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Photographer shares looks that complement, highlight individual style in family photos

Vanessa and Shane Sailer chose a purple and gray color scheme to coordinate their family Christmas photos. Submitted by Marlayne Larsen.1 / 3
Christina Ghent, of Guam, and her three daughters chose a yellow and blue color scheme to coordinate their family photos. Submitted by Marlayne Larsen.2 / 3
Jason and Nancy Kinlaw chose a neutral color palette for their family photos last fall. Submitted by Marlayne Larsen.3 / 3

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- For photographer Marlayne Larsen, the rules of family photos are simple: “Coordinate but don’t match,” she said.

Larsen, who lives on Grand Forks Air Force Base, has been photographing families for two years, and she puts a big emphasis on color coordinating outfits.

She said she’s even gone as far as helping families shop for clothes online. Why? Because Larsen said it makes the photos that much more special when they’re hanging on the wall.

“It pulls everything together,” she said.

Larsen started Memory Layne Photos when her family was stationed in Guam. Now, in North Dakota, she shoots family, couple, senior, newborn and boudoir photography in her home studio and on location. But whether she’s photographing a family of five or a newborn, she said it’s important to color coordinate the photos.

Inspiration piece

For family photos, Larsen said it’s easier to start with the mother or daughter.

“You start with one inspiration piece, and you build from there,” she said. “You just want the whole look to come together.”

An inspiration piece can be a colorful flower print dress, a patterned sweater or even a favorite hat. The inspiration piece determines the color palette for the whole family.

For Vanessa Sailer of the Grand Forks Air Force Base, the purple and blue patterned dresses her twin daughters wore were the focal point of her family photos.

“I had already bought the girls’ dresses,” she said. “From there, we looked in my husband’s closet and my closet and got the whole color scheme.”

Sailer picked a deep purple sweater and gray boots for herself, and her husband wore a solid dark gray sweater. The girls also wore light gray cardigans over their dresses.

“The girls already had the pattern, so we knew my husband and I were going to wear solid colors,” she said. Their simple looks played off of their daughters’ colorful dresses to enhance the overall look of the photos.

Larsen said typically only one person should wear a pattern, and the other family members should choose a color from that pattern to match. But when she says “match,” Larsen doesn’t mean everyone should wear the same exact shirt or even the same color. And she definitely doesn’t recommend everyone showing up in blue jeans and a plain white T-shirt. That’s a thing of the past, she said.

Individual style

Instead, Larsen recommends choosing lighter and darker tones that complement one another, yet still show off everyone’s individual style.

“Even though we are individual people, we are a family,” said Christina Ghent, one of Larsen’s clients from Guam. “I wanted to show that while still giving individuality to each person.”

For her family photos, Ghent said she looked to Pinterest for ideas. She wanted to choose colors that would enhance each of their personalities. Yellow and blue were the winning shades.

“Having three girls makes it easier to coordinate colors and outfits, but it also can be difficult because they each have their individual personalities,” she said.

Her youngest daughter wore dark polka-dot shorts with a bright patterned top. The rest of them choose simpler looks. Her eldest daughter wore a white and yellow eyelet sun dress. Her middle daughter chose a yellow T-shirt with leggings, and Ghent wore a blue sun dress.

“I don’t want (anyone) to dress in something that’s not them,” Larsen said. They should choose “something they’re comfortable in and something that’s their style.”

‘It’s in the details’

To further coordinate the individual looks, families can add accessories and layers.

The Ghent family used matching yellow flower accessories in the form of hair pins for the girls and a necklace for mom, while Sailer used little fuchsia and silver headbands for her twin daughters.

Scarves, hats, vests and shoes can also help establish a complete overall look.

“It’s all in the details,” Larsen said. “Layers are always good because you can take them off for another look. It brings a lot of depth and detail and interest to the photos.”

For families struggling to find coordinating pieces, Larsen suggests looking to Pinterest for inspiration or shopping at a store like Old Navy that has the same color schemes across all departments for mom, dad, boys, girls and babies.

While determining colors and specific pieces of clothing, there are a few things to avoid. Larsen said, “No neon and no tennis shoes.”

If someone is having a hard time finding shoes that match, she said she suggests Converse or Vans because they come in fun colors but are still plain flat shoes.

She also said people should avoid obnoxious patterns and excessively loud colors because they distract from the overall picture.

Season and setting

Other factors that can play into the decision are the season, setting and purpose of the photos.

Larsen said, depending on the season, certain colors may be more appropriate than others, especially if the photos are taken outdoors. Bright, vibrant colors are more appropriate in the summer when colorful flowers are in bloom, while dark, rich colors are more appropriate in the winter against a snowy white backdrop.

Nancy Kinlaw of Grand Forks drew on neutral tones for the family photos she had taken in the fall.

She said she looked to Pinterest for inspiration and ended up buying new outfits for her two daughters. A store advertisement inspired her cream and brown color choices. Her youngest wore a cream cardigan with big brown buttons and her older daughter wore a brown jacket and boots.

“I wanted something that looked like fall, like fall colors,” Kinlaw said.

While her daughters wore earthy tones, Kinlaw and her husband wore gray tops, which allowed the family to still stand out against the brown and yellow autumn backdrop.

“It really depends on your environment,” Larsen said. “If you’re against all green, you don’t want to wear a bunch of greens.”

Most importantly, just have fun with it, Larsen said.

“Always start with an inspiration piece and just coordinate,” she said.

Tips for color coordinating

  •  Start with an accent piece, such as a colorful dress or a patterned sweater.
  •  Use the accent piece to develop a color palette of complementing colors in lighter and darker tones.
  •  Use layers to create more depth and detail, such as scarves, jewelry and sweaters.
  •  Don’t go crazy with busy patterns.
  •  Turn to Converse for matching shoes in simple, solid colors.
  •  Avoid neon colors and anything that will distract from the photograph.
  •  Turn to Pinterest for inspiration.
  •  Shop at Old Navy or a similar store to easily coordinate looks for the entire family.

Suggested color palettes

  •  Purple, gray and black
  •  Pink, cream and brown
  •  White, yellow and blue
  •  Orange, brown and red
  •  Purple, blue and cream
  •  Gray, white and teal
  •  Blue, white and khaki
  •  Yellow, gray, charcoal
  •  Brown, green and tan

Jasmine Maki
Jasmine Maki is a features reporter for Accent. Her main beats are arts and entertainment and life and style. She also occasionally covers health, family and TV.
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