Stress-Free Family Photo Styling
Updated: Sep 23
Fall has fast become the default season for family photo sessions. And, as exciting as the change of seasons is, it can be overwhelming to pull outfits together for annual pictures usually featured on holiday cards. Whether you opt for relaxed or formal, hire a professional photographer or do it yourself with a tripod, my simple formula for stress-free family photo outfits will help your family look coordinated without feeling identical.
Start with the matriarch or principal family member.
Select the kids’ outfits.
Finish with Dad’s.
Ultimately, you first want to consider the setting of the photos. You want everyone’s outfits to compliment the colors in the background scenery.
Start With the Matriarch
Traditionally, this is mom but with so many different and beautiful family dynamics, this may not only be a mom. By matriarch, I mean the person in the family who keeps everything running — in a single parent household it’s the full time parent, in other families, it might be Dad or a grandparent. If division of duties is pretty equitable in your house, who booked the photographer for the family photos? Start with that person. I like to put the principal family member in a distinctive pattern she loves. Whether it is stripes, leopard, floral or geometric, the pattern is a way to visually highlight and commemorate the person in the family who keeps everyone else in the household going. In the style board pictured above, I started with a dark floral midi dress. There are a lot of colors within the dress, and red appears in the smallest way so I selected red shoes to coordinate the outfit in a less obvious way.
If the highlighted family member doesn’t care for pattern or can’t find a pattern they love, that’s totally fine! Start with a favorite color that contrasts with the photo setting. If neutrals are your comfort zone, that is great — they always look sophisticated. For example, if the setting has a lot of trees with greenery, the matriarch in off-whites or creams would offer a really beautiful contrast; if the setting will have a lot of traditional fall colors, a darker earth-tone palette is a great starting point. The key to neutrals standing out in pictures is to select something with texture. For more casual photos, this could be a knit sweater; for more formal photos, it might be a dress with ruching or a tulle overlay.
Next, Select the Kids’ Outfits
Look at the pattern the matriarch is wearing. Find a color or two in the pattern that appears in a subtle way then put the kids in textured pieces in that color. This might be a sweater dress or tutu dress for girls, and for boys, create even more texture by dressing them in layers. In the pictured style board, I pulled the white from mom’s floral pattern for the girl’s outfit in a textured dress and paired it with metallic silver shoes and headband. Because metallics are neutrals, they go with everything else and will add more visual dimension to photos. For the boys’ outfit, I focused on the blue from Mom’s floral, layering the chambray button-up shirt over a white t-shirt. This coordinates with both the mom’s and sister’s outfits.
If the starting family member has opted against a pattern with colors for the other outfits to pull from, dress the kids in a high contrast complimentary color to Mom’s solid or neutral. This is likely the color that is directly across from Mom’s on a color wheel. Example: if the setting is greenery and Mom is in cream, navy blue is a great starting point for the kids’ outfits.
Finish With Dad
I usually source dad’s outfit last because sophisticated men's clothes are more readily available at all price points. I like to put dads in dark bottoms, a button up that pulls from one of the colors in the matriarch’s pattern, and a knit sweater. In the pictured style board, I chose a small scale check in blue for the shirt. This plays nicely with the blues in the floral pattern because it picks up on the color and offers a contrasting, geometric pattern to the softness the floral print. If you do elect to use a pattern for Dad, make sure it’s a small scale and doesn’t distract from Mom’s outfit. Unless you’re taking formal photos, knit cardigans on men are a great option. For this style board, I sourced a light neutral one that coordinates with everyone else in the family. I recommend light-colored knits because the texture photographs very well, and they complete an outfit without making it look too rigid. If the photos are more formal, go for a well-fitting blazer that contrasts with the shirt for visual interest and definition.
If the principal family member is in a neutral, Dad’s knit can be the same color as Mom’s outfit but make sure the texture is completely different to add visual contrast, which is especially important in photos to avoid outfits looking like they’re melting into each other. In the greenery background example I’ve referenced, Mom’s cream top might have a lace overlay, contrasting with dad’s neutral knit sweater. If Dad doesn’t care for patterns either, a solid shirt or knit that coordinates with either the kids or mom will work well.
A note on shoes. Shoes are the exclamation point to any outfit. Regardless of how coordinated the outfits are, or how casual or formal the feeling of the pictures is, shoes are a fun way to show each family members’ personality. Whether it’s a child who loves the fanciest shoes or a dad who prefers sneakers, giving family members the opportunity to show their personality in coordinated family photos offers a memorable distinction of each person.
Avoid overly voluminous and flowy dresses and blouses unless they have a defined waist line or are belted. I love wearing these as much as the next person but since you can’t control a breeze that comes up while taking photos, volume doesn’t often translate well in still pictures. Retailers and shoot stylists often nip, tuck, and pin voluminous clothes in strategic places throughout photography sessions so the garments lay just so at different angles, which is a difficult task to manage through a family photo session.
Consider second hand. Supply chains are still incredibly delayed, which is continually causing limited retailer inventories. There are some amazing consignment sites for adults and children that are easy to navigate and filter by size and color for quick browsing. They also offer great pricing, items with tags or like-new condition, and give you the opportunity to make an already-produced garment last a little longer.
Taking photos for a large or extended family? The more people you have, the more difficult sourcing can be with limited supply chains.The matriarch or patriarch should still be the stand out in a pattern or textured solid of their choosing but the rest of the family should select from a tone or two either in the principal family members’ pattern or to compliment the solid color she is wearing. In the style board example pictured above, I would advise everyone to wear either light blue or yellow tops or dresses to coordinate and send a picture of the pattern or main clothing item to other family members so they can see the tone range for each color they’re trying to coordinate with. Nothing has to be exact but you wouldn’t necessarily want to land on turquoise if you’re going for the light blue in the pictured dress. For matriarchs dressed in solid colors, give everyone a complimentary color choice or two. In my example of a cream outfit with lots of green in the background, I would suggest darker neutrals such as taupe or, for a saturated color choice, deep cranberry. (Even people who think they can’t wear red look great in cranberry because it has cooling blue and purple undertones, as opposed to true red’s warm orange undertones.)
Wherever you take your family photos, basing the outfits around the family member who keeps everyone going through tick and thin is a beautiful way to acknowledge her and offers a strategic starting point to coordinate all the other outfits.
Product information from the pictured style board (all items from 2020):
Mom's Outfit: Ann Taylor LOFT Dress; Vince Camuto Shoes (Nordstrom)
Girl's Outfit: Zara Dress and Shoes; J. Crew Headband
Boy's Outfit: Old Navy T-Shirt; Gap Chambray Button Down Shirt; Cat&Jack Denim and Shoes (Target)
Dad's Outfit: J.Crew Button Down Shirt; Banana Republic Denim; French Connection Cardigan (Nordstrom); Steve Madden Shoes
A note: I am an independent wardrobe consultant and stylist. At this time, I do not receive any commission from, or have any affiliation with, retailers or brands. This allows me to keep my clients at the heart of my business, making the best selections and recommendations for their style