Documentary session Q&A: how to make your family's session memorable | Northern Virginia Family Photographer

If you're interested in a family documentary photography session, it's likely that you're looking to capture your family's honest moments, interactions, and connections in a way that you can look back on for years to come. But how do you ensure that your session is “honestly” filled with fun, loving, photographic moments? Can you plan both honest and spontaneous?  I think so.  The goal of planning for a documentary session is to be able to look back on your images and recognize a reflection of this particular season in your life. That may be quiet or chaotic, adventure-filled or low key. The point is that it's you.

Toddler girl in kitchen with mom in Springfield, VA by Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

There are two ways to go about “planning” a documentary family session. I put planning on quotations, because it's not so much planning as it is reflecting on what's important to your family and how best to capture that in a session.

A key element of documentary family photography is how flexible it is. Each session is adaptable to the photographer and family working together. Documentary family photographers put families at ease and turn what can be a stressful activity into an opportunity to be fully present with your family, with no expectations except to be yourselves and enjoy being together.

Little girl resting her feet on Dad's legs by Northern Virginia Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

For some families, this may mean planning specific activities in advance. Knowing what's to come (and preparing the rest of your family) can be a good way to set some expectations. For other families, planning itself is stressful and spontaneity rules the day.

Here are a few common questions and answers to put your mind at ease when choosing and preparing for a documentary family session.

What type of activities should we plan? How many things should we do?

The most important aspect to consider when preparing activities for your session is, “Is this something my family would normally do?” Staging a pillow fight or baking cookies makes for lovely photos, but consider what you want to remember (and what you want your kids to remember) when looking back on the images years from now. If baking is not your forte and you spend much of the activity worrying about the giant mess and overconsumption of raw cookie dough, then stress and the moment feeling “forced” is likely what you'll remember when seeing those photos.

If, on the other hand, you have a family tradition of making your grandmother's pancake recipe on Sundays and then piling onto the couch for cartoons, you're on to something. Or maybe you play board games in your pajamas. Or dig for worms in the garden.

There's no shortage of ideas.  Just choose something you enjoy doing together as a family and not just something you think will make for cute photos.  

Girl playing piano with Dad in Northern Virginia by Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

No plan, no problem

I used to be a big planner (and a baker, for that matter), but having kids (and a husband resistant to routines and schedules) has left me no choice but to live in the moment a bit more.  Planning can be stressful with so many factors at play that can easily derail a strict itinerary.

For cases like this, it's perfectly fine for the plan to be, “let's go with the flow.” You might have an idea or two in mind of possible activities, but you're ready to adapt to whatever the mood calls for when the time comes. Maybe it's raining and a walk to the park is out of the question, so you build blanket forts inside instead. The point is for everyone to feel at ease with no pressure to perform. Kids especially pick up on stressors like this and will tend to do the exact opposite of what you're going for in a situation like that. If you instead allow them to lead the way or give them a voice in choosing, you'll naturally end up with honest, fun, and loving moments.

LIttle girl nursing in home session in Northern Virginia by Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

I hope you enjoyed these images from my session with this Northern Virginia family.  We discussed many options leading up to their session.  Their ultimate decision to have a few activities in mind, but let their daughter lead the way, made for a perfectly relaxed session filled with genuine connection and beautiful, loving moments.

Want to learn how to document your family's everyday?  Check out 4 Steps to Stop Time and Savor the Moment with Your Family.  It's a simple and fun guide to documenting your family's life with beautiful photographs.