Tamsen Donker is a professional photographer in the Niagara, Ontario area. Her company, Creative Clicks Photography, specializes in family and child photography and her radiant photographs provide perfect inspiration for anyone planning a family reunion or portrait.

  • Using architectural elements adds interest. Photo credit - Tamsen Donker Using architectural elements adds interest. Photo credit - Tamsen Donker Using architectural elements adds interest to the photograph.
  • Using the "triangle rule" creates a pleasing photo. Photo credit - Tamsen Donker Using the "triangle rule" creates a pleasing photo. Photo credit - Tamsen Donker


Sarah Ashley: I’m thrilled to interview you for my blog. My goal is to encourage people to bring artistic ideas and sensibility to their study of family history. Photography is obviously such a big part of this. There’s a million things we could talk about but I want to focus our interview specifically on photographing family reunions. Before we get started though, tell me a little about yourself. How long have you been a professional photographer? How did you get started? what do you love the best about it?

Tamsen Donker: I am a child of God, a wife, and a mother of (almost) four beautiful children. Photography is something that’s always been in my blood but I never seriously considered really getting into it until I was on maternity leave with my first child. I took a few courses, but quickly realized that I could learn more on my own with the help of Google, forums and lots of practice.

I spent many, many nights going to bed just before my husband would get up for work in the morning…I couldn’t wait to learn, to know more and to improve my skills. It takes time and dedication, especially when you have children underfoot, but I really enjoyed seeing my skills grow and sharing it with others as well.

I just LOVE capturing moments for clients (and my family) that feel like a special, intimate moment but also give a feel of art – something they can hang in their home and enjoy every single day.

Sarah: When it comes to making sure that they’re able to “capture the moment” with photography, what general advice do you have for people planning a family reunion?

Tamsen: First off, I recommend planning a location and time of day that will work well with children if they will be involved. I always prefer to shoot an hour or two after sunrise or before sunset as that light is the most beautiful and flattering BUT it needs to work for the children and if they are young, a session at 7-8 PM might not be the best idea. A morning session would be good in that situation as the kids are well rested, full, and happy. Choose a location that offers some shade and a variety of interesting locations to use as a backdrop. Often when I do family reunion sessions, they’ve traveled and may not know the area too well, so I recommend locations to use as well.

Sarah: Let’s talk candid vs. staged photographs. Reunions would have both. What tips can you give about making sure there are plenty of high quality candid photographs coming out of the event?

Tamsen: When it comes to a reunion, I always do the formal portraits first. This ensures that everyone is fresh, children are clean and happy and then everyone can relax for the rest of the day. Then I can capture candid moments as they happen later on.

Sarah: Do you have any tips for helping relatives who are not comfortable in front of the camera?

Tamsen: When I arrive, I always go around introducing myself and talking with everyone so they know a little about me and aren’t as uncomfortable when the photos start. Then I pose them in a way that feels comfortable and relaxed to them and as I’m photographing, I keep talking, making everyone laugh and just kinda acting like a dork to get those “real” natural smiles out of the group.

Sarah: What are different ways to “stage” a group photo? Most of us seem to gravitate to the “taller in back, shorter in front” guideline. Are there other ways to think about it?

Tamsen: Well, that’s a standard pose but there’s always the opportunity to use natural items as well to mix up the portraits. I prefer to keep it more real and relaxed, so using architectural or natural elements in the location helps to break up the standard pose and create a more interesting photograph. Kneeling, sitting, leaning, using rocks at a beach, logs in a forest, incorporating a stool if needed – this helps to break up the portrait.

I also try to keep in mind the “triangle rule” – posing groups/families so that their heads form a triangular pattern is a pleasing look in a photograph as well. This trick is not new – in fact, if you look at paintings from long ago, you will notice that large groups are painted in the same way.

Sarah: What are interesting ways to think about perspective? What would you recommend about taken shots from above or from below? How do you make perspective work in your favor to get a unique group photograph?

Tamsen: One thing I will never do is photograph people from below. It’s not a flattering angle and I don’t think anyone wants to see up their nostrils. I prefer to shoot on a stepladder for family sessions. Shooting from above a little helps create a more flattering angle and also enables me to see everyone, including those who may be in the back (I’m a short 5’4” so the stepladder is essential to me!).

I don’t shoot from very high above (i.e. from a balcony) because the subjects are usually craning their heads upward, getting sun in their eyes, etc. I can see this possibly being necessary with a huge group (over 50+) but with smaller reunions it is nicer to be able to see everyone’s face clearly.

Sarah: How about “dressing people” for a group photo? As you organize people in the group should the color of their clothing match, or be as diverse as possible? What do you think of the “team t-shirt” approach for a group photo?

Tamsen: Coordinating clothing is very important to the final image. I prefer families to look like themselves, dressed in their own clothing, and not in a standard uniform of white shirts and khaki pants. I encourage them to simply talk to one another about their family color choices and ensure that everything will complement color wise. This often means that they will choose a color palette (i.e. blues, greys, purples) and everyone can wear colors that will work nicely together without looking like they just all hit up a mall for a new shirt. Discussing this with family members is KEY to the final portrait, because if one person shows up in a bright red dress, they will clash horribly and stand out of the crowd.

I also suggest avoiding large logos across the front of shirts and hats, which can block out other family members or cause shadows on the individual’s face. I include on my blog a monthly “What to Wear” post which helps my clients to understand what I mean by “complement”. Often the very easiest way to find a complementary palette is to look at an item of clothing that incorporates a lot of color.

Sarah: How about props? The possibilities here are endless. Have you seen props effectively used in photographs at reunions? What are the things to think about (and avoid) when considering props?

Tamsen: Other than bringing stools or blankets to sit on, I don’t use a lot of props. I think some things might be cute (using large numbers or letters to spell out the family name or anniversary date) but I wouldn’t incorporate them into every image. I prefer a simple and clean image that leaves the attention on the subjects of the image rather than the cool props.

Sarah: What are your thoughts on background for a group photo? Many reunions take place at historical sites or family homes. Should people try to include something relevant in the background or does that distract from the people in the photograph?

Tamsen: I love the idea of including a family home, or cottage into the background of the portrait and it gives so much more meaning as well. When I photograph, I would situate the group a distance away from the building so that the whole thing would show in the background but it would be out of focus, leaving the family members the main subject in the image. 

Sarah: We all know light is critical to good photography but what does that mean in terms of taking a good group shot? Do we want the lighting directly overhead or coming from the side? What should we be looking for in this regard?

Tamsen: Overhead light is the least flattering to any portrait. It creates harsh shadows under eyes (often called raccoon eyes) and bright spots everywhere else. It is possible to shoot in this type of light if there is a large area of open shade, but I always prefer to do posed portraits in more even lighting. As I mentioned before, the most beautiful time of day for light is early morning or late evening.

I shoot with the light coming from behind, which creates a beautiful halo of light around the subjects and keeps them from squinting in the sunlight.

Sarah: What else can you share with us about taking fun and high quality group photos?

Tamsen: Go into it with a positive attitude. I find men especially hate portraits which can create stress within the whole group. 

If everyone goes into the session with a fun and positive attitude, the session ALWAYS goes smoother. It really only takes a maximum of one hour for posed portraits if everyone behaves well, so the sooner people behave the sooner we are done! I just keep reminding them of the delicious food and drink and all the fun ahead of them!

Thank you, Tamsen, for providing these helpful suggestions to our readers. If you would like to see more of Tamsen’s work or find out how you can hire her for your next family reunion, visit her website at www.creativeclicksphotography.com.


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