It’s family photo shoot season! We shot these this past Thursday. It was our first family shoot since Ralph left (and then returned two years later) from his mission to Colombia.

A quick note about our approach to photo shoots: We do photo shoots not only for a record of our family, but also as a big, creative, collaborative family project. I know this approach would not make sense, and would not be appealing, for everyone. It takes a lot of work, and there’s no guarantee the photos will live up to whatever we’re picturing in our head. But we have had a lot of fun over the years working on family photos, and now it’s become part of our family culture. 

I’m over the moon with how these photos turned out. Marielle Hayes was the photographer and did a terrific job. Want to hear the thinking behind the shoot? Or what the planning was like? I hope you say yes, because I love talking about this kind of thing. : )

It started a few days before the arrival of December. I knew I wanted to send holiday cards this year, but we needed a new family photo. I remembered that my friend, Wendy of Blue Lily Photography, often shoots in the Bay Area during early December (in fact she shot our pattern-on-pattern photos in early December a few years ago). So I texted her to see if she was coming to town and if she had any spots available. She did! One spot left on Sunday morning, December 2nd. I grabbed it.

But. Sunday morning was only a few days away. So I knew I needed to come up with a concept for our photos that I could actually make happen in a short period of time. We called a family meeting and started brainstorming ideas. As I mentioned, our family photos tend to be big group projects that the whole family works on. All the kids have to buy in to the idea and the project as a whole, or it doesn’t turn out as well. Why? Because photo shoots take a good chunk of time and patience and unless each person is enthusiastic about the idea, it will likely to be too painful to pull together.

The kids had a ton of ideas. So many good ones! And I’m not going to tell you about them because we still want to use them. Hah!

We starting narrowing down the ideas by considering resources available — location options? could supplies be overnighted? what could we rent or borrow? We finally settled on a formal shoot set on a grand staircase. We knew we had several good clothing options already on hand, and figured we could rent anything else we needed.

Next, we figured out a location. We wanted to shoot at a famous Oakland park we love. It’s called Joaquin Miller Park and we’ve spent many lovely hours there — and it happens to have the perfect staircase. So we went to the park, during the same time of day we would be shooting, to snap a few scouting photos and check out the sunlight situation.

I’ll be honest. The light wasn’t good. In late spring, or early summer, it’s probably perfect. But the current position of the sun offered really harsh light on the stairs.

I sent the scouting images to Wendy, and she said it would be tough, but we could work with it. She sent us photos from another shoot she’d done that had harsh light and said, “If you’re good with the lighting in these photos, then we can stick with Joaquin Miller Park.”

So we moved forward, location settled, and turned our attention to wardrobe questions. We knew Maude and Olive and I had dresses that would definitely work. We thought we had a possible good option for Betty to wear. We knew Oscar had a navy wool suit that he looks great in. We thought we could rent tuxes for the Ralph and Ben. So we figured we just needed to find a dress for June (and maybe Betty).

I narrowed the colors for wardrobe options down to: champagne, navy, black, and grey. Based on what we already had, I knew I wanted a champagne colored dress for June. So I started scouring Amazon for dresses (with searches like girls fancy party dress), that were available with next day shipping. And I also shopped online at Nordstrom because they have an awesome option where you can see what’s available locally, and pick up the order in-store the same day. We found wonderful dresses.

We ended up with this silver-y grey one for Betty (on sale!), and this sweet little option in champagne for June. We added a tutu under June’s to get the skirt really full.

Then, I took Ben and Ralph to a tux rental place — the one with the best Yelp ratings in Oakland. I have never rented a tux. I don’t think Ben has rented one since high school. And I realized right away, renting was not going to work. It takes like a week to get a particular tuxedo in, and then they need to alter it. They had a couple of standard options in stock, but we didn’t like the look. And it’s expensive! We felt like we could buy a suit for a similar price.

So we made a plan B. We’ve had luck in the past at stores like Zara and H&M for good-looking, relatively inexpensive suits, and we decided to see what we could find in stores. It was a little bit frustrating, because there were really cool options in their online stores, but we didn’t have time to order. The in-store options weren’t nearly as fun, but we picked up a grey suit for Ralph, in a nice glen plaid, and a simple black suit for Ben.

They weren’t exactly what we wanted, but we figured they would work for the shoot — and they were less expensive than a tux rental.

The clothes were settled, so next I put out some inquires for help with hair and makeup. I have only hired hair and make up assistance for one other family photo shoot, so it’s not a regular thing we do. But because I had a particular formal look in mind, I knew I would want help to achieve what was in my head. I talked to Brittney Montoya. She had helped with my hair and makeup at an event I went to in November, and I knew she was local. She told me she was actually a makeup specialist, and didn’t really do hair, so I told her I’d look for a hair stylist, or we’d handle hair ourselves.

Everything was coming together! On Friday afternoon, two days before the shoot, Ben and Ralph and Olive went to Nordstrom to pick up Betty’s dress. While they were on the errand, I got a call from Ralph. He’d had a realization: We all knew he was flying out for work that weekend. We thought he was flying out on Sunday afternoon. But he remembered the flight had been changed to Saturday. Which meant, he wouldn’t actually be there on Sunday morning.


We had to cancel with Wendy. And the makeup artist. We were all pretty bummed.

But now we had the concept, and we’d found great dresses for Betty and June, and we figured we’d call a local photographer and re-schedule the shoot for when Ralph got back to Oakland.

The next morning, I was at a Scrooge performance, doing hair and makeup for Oscar, Betty, and June. I was chatting with another mom, Marielle Hayes. I remembered Marielle is a photographer! I told her the whole saga, and asked if she’d be interested in shooting our photos. She was! So we rescheduled for the following Friday.

I texted Marielle images that had the look and feel I was going for, so she could see what I had in mind.

Since we had more time, I figured we could now order exactly what we wanted for the men to wear. So we placed an order with H&M. We chose a beautiful black wool tuxedo for Ben, an elegant blue velvet suit for Ralph, and a grey three-piece suit for Oscar. (We weren’t originally going to order anything for Oscar, but as the shoot came together, I felt like I needed one more light-colored outfit in the mix.) The shipping time was 4 to 9 days, and there was no rush shipping option. So we weren’t sure if it was going to make it on time. But we crossed our fingers and knew we still had the back up suits.

By Thursday night, the package hadn’t arrived. We were talking with the photographer about it, and Marielle said we should wait, and shoot with the ideal clothes that we were picturing. So we rescheduled one more time.

Maude had finals the next week, so we couldn’t shoot right away. We chose Thursday the 13th, and asked the kids to block out time for the shoot. I also cancelled with Brittney, the makeup artist, for a second time. So embarrassing!

The H&M package arrived that weekend. Two of the suits were awesome — Ben’s Tuxedo, and Ralph’s Blue Velvet. Both were totally worth waiting for. But Oscar’s suit didn’t fit at all. It was much too big. So I figured it was time to move to Plan C.

I got back on Amazon and started shopping for a suit for Oscar — something that would arrive right away. I found this one. Two-day shipping, fantastic reviews, and less expensive than the H&M option (the one that didn’t fit him) by a ways. Hooray!

Once all the clothes had arrived, I had everyone try things on to see what needed to be steamed or ironed, and to work out any other details — like who was wearing what shoes. For Ralph, we decided a turtleneck was the look — it felt unusual and sophisticated, and it allowed me to bring in another piece of clothing in the cream/champagne range. I happened to have a creamy cashmere turtleneck from my Grandma Rudi (I was given her collection of turtlenecks when she died — best inheritance ever! I should tell you more about that story some time). It worked perfectly with Ralph’s suit.

For Betty, we decided to add a fur collar from my closet. The collar was the first gift my mother-in-law Julia gave me. She bought it while living in Riga, Lativa — where winters are harsh. I ended up lining it with satin and adding leather ties. I love to wear it at Christmas-time.

While we sorted out clothes, the photographer, Marielle, kept stopping by Joaquin Miller Park at different times of day to see if the light on the stairs ever improved.

It did not.

So she started suggesting other options. A pretty rose garden. A cemetery with good architectural angles. Nothing was quite right. The day before the shoot, she sent me photos from Berkeley Campus (here, we call the university Cal). It looked perfect!

I confirmed with Brittney, the makeup artist, for the 3rd time.

We ended up doing hair at our house — this took about an hour. Maude put a gorgeous braid into June’s hair. I did an updo for Betty and Maude. Olive straightened her hair and pulled the sides back with a clip. Then we carefully packed up our photoshoot outfits — laying them gently in the trunk of our van — and drove over to campus wearing comfy clothes.

We found a place on campus where we could meet Brittney for makeup — that took about 2 hours — and change into our finery. From there we had a 15-min walk to meet Marielle at the campus bell tower. Me and the girls walked in our sneakers and brought a bag with our fancy shoes.

We shot at three different locations on campus. I would have my girls switch to comfy shoes to walk from place to place. It was chilly in the shade — but California chilly, which is like 60 degrees. : ) We had a few jackets to drape over shoulders when we were between shots. The shoot took about 1.5 hours once we met up with the photographer. It was a ton of fun. My kids don’t hesitate offering ideas up to the photographer, and happily, Marielle was game.

After the shoot, we were all feeling fancy and wanted to go out. But real life took over. The three oldest kids all had babysitting jobs, and the three youngest kids had drum lessons, so we all came home. Marielle knew we wanted the photos for Christmas cards, so she edited them immediately and sent me the files. Which was awesome and really kind of her.

It was funny because I was so nervous to look at the images. The shoot had taken a ton of planning and what if they didn’t turn out? We really didn’t have the time or energy for another shoot, you know?

But I didn’t need to worry. The photos are gorgeous! A true treasure. We all feel super lucky to have this record of our family.

Okay. That was a long story. And I’m sure some of you are thinking not worth it. And I totally get that. As I mentioned, our photo shoots have become fun family projects and we all get a lot of joy out of working on them. I understand it’s not the kind of project everyone would like.

What’s your take on family photos? Do you dread them? Do you have tiny kids who are hard to wrangle? Do you like to keep things simple? Or do you like to come up with a concept or plan? Have you ever had a shoot come together that you really loved?