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The Art of Storytelling Family Portraits

Illustrative Portraiture

– By far and away the strongest trend in family portraits today is illustrative portraiture, or more commonly known as storytelling. Though inquiries for storytelling family portraits are still one in five, it’s a far cry from the past where I might hear a single request out of a hundred. Even when I haven’t received a specific portrait commission for storytelling family portraits, a client will frequently ask for a portrait where they are looking at themselves, playing, or something natural. Just in case you were unaware, these sort of requests are all codes for the illustrative, storytelling portrait.

Before launching out on our topic, I must admit I’m aware that it is not possible to convey all that encompasses the art of storytelling family portraits in a mere blog post. You might even say that’s it’s a bit presumptuous of me to make the attempt. However, you’ll be pleased to know that I am not going try. My intention, if anything, is to whet the appetite and hopefully make an indelible distinction between the conventional portrait and that of the storytelling family portrait.

Storytelling Family Portraits by Orange County Photographer, Mark Jordan Photography

Storytelling Family Portraits – Family & Dog take a walk in the park.

So then, what differentiates the storytelling family portrait from the more traditional family portrait?

In short, in the storytelling portrait the subjects are ostensibly unaware of the photographic process. The subjects are instead involved in an activity, making it appear as if the image was created without their acknowledgement. It’s as if the photographer just happened to be strolling by and caught a family at play or child captured in wonderment.

So then, storytelling portraits have been aptly named illustrative because they illustrate a story. The resulting image is designed to depict a special connection or emotion between the subjects or with whatever activity has “spontaneously” captured their attention.

As you might imagine, capturing a family involved in an activity or connecting tenderly (as opposed to sitting pleasantly for the camera) is different animal. Subsequently, it requires a unique mindset and skill-set.

The most relevant aptitude for storytelling portraits is found in a simple lesson we learned in photography fundamentals. As you will recall, the quintessential difference between photographer and painter is the moment. The photographer has the moment, while the painter does not.

Storytelling Family Portraits by Mark Jordan Photographer, Orange County Family Portraits

Bryan Duncan telling stories to friends for album cover, “Conversations.”

Though the fundamental proficiency prerequisite for all portrait photographers is majoring in the moment, it is especially pertinent as it relates storytelling family portraits. Whether it’s capturing the essence of a family at play or a high school senior caught in moment of reflection, nothing captures it best than seizing the moment.

Okay, I’m well aware that though it may be easy to say, how the actual moment manifests itself may not be as self-explanatory and revelatory as one might imagine.

In a nutshell then, storytelling family portraits begins by setting the action in motion. I could easily spend a day or two in instruction, demonstrating how I approach my clients, freeing them to plunge right in, yet still not share everything there is to learn and incorporate. It really is that diverse.

However, were you to witness the process as one of my students, the one common thread you might notice, oddly enough, is that no two sessions/clients are alike. That’s the beauty of it – it’s not about painting by the numbers, but being comfortable with not knowing how your going to proceed – until you actually begin.

Storytelling Family Portraits by Mark Jordan Photographer, Orange County Family Portraits

Randy Newman getting tied in knots while playing my favorite song for me, Lonely At the Top.

I can’t help but think that yet another essential ingredient to storytelling family portraits is faith. Either that or a supreme dose of confidence. After all, I approach each such session with nothing more than an idea or framework, yet knowing that once I set things in motion the session will be successful. I’m thoroughly confident that the moments will appear. They always do.

You see, storytelling portraits, whether its for family or rock-n-rollers, is not so much about technical gyrations as it is about relationships. It’s about putting yourself in the shoes of others, sensing their fears and zones of comfort, and simply relating to them as you would anyone whom you care profoundly.

I guess you could say that storytelling portrait might best spelled COMPASSION. As corny as it sounds, they key component is love. For me, I passionately care about my clients, and in doing so, we’re nothing more than friends at play.

Storytelling Family Portraits by Mark Jordan Photographer, Orange County Family Portraits

Capturing the Moment for a couple in love.

So, moving on, once the story has been set in motion, the prudent photographer learns to tread lightly, allowing the story to unfold. As it does, the session progresses in a series of mercurial sequences, each laden with magical moments begging to be captured.

I must add that having an assistant can be most beneficial. It allows the photographer to maintain focus while giving freedom to explore and create ample exposures.  For me, having an assistant also means whispering directions as to what needs to be manipulated for maximum impact.

Yes, I do wield a bit of direction here and there. After all, I didn’t say to step out of the way, but merely to sprinkle one’s input sparsely.

In the image below, I instructed my assistant to tell the mother and son stay atop the sand berm just as they were heading to the water’s edge. Had they slid away, I would have missed this lovely silhouette.

Storytelling Family Portraits by Orange County Photographer, Mark Jordan PhotographyAs to the fundamental skills necessary to create storytelling family portraits, they are not entirely unique from managing the traditional portrait. Though I see many a young photographer abandoning the essentials of what differentiates a drab candid from a fine portrait, I believe a rudimentary approach to portraiture is indispensable – in particular, light quality.

I understand that the current fashion today is to capture the moment regardless of light direction, time of day or any aspect of it’s dimensionality and quality. But for me, what defines the professional from the amateur is the ability to manage BOTH, the moment AND light.

Not only is a mastery of light a prerequisite for the professional photographer, but so are such considerations as the most flattering perspective, selective focus, lens selection, psychology, composition, clothing…and the list goes on.

For the typical family, their primary focus is on expression and the genuineness of the moment captured – as it should be. However, as a professional, a photographer must be dedicated to creating imagery designed to meet the highest professional standards, not merely to appease/mislead the client (i.e. who does not know otherwise) into believing the novice is a professional.

Storytelling Family Portraits by Orange County Photographer, Mark Jordan Photography

Storytelling Family Portraits – Family stroll along the coast.

In my book, professionalism not only denotes mastery of one’s craft, it is also a function of honesty and integrity. An unsuspecting client is not paying the professional photographer for what they can see, but rather for the professional’s vision and skill-set. Sure, a client would never know the difference between a beach portrait printed with lovely warms highlights from one that’s too cyan, but the professional would. And regardless of cash flow, this same professional would make the tough call, informing their client that the due date of their family portrait will have to wait a few more days. The professional goes the extra mile, ensuring the client’s portrait reflects the attributes of their very best. It’s a passion for excellence and a commitment to client’s best’s interests.

Storytelling Family Portraits by Orange County Photographer, Mark Jordan Photography

Storytelling Family Portraits – Family at Wilderness Glen

Now then, now that I’ve stepped from my soapbox, I’ve got a question for you. What makes the sessions of storytelling family portraits considerably more challenging than the traditional portrait? HINT: it’s a something we have already discussed.

In a word, it’s action!

As you know storytelling family portraits involve motion more often than they do not. And when people move about, interacting with one another, there are 1,001 things than can go awry.

The primary headache is expression (if not a loss of sharp focus, which can be beneficial at times). When people play and relate, they move and they TALK. Of the 26 letters in our alphabet, the only letter that records pleasantly is E. Regardless, I am sure you will resist the temptation to ask you families to repeat “cheese” as they stroll.

To counteract the pitfalls of spontaneity, storytelling family portraits benefit from, and substantially so, employing the tools of Photoshop. Offering your clients the option of exchanging expressions (I’m not fond of “swapping heads”) can be the difference between a mediocre portrait and one that profoundly touches their heart.

In the park images above, every expression was selected from a different exposure. Though the degree of smile was frequently inconsequential, it did matter to my clients. Knowing they can have the ultimate is all the reason they need to work toward it.

Storytelling Family Portraits by Orange County Photographer, Mark Jordan Photography

Storytelling Family Portraits – Brothers discover the tide pools.

Storytelling Family Portraits by Orange County Photographer, Mark Jordan Photography

Storytelling Family Portraits – Father & Sons share a setting sun in Laguna Beach.

My final example is the image of brothers sharing a tender moment with their dad. While the boys were listening attentively to dad, I quietly instructed my assistant to ask him to lean a little closer to his boys. I did not foresee that as he bent forward he would place his head within the glow of the setting sun.

As you know, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Though a fellow print judge found my serendipitous moment abhorrent, I thought it worked wonderfully. Gratefully, my client loved it.

Wrapping it up, to be a successful storytelling family portrait photographer, I recommend adopting five basic techniques to counteract the many challenges and to become a better TAKER of storytelling family portraits:

  1. Translate a family’s needs into your own words.
  2. Anticipate the family’s next move.
  3. Kisss: keep it sincere, substantive and simple.
  4. Expose as many ‘moments’ as possible.
  5. Relax – let it flow.

As always, should you have any questions, need more detail regarding being a better TAKER (of Storytelling Family Portraits), or want to investigate any aspect of creating Storytelling Family Portraits, remember, no concern is too small.

Storytelling Family Portraits | Orange County Photographer, Mark Jordan


Mark Jordan
Master Craftsman Photographer
American Society of Photographers
International Photography Hall of Fame & Museum
Orange County Photographer of the Year
3-Time Honoree -EPCOT’S World’s Greatest Photographers Exhibit


When looking for a professional Orange County Family Portraits photographer, or Orange County Headshots Photographer please call 949-888-8071 or complete our online request form.


Storytelling Family Portraits


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