How to Photograph Family Drama :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph Family Drama

by David Peterson 2 comments

If the family photo album really was a way to accurately gauge the perfection of the modern family, then modern families all over the world must be perfect indeed. Photo albums are full of smiling, well-behaved children, parents who never lose their cool and family vacations that always go exactly as planned. And that’s not because all other families really are (more) perfect (than yours), it’s because most people only photograph the good, and they avoid the bad like the proverbial plague.

Happy moments go in the photo album, and unhappy moments? Well, let's just pretend that never happened. Should this be your approach to family photography? Read on to find out the answer.

If you are really, really, honest with yourself, I think you will almost certainly have to admit that your family is not perfect. No one’s family is. Most families have plenty of happy moments, but there is also conflict and tears. Our lives are not always as happy as we would like them to be, but does that mean that we should forget all of those less-than-perfect moments? Absolutely not. In fact, you should be capturing not only the joy of life with your family, but the heartbreak too.

Dealing with sensitive issues

On the most extreme end of the spectrum, some of the most profound photos I've ever seen are photos taken of people at the end of their lives, saying goodbye to their family and friends. While you may not immediately want to have constant reminders of the death of a loved one staring at you from the pages of a photo album, there will come a time when you will want to look back at those images and remember the grace and the profound meaning of that person’s final moments.

One thing I always advocate when photographing painful or upsetting moments is full disclosure. Let's say that you are attending the celebration of a life for a family member who has recently died. It's a good idea to let everyone know in advance that you're planning to take pictures, so that anyone in attendance who wants to be excluded will have plenty of time to opt out. Make sure you are aware of who is comfortable with the camera and who is not, and remember that you don't absolutely need to include people in every picture in order to memorialize an event like this one. For example, you can still make a very strong statement about the person who died by photographing the memorabilia tables, any tokens of the person that are passed out at the event, close-ups of people holding hands, etc. When in doubt, just put yourself in the grieving person's shoes. Is that a photograph that you would like to see of yourself tomorrow? What about in six months? What about in six years? The answer is no for all three questions, don't take the photo.

The goodbyes (and other sad moments)

Everyone’s life is full of sad moments, from the death of a loved one to more minor upsets like job loss and breakups. Let's say that your dog had puppies, and now they’re finally old enough to leave their mother and go on to new homes. Your child is almost certainly going to have a hard time saying goodbye, and that is precisely the right moment to get out the camera. Shoot some pictures of your child giving the puppies a kiss goodbye, or capture some images of your husband explaining to her why the puppies needed to find new homes.

Most of the time, in situations like this, you need a certain amount of discretion. It's a little uncouth to get right in your subject’s personal space in order to capture her grief, so hang back a little, don't take too many pictures, and wait for the right moment to shoot. Snapping one or two photos will help you set a nice balance between recording the event, and exploiting it.

Tantrums, screaming, and oatmeal-throwing

On a lighter note, when your toddler throws a whole bowl of oatmeal on the floor with a shriek of defiance, the last thing on your mind it is probably grabbing your camera to record the moment for all eternity—but that's exactly what you should be doing. Now, if the oatmeal-throwing is something that happens all the time maybe you don’t want to take that same picture on a daily basis, but in order to give your photo album that slice-of-life feeling, or that deeper sense of truth, you need to be capturing the mess as well as the joy.

Now it could be that you're reading this and scratching your head a little—maybe it's just never occurred to you to take photos of stuff you think you want to forget. So I'll just take this moment to remind you that your kids will be small for such a fleeting amount of time that one day, no matter how much you hate bedtime battles and wardrobe drama, you will gaze at those empty beds and closets and wonder where the time went. And in those moments you will be grateful for all the memories, not just the good ones. But just in case you're still skeptical, here are a few ideas to draw from.

How to capture drama

I think you'll find that, for the most part, people are much more willing to be your photography subjects if they are at their best, rather than at their worst. Even though your subjects are your own children or members of your family, you do need to have some sensitivity to what they are experiencing at the moment. Nothing will make an angry child angrier than getting the camera out while he's in the midst of a whopping big red-faced tantrum. So if he really doesn't want to be photographed, you might want to hold off until you catch him in a less-vulnerable moment. That doesn't mean that you can’t take a few photos on the fly, because sometimes it's good to have blackmail material hidden away on your hard drive. But for the most part, being sensitive with subjects who are upset or who don't really want to photographed can help foster goodwill. What you don't want is for your subject to start hating the sight of your camera, and that's going to happen pretty quickly if you insist on taking photos of him every time he’s upset. So do grab the occasional photo of those tantrums, but don’t be overbearing.

Sibling rivalry

In many ways, this is the easiest sort of family drama to capture with your camera, because unless you have a very unusual family indeed it is almost certainly a daily occurrence. And kids who are deep into their own disputes aren't going to notice you and your camera, either. In fact you can probably even set this up—I'm not saying that you should ever, ever do anything to provoke sibling conflict on a personal level, but let's just say that you know exactly what will happen if you put your two kids together on Dad’s easy chair and try to photograph them. Those close confines will almost certainly lead to some conflict, and that's the kind of photo that will one day become priceless, especially if that sibling rivalry is a feature of daily life in your family.

But I hate broccoli

Don't forget to capture some of you child's experiences with food, too. If she's like most kids, she hates certain things passionately, and the chances are pretty good that what she hates are the things that are healthiest. Kids making “I hate vegetables” faces make great subjects, so when that little nose wrinkles up, get out your camera and immortalize the moment.

Bumps and bruises

Now first I have to say that I don't advocate whipping out your camera so you can capture the moment that your husband flies his drone into your innocent child (medical attention always comes first!) but moments like this are almost never chronicled because the camera is the last thing you think to grab on your way to the ER. But these are precisely the moments you want to record not only for yourself, but for your child. Images of him courageously enduring three stitches or having his leg wrapped up in a cast are great ways to teach your child about his own capacity for bravery. And even though they might be painful memories for both of you, there's something wonderful about being able to look back and say, "Remember when you broke your leg? We persevered!"

A final word

There's a much more profound reason why you should capture the bad with the good, and that's because your family history is not only incomplete without the drama, it's also a tad bit dull. Imagine if you inherited a previously unknown album full of photographs from your grandmother's childhood, and in every photo every person was smiling and looking straight at the camera. You would certainly be charmed, but how long would your interest last? Now imagine if there was conflict in that album—your grandmother and great aunt glaring at each other in a sinister way, your great-grandmother telling her off for coming inside with muddy shoes, your grandmother moping in a corner because she just got in trouble. Now you have clues to what your grandmother’s childhood home was like. It had life and personality, not just fake smiles and pretty dresses.


Happy moments can, of course, add life and personality to a family album too, but they don't give us the complete picture. What do your family albums look like? It's not too late to add a little grit and conflict. Let future generations know the truth about your family, which is like so many other families, happy but flawed.


  1. Sensitive issues
    • Full disclosure: let people know what you're doing
    • Focus on non-human details, too
    • Don't be overbearing. Use discretion.
  2. Capture the tantrums
    • But not too often
    • Photograph sibling rivalry
    • Photograph dinnertime battles
    • Photograph injuries

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Lenore says:

    Wow, I had never really thought about this. But you are right I feel, and will start trying to capture some more interesting shots of more everytday situations I think. Thank you for this great article.

  2. Allen Spitler says:

    Great guidelines. The most likely used 'camera' I bet will be smart phones.I will be happy when they have(smart phones) manual control, or even aperature and shutter control :}

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.