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How to Style Your Family for Instagram-Worthy Photos

Lindsey Hunter Lopez is a freelance writer and general mother hustler with degrees from University of California, Santa Cruz and New York University. She’s a former tabloid journalist and current MOMS Club board member. Lindsey resides i...

A photographer shares her tips for the best family photos

I love having family photos taken. Every year, we do a holiday shoot for cards and then occasionally another photo session. I love picking out outfits and styling in general; I shop for my kids so much that I started my own Instagram store! But I still find myself scrambling last-minute trying to decide what we should wear. Then I end up disappointed in our crappy outfits.

But not this time! When Los Angeles family photographer Ariel Cannon contacted me about illustrating some of her styling tips via a photo shoot, I decided this would be my chance to actually plan out our outfits. I would orchestrate the type of family photo session you see on those impossibly cool mom bloggers’ Instagram accounts — where everyone looks adorable and hip and casually styled to perfection.

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But perfection is a hard place to start! “Even those with great personal style can find it a challenge to dress themselves and their family as a unit,” says Cannon. Dressing kids individually is a snap (except for a certain Trolls dress my daughter Ruby has on constant rotation), but putting everyone together in a cohesive yet original way? Yikes.

So I began with something I was already excited about. Since I’m always on the lookout for cute pieces for my kids, I had an amazing vintage floral dress for Ruby to wear on Easter. (I love choosing vintage for Easter outfits, like the Miami Vice-esque suit I put my son in last year.) My go-tos for kids’ vintage are Instagram shops (search the hashtag #vintagecommunityforsale to browse), Etsy, the Rose Bowl Flea Market and local Los Angeles resale shops.

Luckily, Ruby loves the vintage dress because she’s into twirling, pink, purple and flowers. “Just like grown-ups, kids will be more excited for the shoot if they feel good in what they’re wearing,” Cannon points out. So with the vintage dress in hand, I decided to style everything else around it. Sometimes I’d send photos of clothing to Cannon for her input. I felt annoying, but Cannon assured me that it’s totally fine to do this. “Most family photographers should be happy to provide this kind of help, so just ask.” Here’s what I finally chose:

Ruby (3-1/2): Vintage floral dress from Instagram shop @daintyanddapper, the Old Navy clogs that everyone is hunting down, flower crown from H&M last year and tan Saltwater sandals — shoe change! — I bought on eBay. She also wore a beaded name bracelet I made.

A photographer shares her tips for the best family photos
Image: Ariel Cannon

Gus (1-1/2): Green hand-me-down shorts, Old Navy chambray button-up and Cat & Jack for Target sneakers.

A photographer shares her tips for the best family photos
Image: Ariel Cannon

I tried to stay in the pastel palette of Ruby’s dress. For myself and my husband Nate, we wound up wearing what we already had. As Cannon says, “Wear something you feel good in!” I’m totally comfortable in this black floral Urban Outfitters number even though it’s too large and my bra often shows. The Madewell tassel earrings freshened up my old look.

A photographer shares her tips for the best family photos
Image: Ariel Cannon

Luckily, I had flat boots because family shoots in canyons aren’t ideal for heels or platforms. “You’re going to be chasing your kids around, sitting, standing and probably even lying down,” says Cannon. So choose accordingly.

When all was said and done, I only noticed two “mistakes”: I had a hair tie on my wrist — d’oh! — and Gus and Nate’s shirts came untucked immediately. Must have been that whole romping-in-the-canyon thing. I thought my floral dress might clash with Ruby’s, but I think they coordinated without being too matchy-matchy (remember those barefoot, jeans-and-white-tee family photos everyone had on their mantels in the '90s?). Cannon agrees that coordinating does not mean matching. “We know you’re a family… you’re all standing together in the picture.” Got it? Then you’re ready for Cannon’s comprehensive tips for styling that Insta-worthy family shoot.

Shop your closet. There’s no need to purchase something special for your session. If you have one outfit that makes you really feel like you or makes you feel like a million dollars, even (especially) if you wear it three times a week, go for it! Pick the sure thing and build the family’s wardrobe around it.

Give your outfit a test run. If you can perform a light jog, bend down and get on and off the floor without busting a seam or exposing yourself, you’re golden.

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Dress for the situation. Of course you’re going to be a little more pulled together for your session than in real life, but you don’t want your wardrobe to feel out of place. For instance, if you’re doing an in-home session, wear something that at least approximates the kind of clothes you wear at home.

Coordinate with one another. OK… this is the big one. If you do nothing else, do this. Coordinating your color palette is the No. 1 thing that will help your wardrobe work as a family unit. There are two strategies for achieving this.

  1. Choose a couple of main colors and an accent color and pick the clothes accordingly.
  2. Choose one person’s outfit and build the rest of the family around it. This strategy is also known as "pickiest person picks first."

Layers add interest. Belts, cardigans, jackets or a great piece of jewelry can add a lot to a photograph or change up your look mid shoot. If in doubt, bring it and you can always take it off.

Focus on fit. You’ll want your kids’ wardrobe to fit perfectly. They’ll look better, feel better and we won’t have the problem of things riding up and shifting around when they move. So nothing too big or too small.

Dress for the weather. Kids (and adults) who are too hot or too cold tend to get grumpy, so make sure the outfit is cute and weather-appropriate.

Stay away from fluorescent or neon colors. Overly bright shades can look a little funky in the final images and can also create an unflattering color cast on the skin. Similarly, bright whites can wash people out.

Say no to graphic tees. A shirt with writing or graphics on it is distracting and the viewer’s eye will always go to this “picture within the picture” first.

Don’t fight with greenery. If you’ll be shooting in a verdant location, don’t choose green as one of your main colors.

I’ll add my own personal tip: Have fun! If I’m stressed out (Are we running late? Is a meltdown imminent? Is my bra showing?) it shows in my face. Tell a few jokes to your little ones and remind yourself that a photo shoot should be a good time. Try to keep things light and the positive mood will radiate in your photos.

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