Helen Bartlett / Family Portraiture

What to Wear on a Family Photo Shoot


Choosing an Outfit for your Family Photo Shoot

The question I’m asked most often before a family photography session is “What should we wear for our family photos?”

The single most important consideration when you’re choosing your outfits is that you all feel comfortable and confident. You need to like how you all look in your pictures as you’ll be keeping them forever.

Now is not the time to try a radical new look just in case, three weeks down the line, you decide that a purple mohawk wasn’t for you (if purple mohawk is your normal look then that’s awesome and I can’t wait to meet you).

But think carefully about what you’d normally wear and then veer on the smarter side. In a nutshell, you want to look like you at your best when choosing what to wear on a family photo shoot.

Rules vs Guidelines

These are your pictures, there are no rules. However, I’m sharing some suggestions here, based on my family photography experience, which will improve your pictures and ensure they’ll look just as good in fifty years’ time as they do today.

I offer these ideas for you to think about but at the end of the day you should wear the clothes that you feel reflect you. And do be reassured that over the years every one of my rules has been broken to great effect at some point or other.

Your Family, Your Personality

First off, think about what kind of family you are, think about your style. If you’re a formal family, you might like some pictures in very smart attire. If you don’t own an iron (guilty as charged) then t-shirt and jumper it is.

Or, if your look spans the style spectrum, we can always divide the session and do some more formal shots and others with a very relaxed feel. If you think you might like to do this, it’s worth us having a quick chat beforehand so we can work out which way round to do it. You’ll then be wearing the right outfits when I arrive. We often do part of the session outside and part at your home so it’s no trouble at all to have different outfits throughout the session.

What Doesn’t Work

If I had to say one thing that really doesn’t work when choosing what to wear for your family photo shoot it would be graphic patterns. Checks in particular don’t work well in pictures, the contrast and repeating pattern is very distracting, so I’d always advise avoiding checks where possible – for both adults and children. If you must wear checks then bigger ones in similar tones are less of a problem than smaller ones. Tiny checks or checks with a light and dark contrast are definitely to be avoided.

Other designs that cause problems include bold stripes and, most importantly, words. As you move around, then only part of the words becomes visible. So that cute top that says ‘big brother’ might only read ‘g othe’ in your image which would seriously spoil the effect. Our eyes tend to go to words in a picture so they’ll always be very distracting. Logos are best avoided for the same reason. Keeping things simple is good.

Plain Colours Work Best

Plain colours always work best for pictures. There’s nothing to distract the eye so the images become about the people rather than the clothes. This isn’t to say that clothes need to be boring as you can add texture into your images with fabrics such as linen, wool and lace.

Matching or Not?

This is very much a personal preference. I’ve been photographing families for almost twenty years and some of my clients love to match while others don’t. If you’re a family who likes to match, then go with it as it can look wonderful in pictures. If you prefer to dress completely differently, then that’s perfect too. These images are about you. There’s no right or wrong when choosing what to wear on your family photo shoot.

For extended family shoots it’s best to agree a rough theme in advance or we can end up with a chaos of patterns, textures and tones. Mid-tone plain colours work best so avoiding patterns and avoiding black and white (unless you want everyone in one or the other to match) is a wise choice. Everyone has something in a mid-tone and in monochrome that palette will look great.

Think Long-Term

Wearing White

White is a very popular choice for family photography and can look absolutely stunning in monochrome images. Do be aware that your eye will go to the lightest area in a picture, so white jeans will draw the eye and might make you look larger than you are.

Wearing Black

Black can be a bit dark for family photography so blue or grey would be a better choice as it’s softer. Certainly don’t dress half the family in black and half in white as that will create contrast problems in your images.

Colours vs Tones

One of the joys of black and white photography is not needing to worry if colours clash: we can wear the clothes we look best in without thought to how the colours look together. We might want to give some thought to tones though.

If we’re going to a darker environment (such as dense woodland) then lighter toned clothes might be better, so we don’t blend into the background. In the same way, a baby in a white dress on a white bedspread works less well than a lightly coloured outfit, perhaps in a pastel shade, which will give a lighter, neutral tone and stand out beautifully.

Think Long-Term

You’re going to keep these pictures forever so always think timeless rather than high fashion when choosing your outfits. Fashions come and go and the last thing you want is to look back on an image in ten years’ time and cringe at what you were wearing. Classic styles never go out of fashion and so are a good choice for what to wear on your family photo shoot.

One of the great benefits of black and white is that the colours of clothes aren’t relevant – shades and tones won’t date in the way they do in colour. I’m a child of the eighties and eternally grateful that my penchant for neon green is recorded as a subtle grey in the monochrome pictures of my youth.

Try Clothes on Before the Day

I always recommend you try on your outfit before the day. For adults this means checking that you can squat, sit on the ground and move around easily. We’ll be playing with the kids so beware of very short skirts or tops that gape open. Equally, if you have younger children, you may well have your arms above your head if you’re throwing them in the air, for example. So check that bras don’t become visible as you move and that tops are long enough to cover your midriff.

It’s also worth trying outfits on children before the day. Most kids don’t like being fussed over, especially babies, so it’s good to keep outfit changes to a minimum. We certainly don’t want to be trying on ten baby-grows at the beginning of a shoot just to find one that fits.

Active little girls in dresses do tend to show their knickers as they cartwheel through their day so you might want to put tights or leggings under their dresses. Or, if they’re still in nappies, then some matching bloomers look much cuter than the Pampers graphics.

When it comes to choosing children’s trousers, make sure they fit snugly round the waist and cover pants (and the tops of bottoms!) which may be revealed while they’re having fun on the shoot.

It’s also no problem if you want to email me a picture and ask, “Will this work?” I know that sometimes it’s reassuring to know that your choice will be perfect. I’m on hand before your shoot, as well as after it, to help with any questions no matter how small so please reach out and we can make sure you have the ideal outfit for your photo shoot.

Then on the day, one of the benefits of starting most of my photo shoots in your home is that I can always advise when I arrive. You can have some options laid out and then it will take a matter of moments to decide. Equally, if I arrive and anyone is wearing something that I think might be a problem then I’ll always let you know. It’s my job to make sure you look your best in these pictures that you’ll be keeping forever.

Wear Clothes That Fit

This sounds obvious but I’m as guilty as the next person of not checking that something fits until the day I need to wear it. And then finding it’s perhaps a little tighter than I would like… Clothes that are too tight or too loose tend to be less flattering. Heavier fabrics tend to hang better, very light t-shirts for example can cling whereas classic cuts will always look good.

Very tight t-shirts, which often look great if you’re standing up, photograph less well if you’re sitting and snuggling with your child. And down jackets do add a couple of inches, so a tailored jacket or coat looks better. Also, it’s worth clearing your pockets as that will affect the way your clothes hang. If you can, put wallets and phones in a small bag (or I can carry them for you) which will look better in your pictures.

Dress for the Time of Year

According to the famous maxim, there’s no such thing as bad weather just inappropriate clothing. This is true for photo shoots too. Dress for the weather we have not the weather you want. If it’s cold, then we need jumpers, coats and hats. If it’s wet underfoot, then wellies are the way to go.

A warm happy child will be much better to photograph than a cold child even if they’re wearing the beautiful jumper granny knitted. Thermals can be a great investment if you’ve booked an autumn or winter shoot and don’t want to wear bulky coats.

If we’re shooting in autumn or winter, then it’s also best to avoid white tights. Inevitably these will end up covered in mud with all the running around and climbing we’ll be doing. Darker, practical colours work better when choosing what to wear fo your family photo shoot.

Consider Your Environment

This applies both outside and indoors, so think about where we’ll be taking the pictures when you choose your outfits. An urban setting can work really well for more formal pictures but wearing smart clothes in wild woodland can feel out of place.

The same applies indoors. If you have a formal drawing room this could be a good spot for some more formal pictures. I also love the juxtaposition of very relaxed shots in a formal space which is often a lovely setting for kids in fancy dress. Equally, a messy playroom might work better with relaxed clothing choices than anything too smart.

Choose Shoes Wisely

Wear shoes you’re comfortable running around in and that you don’t mind getting muddy when deciding what to wear for your family photo shoot.  We’ll definitely be straying from the paths as we search for adventure. Photo shoots aren’t a good day to try the kids in new shoes as blisters will derail things very quickly.

Also, unless your children are very used to wearing them, then flipflops and sandals can be a problem with stones getting under their feet. It’s important that everyone is comfortable in what they’re wearing. And your feet will feature in some of the pictures so also bear that in mind when selecting your footwear.

Glasses and Make-Up

Keep Glasses On

If you normally wear glasses, then do wear them for your photo shoot. And if your child usually wears glasses that applies to them too. You want to look like you in your pictures and everyone wants to see where they’re going. The only thing that can be difficult is if you have special lenses which go dark in the sun. These don’t work well in pictures as we won’t be able to see your eyes, so it’s best to leave dark glasses at home. If you have a second pair of normal glasses, they’ll look so much better.

Go Natural with Make-Up

If you usually wear make-up, then do so on the shoot as you want to look like you. The only thing I would mention is that very heavy eye make-up doesn’t come out so well in pictures so perhaps go a little easy on the eyeliner. If you wake up on the morning of the photo shoot with a spot on the end of your nose then don’t despair, this type of blemish can easily be removed in Photoshop.


The Fun of Fancy Dress

There’s something adorable about kids in fancy dress and I’m always happy if children want to be Batman or Elsa for part of the session. The world of the imagination is an amazing place and it’s one that can be captured so beautifully in photographs.

Clothes for Newborns

Less is more when it comes to clothes for newborns. A simple vest or baby-grow where you can see their hands and feet is ideal. If it’s a gorgeous knitted one then so much the better, they always look adorable.

If you’d like some pictures of your baby in just a nappy, then it’s worth getting a cover to go over it which are widely available. I would recommend getting smaller than you think you’ll need as they often seem to come up quite big. Equally, snuggly blankets and swaddles work brilliantly for newborns. If you would like to discover more about what to wear for newborn photography and everything else involved with planning a newborn photo shoot then do take a look at my hand guide.

Clothes for Babies

Baby clothes tend to be delightful and I would say just follow the same guidelines as for everyone else: avoid checks, graphic patterns and words. If you have dungarees, then check the fit on these as they often ride up and cover babies’ chins when they’re sitting up. Cute jumpers and jeans or dresses with matching knickers work very well.

It’s also lovely to have some shots of your baby just in their nappy and, as for newborns, I would definitely recommend you use a cover as on-show nappies don’t look good in pictures. Pyjamas or baby-grows are often super cute and it’s always lovely to have one or two pictures in these, maybe at the beginning of the shoot before we choose an outfit or right at the end before they have their midday nap and I head home.

Clothes for Children

Classic styles work best for pictures of children: shorts and t-shirts, trousers and shirts, jeans and jumpers, dresses or anything else which won’t date. It’s best to avoid t-shirts with big logos or characters on (your eye will be drawn to Mickey Mouse’s face) but equally, if they have an absolute favourite top or t-shirt, it’s nice to include that. Siblings don’t need to wear the same type of clothes so if you have two daughters and one loves dresses and one loves trousers then go with it. Let them express their individuality.

Clothes for Teenagers

Most teenagers will have a strong sense of how they’d like to be presented and I think it’s important this is reflected in their pictures. If they don’t like what they’re wearing, then that will be reflected in their faces.

Have a chat with them before the day and come up with a plan for what to wear on your family photo shoot together. If they want to wear something outlandish that you really don’t want memorialised forever, then we can do a change to ensure we capture both outfits and everyone is happy. Also, if we’re heading out wearing jumpers and coats, check that the t-shirt underneath is something you’re happy with. There’s nothing worse than discovering a t-shirt with an inappropriate logo once we get to the park.

It’s All About You

Ultimately, your pictures need to reflect who you are and your own unique memories, that is the most important consideration when deciding what to wear on your family photo shoot. You’ll keep these pictures for ever and look at them daily on your walls as well as in decades to come. So choose clothes you feel confident in and which won’t date, and you can be sure you’ll love your family photos as much in fifty years’ time as you do today.

For more information about my Family Photography do browse my website where you can find newborn, children, teenagers and family galleries as well as information about how the sessions work and a full price list.