Family Portraits; can the old masters teach us something?

As long as humans have been able to put paint on a wall we’ve been obsessed by the family portrait. We find drawings of family groups on pre-historic caves, inside ancient Egyptian pyramids and since the middle ages they have been hanging on every wall in every home. If we ever needed proof that the family portrait is still important to folkl, it is the one question about our work that I get asked each day.

The answer is yes, we do spend a lot of our time capturing family groups, but the question made me think. How might I be able to deliver the best quality every time a family comes to visit us. Can we prepare something that goes a bit further than ‘normal and straightforward’ ?

Family Portrait Blackwater

Family Portrait Blackwater Valley, Kenmare

I’ve always known that creating a strong family portrait is the biggest challenge facing any photographer, but how to go one better and create a stunning finish ? I decided to begin by looking at family portraits from history to see what the masters of the past came up with. I’m not sure but I’m guessing that Mum & Dad in the picture below were not on the best of terms on the day of this portrait!

Family Portrait

The Cuspinian family portrait painted by Bernhard Strigel (1520).


With any group image there are always so many things the photographer has to be aware of. You have to believe me, remaining in control of 10 people whilst many eyes are all looking in multiple directions is enough to make anyone dizzy. How the artists of old managed to keep children still whilst painting them baffles me.

And then it occurred to me.. I’ve been so focused on keeping the family’s eyes open I was ignoring everything else that would make the image really special! I was basically saying to myself “Eyes open?”, “Yes”, “SNAP”.

Keeping the family portrait image fresh is vitally important.

Preparation for a family portait is an interesting balance between remaining flexible and leaving nothing to chance. We are basically aiming to create a flawless piece of art that is timeless, classic and unique. That’s why we invite families to let us know who will be coming, how old they are and who is related to who. It’s helpful to know what makes each family tick.

During the renaissance, artists would be commissioned by families to paint the family portrait. We all know how technically gifted these artists were with their paint and brush, but what they really excelled at was their ability to create a portrait not just of the family group, but an image that showed their role in society, what their interests were and even where they lived. We should definitely not forget that family pets played a part on the canvas! I love the movement in this picture – how often do we see gust of wind play a part in a family portrait?

Family Portrait by Coxcie

Portrait of a Family. Jan Anthony Coxcie (1694)

The personal work that these artists lay down on canvas all those years ago is a challenge for modern photographers today. The family portrait genre should never be mundane or generic. These are unique pieces of art that will be passed through generations. We need to up our game and reawaken the genre of the classic family portrait. Just because we can take 10 pictures a second doesn’t mean we should. Taking time to get it right is so much better than clicking and hoping. If a family spend their time outdoors should their portrait not reflect that? If they love dogs, the dogs need to be there. A picture only becomes a portrait when it tells the story. The family portrait is so much more than a group shot of relatives.

Family Portrait

Family Portrait at Parknasilla Spa, Sneem

I’d be delighted if after reading this you’d be interested in having your own family portrait captured by us. You can read more about our service here or visit our studio at any time to discuss ideas. By chatting through the ideas for the picture we’ll be well on the way to creating something that can never be called mundane. My mobile number is 0879 491 002 and you can always ask us anything by using this email form.
I’m particulary interested in hearing from a family who might want to take part in a creative family portrait that I’ve got in mind. Something special : ) Drop me a line.

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