Tears and tantrums: the family photographers who capture everything

Candid camera: capturing the reality of family life.
Candid camera: capturing the reality of family life.  Photo: Courtney Holmes

Family photography makes most people think of awkwardly-posed group portraits. Everyone is dressed in their best outfits, but nobody wants to be there. Parents are stressed about snotty faces, messy hair and crying babies. They try hard to keep everyone happy while pretending to be happy themselves.

A new style of family photography is changing all of this. Family documentary photographers don't take posed or staged photos. They may spend between two hours to an entire day with a family, capturing everything they see. This is real-life family photography, and it's as raw as it gets.

While there may be some Instagram-perfect moments in your day, family life can be a little disorganised. Young children may have meltdowns because their balloon burst or they didn't get the "blue cup". Tired parents have meltdowns too, because sometimes life is too much.

Photo: Courtney Holmes
Photo: Courtney Holmes  

But it is this life, this imperfect craziness, that is so deeply personal. The moments of fragility and silliness are the ones we want to remember. Family documentary photographers capture everything, from love and laughter to tears and tantrums.

Courtney Holmes is a photographer and filmmaker in Sydney who specialises in telling stories about families through half-day and full-day sessions. She's also an instructor for photographers on CreativeLive.

Courtney appreciates families that let her arrive early in the morning, while everyone is still in bed. Family snuggles, messy hair and sleepy eyes are the precious moments most photographers aren't there to capture.

"Documentary family photography tends to be a big hit with the parent who feels awkward smiling or posing in front of a camera," she says, "a much more relaxed environment where kids and parents just get to be themselves, and the emphasis is on real-life moments rather than looking perfect for the camera.

"The photographer also often captures a wide variety of emotions and moments throughout the session, which as a parent can be incredible to look back and reflect on… parents who do a documentary family photography session feel like the photos they get out of it provide a rich and meaningful keepsake of their history as a family that they can pass down to their children."

As documentary photographers spend many hours with a family, their sessions cost more than family portraits. Don't be surprised if their package includes fewer photos too. 50 images for a full day is normal.


Real-life photos take longer to create because the photographer needs to wait patiently for moments to happen naturally. During your session you will do the things you normally do - prepare lunch, change nappies or wrestle your kids to brush their teeth. The photographer will spend time observing and interacting with your family, as well as taking photos.

"The photographer generally does not direct or pose the family in any way, and instead they are skilled at turning seemingly mundane moments of that family doing everyday life into incredible works of art," says Courtney.

Would you consider hiring a documentary photographer for your family? Courtney recommends looking for photographers who are experienced with this style. The portfolio section of their website will have many different families, not just one or two.

Turning the mundane into memories.
Turning the mundane into memories.  Photo: Courtney Holmes

When you find a photographer you like, Courtney says "request to see a full gallery of a couple of sessions they've done previously to get a feel for the consistency in the quality of their work."

Find a photographer who has the right personality for your family. Both grown-ups and kids will appreciate someone who's fun to hang out with. Schedule a coffee date with them first, or at least a phone conversation. After a few hours they should start to feel like a family friend. You may even forget they have a camera.