Opinion

Why is it so hard to take a perfect family photo—or at least a decent one?

All Ian Mendes wants is one perfect photo of his daughters. But as most parents know, that’s a tall order.

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Illustration: Rachel Idzerda

The sasquatch has eluded both adventurers and photographers for decades—nobody has managed to get a clear picture of the hairy beast. But any parent will tell you that capturing a perfect image of his own child is far more difficult.

This summer, we will take approximately 1,000 photos of our kids and, if we’re lucky, maybe two will turn out to be keepers. I’ve never taken a clean shot of them playing on the swings or coming down the slide. I’m waiting for Instagram to make a Summer Child filter that de-blurs pics of my kids in motion.

I also chuckle when people say it’s a “picture-perfect” summer day. A lot of our summer pics are ruined because our girls are either squinting or shielding their eyes from the sunshine, like vampires recoiling from the light of day. The odds of getting two kids to look into the camera with their eyes open at the exact same time on a sunny day are astronomical. If it happens for you, immediately go out and buy a lottery ticket, because it’s your lucky day.

I’m convinced all young kids inherently believe in the ancient myth that being photographed steals a part of your soul. Taking a good picture of a three-year-old always requires at least two adults. One operates the camera, while the other stands behind and does something absolutely ridiculous in the hopes of generating a smile. “Look at Daddy acting like a chicken!” One parent clucks, the other clicks. Still, there’s a good chance your child didn’t smile and look directly into the camera at the same time, or he did one of those too-cheesy smiles that crunches up the rest of his face.

And forget about trying to get a good photo of the whole family. The desire for the perfect family shot often leads parents to hire a professional, which comes with its own set of problems. Do you book the studio before naptime or after it? (Spoiler alert: You will make the wrong decision, and the child will be cranky either way.) Trying to coordinate outfits can be an exercise in futility when your daughter refuses to wear anything but her favourite pink dress with purple ele­phants on it. And you always need to have some candy on hand to entice co-operation, which leads you to worry about a crazy sugar high—or crash. A conservative estimate suggests that 40 percent of all Smarties sales in Canada are linked directly to parent bribing their kids into smiling nicely for the camera.

In reality, the window for getting a really good picture of your kids is extremely small. I think there’s a 45-minute opening at some point when they are about four years old. You might think it gets easier as your kids get older, since kids tend to get a bit more co-operative, but that’s not necessarily true. Our daughter is going through that awkward preteen phase where she has completely forgotten how to smile. She does this weird thing with her lips, where she’s trying to smile but comes out looking like Elvis sneering after eating some bad cheese. But when I look back at pictures of my youth, I realize I went through a similar lactose-intolerant Elvis stage that lasted about six or seven years. My school pictures got progressively more awkward, culminating in a classic shot from the early ’90s that included zits, a weird smile and a laser background. Like most people (I suspect), I’m completely ashamed of any photo of me taken between the ages of nine and 19. I often imagine the employees of those school photography companies laughing over the archived photos during staff parties. If they ever decided to make their images available to the public, they would destroy a lot of lives.

When you walk into our house, one of the first things you see is a beautiful shot of both of our girls smiling during a summer camping trip in 2008. We haven’t updated the seven-year-old photo in the frame because we have not taken a comparable shot of the two of them since. It’s an unspoken assumption between my wife and I that the camping picture will hang there until we do manage to snap another one worthy of framing—maybe at one of their weddings.

A version of this article appeared in our July/August 2015 issue with the headline, “Picture perfect?”, p. 66.

Follow along as Ottawa-based sports radio host Ian Mendes gets candid about raising his daughters, Elissa and Lily, with his wife, Sonia. Read all of Ian’s The Good Sport posts and follow him on Twitter @ian_mendes.

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