When I was little, I dreamed of being a cowgirl when I grew up (inspired by my super cool grandma who lived out west). The hat, the boots, the fringe, I couldn’t get enough. Oh, what I would give now for a photograph of that memory of me back then. Instead, I have this (figure 1): an awkward family photo from around that same time. I recall it being a wearisome experience in which my scowl was later dubbed (and still lovingly referred to as), “frog face.”

Here’s the thing, I’m not the only one who doesn’t love the annual family portrait. Most children don’t like to be held still and have a difficult time warming up to the camera (after 16 years in wedding photography, I’ve met a fair number of adults who claim the same). Kids don’t understand what “smile” or “cheese” means. And often, if they do oblige, you end up with this (figure 2).

That is an Instagram picture of my children (Will, then 4, and Clara, 2) at a Sea Dogs baseball game. We had a blast! But I look at that image and think, “What goobers!” Smiling on command doesn’t at all capture their actual personalities or the pure joy of being at a ballgame.

Is frog face or cheesy smile really representative of what your children look like when they are having fun? When you look back at photos from your youth, are you most drawn to the posed portraits or the candid ones that bring back memories of your childhood?

If you’re like me, it’s the latter. They grow up too fast, and I want to remember these days as they were: our routine, their unique personalities, their burgeoning sibling bond. So I mostly always photograph them without interrupting, no matter what they are doing. Playing dress up, blowing out birthday candles, splashing in the tub, exploring in the woods or reading books together at night. I watch, and I’m thoughtful to capture a moment (and not just push the shutter for the sake of taking a picture) while being mindful of composition and lighting.

I learned this skill while studying photojournalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and later as a photographer and photo editor at USA Today and the Washington Post where my favorite assignments were, not-so-ironically, exclusive in-depth access of a presidential campaign and the Miss America Pageant. This behind-the-scenes approach translates beautifully into family work where the goal is always to go beyond a traditional family portrait and get to the good stuff, the real stuff, of everyday family life.

As both a parent and a professional, I find myself capturing images of other people’s families that I wish I had of my own. I get what you’re going through. And I’ve got you covered. No judging. Just respect, careful observation, and love.

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Figure  1:   frog

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Figure  2:   cheese