Genealogy: Photographing family gatherings

Genealogy: Photographing family gatheringsBy Barry J. Ewell

For over 40 years I have used the camera to capture the lives of my family and friends.  The camera has been a very important tool in my professional career in public relations and advertising.  I first started with a film camera and spent hundreds of wonderful/fun hours in a dark room developing and printing my on prints.  Since the late 90’s I have used the digital camera extensively in to aid in my genealogical research.

I would like to share with you a few of the lessons I have learned when photographing family gatherings.

Family gatherings can include funerals, reunions, weddings, events, holiday gatherings, or special occasions (e.g., anniversaries, birthdays, award ceremonies). Each provides a unique opportunity to take photos of the newest arrival, friends of family, individuals, couples, cousins, brothers and sisters, generations of families and any unique combination you desire.

  1. Capture the emotion:
    1. With every special occasion comes some unforgettable emotion.
    2. Capture those spontaneous giggles, hugs, tears and surprises that will crop up when you don’t expect them.
    3. Be ready to shoot!
  2.  Show the candles aglow:
    1. For those “candle holidays” like birthdays, Christmas and Hanukkah, consider capturing the special glow that only a lit candle can provide.
    2. To do this, turn off your flash and hold your camera very steady by bracing it on a railing, tabletop or door frame.
  3. 3. Avoid red-eye when using flash:
    1. Of course you can always use the picture-editing software to eliminate red-eye.
    2. One great way to avoid red-eye is to have your subject look over your shoulder instead of directly into the camera.
    3. Turning all the lights on in the room is helpful as well.
    4. Make sure you use your camera’s red-eye reduction feature if you have one available to you.
  4. Stay within the flash range:
    1. Make sure to check the flash range of your camera:
      1. Subjects too close to the flash will appear washed out.
      2. If they are out of range they will be too dark.
    2. The typical digital flash range is between six and ten feet; a film camera has a flash range of up to fifteen feet.
    3. Install fresh batteries and have an extra set ready (recharged).
    4. Weak batteries will give you dark photographs.
  5. Avoid flash reflections:
    1. When you have a mirror and window in the background of a flash photograph, count on the reflection ruining your photograph.
    2. If a reflective background is unavoidable, stand diagonally from the subject of your photograph to reduce the glare of the flash.
  6. Use natural light:
    1. Cloudy, overcast days provide the best lighting for pictures of people.
    2. Bright sun makes people squint and it throws harsh shadows on their faces.
    3. On overcast days the soft light flatters faces.
    4. Indoors, try turning off the flash and use the light coming in from a window to give your subject a soft appearance.
    5. Hold your camera extra steady or use a tripod.
  7. Get close:
    1. Don’t be afraid to get close to your subject.
    2. Too much background can clutter the photograph and take the focus off the subject.
    3. Close up night-time scenes will be brighter and detail will be much sharper with a close-in shot.
  8. Ask family to gather in groups:
    1. Don’t be timid in asking persons to gather and take photos; it may be the only chance you get to take that photo.
    2. Get permission to take people’s photos.
    3. Encourage individuals to be in a photo even when they don’t want to.
  9. Use your zoom.
    1. When you use the zoom you have the ability to be inconspicuous and find special moments.
  10. Tell a story of the event:
    1. a. Take pictures of the event as it unfolds.
    2. b. Take a picture of grandma as she gets out of the car, participates in the festivities with family and friends, and her final departure; these pictures can provide a timeline of events that will be a family treasure.
    3. Take photos of children playing Frisbee or playing Monopoly.
  11. Use a simple background:
    1. Remember that a lot of stuff in the background can clutter your shot and alter the focus of your picture.
    2. Try and put the subject of your photograph in front of something plain and uncluttered.
    3. Nobody wants to see dad with a potted plant or light post growing out of the top of his head.
    4. If this is impossible, reposition yourself to get distracting background objects out of view.
  12. Take candid shots:
    1. Resist the temptation to pose everyone perfectly for photographs.
    2. Candid shots often capture the personalities of the people and give a better representation of the event.
    3. Variety creates a lot of visual interest, so mix up your photographs for the best possible results.
  13. Provide one-time-use cameras:
    1. Remember that everyone has a different point of view.
    2. If you provide several one-time-use cameras for everyone to use, you will find a variety of types of pictures (and vantage points) that will give a wonderful collection of photos to choose from when you begin to put together an album of the event.
  14. Put yourself in the picture:
    1. Hand your camera to someone else to take pictures of you with friends and family.
    2. Return the favor by taking a snapshot of your photographer with his or her camera.