Life’s Most Treasured Moments; Sharing Family Portraits
Monte Zucker
• Posted Apr 1, 2007

I thought that I knew what family portraiture was all about. You know what? I didn't have a clue. I discovered this not too long ago when doctors told me that I had cancer with possibly only 6-12 months to live. A statement like that puts an altogether different perspective on things.

So, my family joined me for a weekend, more or less a love-in. A highlight of our get-together was the joy that we all felt as we poured through my old photo albums--pictures of me growing up, my family growing up, and photographs highlighting my career. I loved seeing the interest they all had in our family history. Especially of interest to me was the fact that everyone wanted to know more and more about their late relatives, in particular details about my parents, grandparents, etc.

We ended the morning by going outside and taking a few new family snapshots. No one was "dressed" for portraits, and you know what? It didn't matter to me in the least. Certainly, had everyone dressed to blend their bodies together for pictures, the portraits may have looked a little more organized. Still, when I now look at these pictures all I can see are the bonds that exist among us.

The pictures began when I captured my great granddaughter's fascination with our canary. There was enough light coming in from the window behind her to shoot at ISO 1600. I set the focus to manual to avoid the cage and concentrated on her eyes. I was amazed when my 24-105mm lens on my Canon EOS 5D camera caught the canary with just enough detail to complete the story.

We then went outside where we had more room to take family groups. As usual, I looked for a location where I could have cover from overhead and a background with depth. I chose a pass-through from overhead trellises to the open pool area. Soft light was coming from both the left and the right, with a little stronger light coming in from my right. After finding a location with the correct lighting I then planned how to arrange everyone, which means immediately looking for armchairs. I brought my family group together using three standard outdoor patio chairs, which I have found to be indispensable when photographing groups outdoors.
I took the photograph, and when I was reviewing it later in the day I was so pleased with how everyone was smiling so nicely I decided to take my picture from another photograph and insert myself into this one. To add myself to the group I first sized my face to match the others, selected my head and shoulders using the magnetic wand and moved it over onto the group photograph. To help position myself I dropped the opacity of the layer with my face on it to around 20 percent, so that I could see exactly where I wanted my face to be. Then, I erased the edges softly to sort of blend myself in with the environment.

Once I had a family shot of us all I did a few groups, realizing how much these pictures would be appreciated not just now, but certainly in the years to come. After all, my kids had just hours before demonstrated how much they treasured our family pictures up to this point. I put together all kinds of combinations of family groups in the same location, concentrating on spontaneous expressions, rather than looking for a variety of locations. I didn't know how long Katy would last. Thankfully, she was a trooper, staying happy throughout the picture session.

One of the groups I put together was this three-generation portrait of my daughter, her son with his wife, and their daughter. As I've been teaching throughout my career, when putting heads together for a group, no two heads were together at the same level. I posed Alice seated on one of the chairs with Katy on her mother's knees, slightly below her. I then had my daughter, Tammi, lean in from one side and brought Evan in from the other side, again mother slightly higher than her son. No two heads were directly on top of each other without someone in between. Basically, I tried to keep the faces of Tammi and Evan parallel to those of Alice and her baby.
I photographed my granddaughter Sara alone, promising to photograph her with her husband when that day should come. You can see that she reacted with a twinkle in her eyes that seems always to be there. In Photoshop I darkened the bottom of the picture to focus the attention where it should be for a head-and-shoulders portrait: on her face. I did this by creating an adjustment layer in Levels and painting out the top of the picture, leaving the lower part of the image darker than the rest of the picture--sort of like the "burning-in" or vignetting that we used to do back in the olden days.

The final portrait of the day (and to me the most exciting one) was created when we passed another opening from the overhead cover. I could see the potential, gave my camera to Alex and suggested that he spread us out on the steps. Based on my instructions Alex loosely directed us into a pyramid composition and told everyone to look at Katy. At this incredible moment he caught a connection between me and my great granddaughter that flipped me out.
With everyone's attention glued to Katy this four-generation family portrait could not have been any nicer. The mismatched clothing doesn't bother me a bit. As a matter of fact, I love the picture even more for its naturalness.

And, perhaps, for the first time in my life I feel as if I really know--on a very personal level--what it is to have a treasured moment in a family's life immortalized forever.