to the family whether by birth or adoption or by marriage. Be sure to grab either a standalone photo with these new members or a group photo with them and their immediate family. And of course they will be included in the larger group family photo if you don't get the opportunity for individual photos.

Generation photos

Family reunions are a great opportunity to capture a four or five or whatever number generation photograph. This is usually a great grandparent, grandparent, parent, child and grandchild all together in one photograph. It's important to capture these images whenever you are all together because, not to be morbid or a downer, you may not have the chance again if a member of the older generation passes away before the next reunion. I usually have the older members of the family sit in a chair or on a couch and place the other members around them or behind them. If there are young grandchildren or great grandchildren involved placing them on the lap of their great grandparent or grandparent not only creates a nice photograph but a nice moment for the older and younger generations. Never be afraid to snap the shutter during those in between moments before you ask everyone to look at the camera. You might capture a special glance between grandpa and grandchild that will mean more to you than the photo where everyone is looking at the camera at the same time. 
Don't be upset if every child isn't looking at the camera at the same time either. Their expression or where they are looking instead may make a more memorable photograph in the long run.  Repeatedly telling a child to look at the camera can not only create stress  for you but for them as well. 

Candids

Be sure to capture candid photographs of the day. If Dad is playing a trick on his younger brother, take the photo. Capture laughter, expressions of delight as family members arrive and see each other again, grandchildren running to their grandparents, cousins talking to each other, siblings wrestling each other and any family reunion traditions that might be held. 
Two tips: don't photograph people in mid-bite while they are eating and limit how many photographs of the food you take. No one really needs to look back and see Aunt Ruth with a cheek full of hamburger or cousin Frank with ketchup trickling down his chin. The future generation will probably not be interested in Instagram like photos of the food either, unless someone made an amazing cake that everyone will marvel at for years to come or the dish is a special family recipe, As much as possible, try to include a person with each image you take because, obviously, a family reunion is about people and about capturing the memories for those people and the future generation.

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If you take the photographs yourself don't forget to put the camera down part of the time and enjoy yourself, living in the moments of the event without looking through the viewfinder. And don't overthink the photographs too much and cause unnecessary anxiety for a day that is meant to be fun and memorable. 

Checklist for what to capture

  • Group family photo
  • Immediate family members
  • Great grandparents alone
  • Grandparents alone
  • Great grandparents and grandparents together
  • Great-grandparents with their great grandchildren
  • Grandparents with their grandchildren
  • New family members (by marriage or new babies)
  • Generation photograph
  • Candid images from the day

Do you have an idea for the what to capture series? If you do, let me know in the comments or by emailing me at lisahoweler@gmail.com or via the contact form on this site