Ever wish you could get those frame-worthy (or even just Instagram-worthy) photos of your kids without all the hassle and cost of doing a professional shoot or getting tons of pricey equipment? Turns out you can - and Jessie Martin is an expert on making it happen. After teaching herself photography in order to photograph her own fam, she started teaching other mamas to do the same. We talked to her to get all her tips and tricks on how to take beautiful photos of your kids, no matter your experience level (or how squirmy your little ones may be)!
Tell us a little bit about you and your background. How did you get into photography?
I’m a wife and mom of two kids, Locke and Olivia, who was just born four months ago. I got my camera a couple of years back when my husband and I decided that we wanted to try for a family, and I figured I would start practicing photography so that I could take decent pictures when the baby arrived. It took us a while to get pregnant and then when we did, we ended up having a miscarriage. So that was a really hard time, and it kind of created a love-hate relationship with my camera because I really enjoyed photography, but the whole reason I had gotten the camera was because I wanted to take pictures of my baby.
So I struggled through that, but I kept practicing and using my camera because I really liked it, and eventually after several months of fertility issues, we did end up getting pregnant again and we had my son. I brought my camera with us to the hospital and I took his newborn pictures which was so special because it really felt like it came full circle.
What inspired you to start sharing that passion with other mamas? Well as Locke was growing up, I kept taking his photos and I felt so thankful that I could take decent, beautiful pictures to preserve those memories. But then I felt bad because I’d see photos on social media or I had other friends where I could just tell their pictures weren't turning out the way that they were wanting them to. They weren’t “bad photos,” but it can be tough to find those print-worthy photos when you’re dealing with dark or grainy images.
I knew that there were so many little things that they could do to tweak it and make them so much better. So that's when I got excited about sharing tips. It was fun to be able to share the things that were kind of easy to me after all the practice, but to other people those tips were totally life changing. I realized how many people could benefit from what I’d learned by photographing my own family.
What words of encouragement would you share with parents who feel like maybe they don't have the skills or equipment to take good photos of their kids?
There’s a saying: “The camera doesn't make the photographer, the photographer makes the photographer.” It really doesn't matter what your equipment is, but if you know how to use it and you can be creative, you can make really beautiful pictures. When I first got my DSLR, I remember using it and feeling frustrated because I just spent a couple hundred dollars on it and felt like “These pictures are no better than my phone pictures.” But it was because I didn't know how to use it until I really put in the time to learn how to use it. The same thing goes if you just have an iPhone and you're taking pictures- if you put some time into learning how to use it and how to use light, you can really do a lot with it.
A lot of parents are really busy - as you know, firsthand - and sometimes it just feels like chaos. You either forget to take pictures or maybe nothing feels photo-worthy in day-to-day life. Do you have any tips for knowing what moments to capture?
Yes, I think that's totally true because when you're at home, taking care of your kids, it can feel really repetitive or really mundane, like we're just changing diapers. What I try to do is think “What are the things I never want to forget or that I want to be able to remember when I’m old and my kids are out of the house?”
If you look at family pictures that professional photographers take when they come into your house, some of the best pictures are the “in between” moments where the family doesn't even know that the photographer is still taking pictures. That's when they're just being themselves. So try to look at your day through the eyes of a photographer and see the sweet little moments that we’re maybe missing because we're so busy.
For example, last year I was in the kitchen trying to cook dinner and Locke was at my feet, yanking on my shorts and wanting up and saying Mama. And I was getting frustrated because I was trying to make dinner. But then I stopped and thought, “Oh my gosh, this is actually a really sweet moment because he's never going to be this little again; he's not always going to be this curious or want to spend that kind of time with me.” So later I set up my tripod and I took a picture of a time like that when he was doing something similar because I thought, “While this might feel inconvenient in the moment, these moments are really special.”
It's such a gift to be parents and to have our kids, so try to look at your day through the lens of what normal moments are actually super special.
Is it really possible to get high quality, formal, family photos that are Christmas-card worthy on your own?
Yes, definitely! I use a tripod and a camera with a shutter remote, which makes it way easier. A lot of people don't know that they sell full size tripods and clicker remotes for smartphones too! If you’re really serious about taking your own family photos, I do have a mini course on this where I cover how to take the photos, tips for posing, outfit tips, and all the technical aspects.
I recommend approaching it as if a professional photographer were coming to your house. Set a date for it, talk to your spouse and get them in on your plans, plan out outfits beforehand. Making sure everything and everyone is ready helps alleviate some of the stress of photos.
Do you have any general tips for choosing the right outfits for family photos?
Yeah, the best advice that I've heard of myself is that the mom should pick out her outfit and pick something that she's really comfortable in and that she feels really beautiful in. Because let's be real: moms are the ones who care about the pictures. If the mom is comfortable and she feels beautiful, she'll be really happy with the pictures. And then it’s easier to base everybody else's outfits off of her. Or, honestly, sometimes my kids have way cuter clothes than me, so then I'll base other outfits off of whatever outfit I want them to wear.
I remember when I was growing up, people would do really matchy matchy outfits for the whole family. But I always tell people to be sure that you're coordinating colors but they don't have to be an exact match. I’d also avoid super bright colors that are going to take away from the picture - you don't want your eyes to be drawn straight to the two year old's neon shirt. So just choose outfits that help your eye flow across the image.
Do you have any advice for getting the right lighting or backdrop when you don't have special equipment?
Yeah! I actually don't have any special lighting equipment or backdrops myself! People don't always know that using the natural light from your windows is a lot better than turning on the ceiling light or lamps because that artificial light makes everything look yellow. Turn off all the lights in your house and then open up your curtains and use the natural light. If you’re taking pictures in your house and not outside, I always recommend cleaning up the clutter a little bit so there's nothing distracting in the background. But don’t make yourself crazy because there is also beauty in that “everyday life.”
Is there a certain time of day that usually has better light for photos if you're inside?
It’s going to be different for everybody's houses because they're facing different directions. This is covered more in depth in my free guide, but what I usually say is to start paying attention to the lighting in your house at the different times of day. That's what I do in our own home, so I know what times the lighting is good in different rooms. Then I know if I want to take a specific picture and it's in the evening, I'll take the kids upstairs and put them on my bed because I know that the light's going to be really bright in there. Just knowing your house makes it super easy to then know where the light is.
Any favorite apps or software or presets that you recommend for people who don't have a lot of technical expertise?
A lot of moms just use their phones to edit photos, so there are three apps I recommend - VSCO, Snapseed and Lightroom - which all have free versions. I kind of tend to use them in combination, but you can do the most with Lightroom. You can use presets on Lightroom or buy presets which are basically premade edits that allow you to apply the entire edit to your picture in one click. It saves a ton of time and then you can get a more consistent look because you're kind of using the same edit on all of them. I do offer a few presets, but there are so many people you can buy them from if my style isn't what you would choose.
Any other tips or advice that you wish parents knew about taking photos?
I’d just remind them that it doesn’t have to be a stressful thing, and it's okay if your kids aren't looking at the camera. I think a lot of times we feel like we have to be taking pictures of big special events like the first time they're walking or their birthday or something like that. But pictures of your normal everyday are going to be really special and then you don't always have to worry about the details I think just grabbing your camera and taking pictures while they're playing or doing their thing is a really good way to document their childhood. And when you’re not stopping or posing them, I think it just makes it a lot more relaxed.
Thank you so much for your wisdom and practical tips, Jessie! Make sure you connect with Jessie on Instagram @HelloJesseMartin and snag her free guide on her website, Jessemartin.com. If you want to start taking better pictures or put more time into learning how to photograph your family, Jessie’s Mom Photography 101 Guide has 16 pages of her favorite tips and advice!