I have been mentally composing this blog post for years. :) Finally I have the set of images I've been wanting to make my post complete. Thanks to my sister in law Rebecca for helping me out.
If you are considering investing in custom family portraits, probably one of the things that's on your mind is what you should wear. I get asked this question all the time, and while there is no right or wrong answer necessarily, I would love to share my thoughts on the question. First of all I need to specify that for this post I want to address family portraits, and the more posed family portraits specifically. So if you would like a family portrait where your family is close together, and more or less looking at the camera, that's what I'm talking about today. (For senior portraits, baby portraits, two cute little brothers, etc., my recommendations would be quite different. Go crazy!)
I know some photographers who tell families to wear whatever they like best, and I know some photographers who tell families to wear matching long-sleeved solid dark shirts. My preference is definitely somewhere in the middle. To illustrate my point, here are two portraits of my family. (Let me preface this by saying that we were on vacation here, so our outfit options were limited.) In the first picture, we all wore our favorite outfits (from our suitcases). 99% of my son's shirts are striped; that is his favorite. My husband prefers shirts with funny graphics (his shirt has a knuckle sandwich on it). My daughters love sundresses, the brighter the better. And I thought some floral would go nicely into the mix.
In the second picture we wore solid color shirts, in more or less the same hue values (or as close as we could come with the clothes we had). The location is the same, the pose is pretty much the same, but the portraits are very different. As you can see, having the clothing be harmonious allows the focus to be on our faces. In the first picture, your eye bounces from shirt to shirt, never resting on the faces at all. In the second portrait, my eyes go right to our faces.
My sisters-in-law also did a great job with this, and their families' clothing also illustrates the point that you don't necessarily need solid colors. You just need a cohesive plan. They each picked a color theme to use, so their clothes make sense together.
Often it helps to pick one family member's shirt first (usually this is one of the mom's :) ) and then come up with a color plan that goes along with that.
In our family portrait below, I picked the color scheme first - purple, bright pink, and navy. Then we (let's be honest - I - ) came up with clothes that worked together. I had to buy my shirt and my son's, but the rest we already had.
I don't think your colors necessarily need to match, though that can work too, but it helps if you have colors in the same hue value. (That means the same amount of lightness/darkness.) Because this family's shirts are all bright and colorful, there isn't a big contrast between them, and your eyes can rest on their faces.
This family matched a little more - I love their combination, it fit them perfectly. One thing that I think is important is that solid colors are perfect here. Picture this location, with the very busy - beautiful - tile, and plaid shirts instead of solid. Yikes. I often recommend solid colors when I do portraits outside on location, for exactly this reason. Even in the bosque - where there are fewer colors - there are lots of patterns already, and extra patterns on clothes can be distracting.
And here we have the outfits that many people choose - white shirts and jeans. Obviously it works visually. From a photographer's standpoint, the bright white shirts can reflect light strangely on your face, and the contrast with a dark background can be distracting. So it's not my favorite to work with. Though in this case, because the background was not dark and the path was as light as their shirts, it is perfect.
When you look at a posed family portrait, your eye is going to go first to the area of greatest contrast. You can use this however you want to use it. This family chose to dress in solid neutral colors, and then have their daughter stand out with a bright patterned tunic. (They had a change of clothes for her as well, if you were wondering.) As you can see, in the portrait your eye will go to her first, because of the contrast between her shirts. It's a great idea and I see lots of families do exactly this with their little girls.
This family did the same thing - they are all dressed neutrally except for their new baby, whose colors look great with the others, but the contrasting pattern draws your attention. Perfect for emphasizing the newest member of the family!
What about for larger family groups? This extended family chose blues, and I think it worked great. They did a good job of dispersing the darkness and lightness of their shirts across the various family members. Their clothes don't compete with the beautiful bosque and river behind them. There is no large contrast to distract you from their faces.
The next 2 family groups are even larger, and they one method that I see a lot for large groups - each smaller family group is wearing matching shirt colors. I love how this keeps the family groups together, but in a non-distracting way.
If everyone were to wear their favorite shirt, and there are 20 of you, it's going to be very distracting and hard to focus on faces. Solid colors are definitely helpful with large groups.
I hope these examples have been helpful in some way. Obviously my commentary here is just my opinion, but I've looked through a lot of family portraits in the last 5 or 6 years, and I'm just calling it how I see it. If you are interested, I have a pinterest board where I collect family clothing ideas:
I also have a page posted with lots of other ideas about how to get the best results from your family session - check it out here! And if you are interested in booking a family session, please give me a call!