Six Cousins: Thoughts on Kid Group Photos
NOTE: Images with an icon next to them have been artificially shrunk to better fit your screen; click the icon to restore them, in place, to their regular size.
Six Cousins Anthony (6) ,   Grace (4) ,   Josh (3) Luke (2) Titi (4 mo) ,   Jena (10 mo) -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2009 Jeffrey Friedl,
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 160 mm — 1/400 sec, f/5, ISO 280 — full exif
Six Cousins
Anthony (6),   Grace (4),   Josh (3)
Luke (2)
Titi (4 mo),   Jena (10 mo)

I've been quite busy helping my folks with some cleanup projects lately, but wanted to do at least a quick post from the Conflagration of Cousins week, which has now finally ended, as all but Anthony have returned to their various far-away corners of the world.

We attempted a group shot of the six kids, a short but stressful event that was doomed to failure from the start due to lack of planning on the part of the photographer (me).

First I'll recount what actually happened, then, based upon what I learned, what we should have done differently.

I told all the parents (my siblings) to pair up with their kid and be ready in five minutes. Since my kid (Anthony) is six and the oldest and has a lot of experience standing while Daddy takes photos, I asked him to be helpful to the other kids so we could get a photo. At the appointed time my sister Marci got the older four kids arranged on the toy backhoe as I found a good vantage spot for the camera, then the two babies were brought in and I started snapping shots.

The two oldest looked at the camera and smiled, and the other four looked all around aimlessly, sometimes at one of the various adults arrayed around the yard, or at the sand pile, or whatever caught their attention for that microsecond. The older kids' attention then went to the younger kids who were not paying attention, and soon each of the six kids were looking in a different direction.

Seeing this lack of photogenicity, the parents started jumping and yelling and clapping.... Look here honey..... smile.... look at Mommy..... smile..... The kids' reaction to this display of lunacy varied depending on the kid and the moment, but they ranged among indifference, smiles, bewilderment, and tears.

Photographer and Crazies Photo by Grandma Friedl -- Rootstown, Ohio, USA -- Copyright 2009 Phyllis Friedl
Canon PowerShot SD870 IS — 1/60 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image datanearby photos
Photographer and Crazies
Photo by Grandma Friedl

The only ones not acting crazy were me ('cause I had the camera), and my folks. My mom, having gone through this each year for our Christmas picture when we were kids, just smiled and chuckled a well-earned “now it's your turn” chuckle.

Here's our family Christmas card picture from 35 years ago, in 1974, as my folks were working on an addition to the house:

Al and Phyllis Friedl Family, 1974
Mike, Alan, Steve, Mom, Jeff, Dad, Marci

I'm below my Dad, standing on the backhoe stabilizer foot. We have wonderful shots from every year, and I actually remember the experiences for the ones starting when I was four years old.

They're great memories now, but it was a huge ordeal to get the shots, as one or more of us kids were usually in a bad mood or otherwise uncooperative. Generally, once we were old enough to understand (that is, old enough to know that it was eating into our play time but we weren't getting anything out of it), we hated it. We all complained, and the moment the first picture was taken we all tried to bolt, only to be called back for a few more frames, “just in case”.

Perhaps it's a bit late, but I think I speak for all my siblings when I finally say “sorry, and thanks” to my folks. I suppose the thanks applies not only to creating these photo memories, but also to little details like raising us to be good people. Thanks Mom and Dad.

Oh, and by the way, the backhoe in the cousin shot is a homage to the 1974 family photo, my sister Marci's wonderful idea.

So, what did I learn about taking a photo of a group of kids?

First, parents and grandparents and other things that tend to grab a kid's attention should all be generally behind the camera, so that the kids appear to be looking at the camera if they're looking at someone. I have pictures where half of the kids are looking off to one side, and surprise surprise, my mom (way off to one side) has a picture at the exact same moment of half the kids looking right at her. In the “Crazies” photo above, one parent (Natalie) is too far off to the side, so her daughter (the infant, Titi) spent most of the time looking that way.

Second, prep the older kids. Each parent of an old-enough kid should talk to the kid beforehand, one on one away from everyone else, and do whatever is required to put them in the right frame of mind to look at the camera and smile. Candy and bribes of toys if they do a good job are the order of the day here. If you're the type of parent who, like me, is reticent to use bribes, make an exception (or forego the photo shoot, unless a photo of a brooding, pouty kid is your idea of a fond memory).

Third, prep the younger kids. This usually involves timing their naps or feedings so that they're in their best mood. If a kid is usually grumpy right after waking up (as I am), don't schedule the shoot for just after their nap. And have lots of treats on hand to ply them (and the photographer) with.

Fourth, and this is just a guess, but I think it would have been helpful if the photographer had a really wild and silly hat of some kind, so that the parents could invite the kids to look at it. That's much easier, and more fun, than “look at the camera” or "look at Uncle Jeffy (even though you can't see him behind that big camera thingie)."

Fifth, plan a bit more about exactly where the kids will stand, and do some tests ahead of time with something standing in for the kids, to test focus, background, and composition. I neglected to do this, and as a result, did not realize that Jena (the toddler standing in front) was slightly out of focus in every shot.

I learned all this too late, and there wasn't a single photo (of the several dozen I took over the course of a minute or two) where more than half of the kids were looking at the camera with some semblance of a smile. But, this is the digital age, and I was able to take parts from four separate photos and comp them together in Photoshop to create the photo that leads this post.

It's not great, but it'll make for a nice memory.

All 10 comments so far, oldest first...

Great advice for shooting kids Jeff. Something I picked up from a DIY photography site… “Pez” dispensers have a foot which can be altered very simply so they fit in the camera hotshoe. They stick up the camera and kids think they’re funny and look at them. The best bit is that you can change them to whatever character you want as Pez dispensers come in so many designs.

— comment by Matthew on August 15th, 2009 at 8:52pm JST (14 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Awesome post. Loved the blow by blow description. We have a similar experience with our extended family, and have learned similar tricks you outlined over time.

Thanks for the smile.


— comment by Chris on August 16th, 2009 at 7:12am JST (14 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Look at Jena standing so well at 10 months! I think the photo turned out very well.

— comment by Joanna (in Austin) on August 16th, 2009 at 2:42pm JST (14 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Beautiful photoshopping!

— comment by Marcina, USA on August 17th, 2009 at 8:46am JST (14 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Just some random thoughts:
Four siblings, so where was the fifth sibling?
You mentioned from the far corners of the world
as the families are now. You’re in Japan, where are the others?

The yellow backhoe photograph strikes me to ask if your father was
a contractor; not everybody has a backhoe on their property,
especially one that is as clean.

The timing of the photograph makes me think of what was happening
in my own world at the time. Everything in the image is of consistency
and maybe too a feeling of peacefulness. And where are they all now
some many years later?

And finally a photographic query, since when did Nikon produce
a white barrel lense? In colour it reminds one of the competition.

Dad was a professor of elementary education. Backhoe is no longer clean. Fifth sibling didn’t make it out this year. Nikon has had a few white lenses in its time, including the 70-200/2.8 VR. Other siblings are in NC, TN, and CA. —Jeffrey

— comment by Bryce Lee in Burlington, Ontario Canada on August 17th, 2009 at 12:09pm JST (14 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I love your family picture in 1974. It is “picture perfect” and I am sure a lot of prep done by your mom. I also like the expressions on Luke in each photo. He is so small so I am not sure what you would call is cute!

— comment by Sonal, MN on August 18th, 2009 at 3:06am JST (14 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I was born in 1974! Love the three and the beautiful yellow color of the leaves. Your Mom is beautiful! Your are very lucky to have a wonderful family!

Thanks for share this beautiful pictures!

Griselda Nishikatsu.
Arlington TX.

— comment by Griselda Nishikatsu on August 18th, 2009 at 3:19am JST (14 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Great post. I didn’t think we’d actually gotten a shot as good as this, so I had to read the fine print to see what I had suspected – that you had to photoshop it. BTW, Grace is 4. – Mikey

Sorry about Grace’s age…. I always think she’s a year older than she is, and the way she comports herself doesn’t break me from that habit. —Jeffy

— comment by Michael on August 18th, 2009 at 7:07am JST (14 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

A couple thoughts from someone who shoots (er, takes pictures of) kids quite a lot:

(1) The Pez thing works. I trot out a new one when I really need to get happy faces out of kids who have seen this before. But be careful — Mickey, Daffy, Goofy, Daisy and Hello Kitty work pretty well. Pooh, Tigger, and Eeyore don’t. That’s because kids smile while they make the long-E sound at the end of the first group, but make strange faces when saying the names of the latter group. Consider this when you choose your Pez dispensers.

(2) Probably not a good idea to put candy in the Pez dispenser. 🙂

(3) Putting the parents and other distractions behind the camera is a workable approach. A better approach in my experience, is to get the parents and other distractions well out of sight.

— comment by Mark Sirota on August 21st, 2009 at 3:20am JST (14 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Los Altos, California, U.S.A.
On seeing the cousins shot, and the one of parents trying to elicit desirable expressions–I was taken back about 30 years to Christmas 1979. We were trying to photograph my grandfather with his eight great-grandsons, mostly younger than three. The series is very funny, including one where my grandfather totally cracked up, since one or more was crying in each photograph. I think you did really well.

— comment by Mary Anne James on January 4th, 2010 at 1:55am JST (14 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink
Leave a comment...

All comments are invisible to others until Jeffrey approves them.

Please mention what part of the world you're writing from, if you don't mind. It's always interesting to see where people are visiting from.

IMPORTANT:I'm mostly retired, so I don't check comments often anymore, sorry.

You can use basic HTML; be sure to close tags properly.

Subscribe without commenting