The Real Life Portrait Page Project (+ a free template download and instructions for you)

Cathy ZielskeFree Downloads, Scrapbooking57 Comments


I’m going to tell you something today that I try to convey to just about anyone who’ll listen: my house and my life are not perfect.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m extremely grateful for the home in which I dwell and the life that I’m fortunate enough to lead, but you’re not going to find perfection in either one.

This lack of perfection gave me an idea for a new way of taking portraits and it began with my 16-year-old daughter’s perfectly trashed room. Her idea of cleaning is to take every item in her room and pile it up on her bed. Sounds like a great start, right? The problem is that many times, the pile gets made and stays for days at a time, forcing her to carve out a tiny sliver of the bed on which to sleep while she procrastinates tackling the inevitable.

Because this is just so her, I was struck with the idea to prop her right in front of said bed, and shoot a portrait that truly captures an authentic slice of her real life.

And the results made me giddy.

I’m tired of the idea that a portrait should be perfection. Yes, I have some nice spots in my home in which to shoot, but this shot? This shot shows me a real slice of my daughter’s life; something messy; something imperfect; something quintessentially her.

I want to challenge anyone out there to take up the Real Life Portrait Challenge. How can you photograph the people you love using a less than perfect background? I can only imagine the number of women out there with a perfectly trashed [insert the room here.] Have you ever thought how that could be the ideal spot for a portrait?

What about in the room you’ve been trying to paint for the last year? Or the garden project that’s hit a wall? Or the mismatched furniture in your family room that you keep thinking will look so much better once it’s all replaced?

How can you look at your perfectly non-glamorous life for a slice of portrait perfection?


Today I have a digital package download for you to create your own page built around a perfectly imperfect portrait. Here is the project you’ll be making:


The digital package includes everything you need to create a hybrid page as I’ve done, or a fully digital layout. Also included are a set of printable PDF instructions that will walk you through the steps using Photoshop Elements to create this scrapbook page.

Click on this link below to download the digital package:

Download CZ_DigitalPackage

Here’s to seeing real life in creative and authentic ways. And heck, if it takes the pressure off of shooting for perfection, all the better.


Cathy ZielskeThe Real Life Portrait Page Project (+ a free template download and instructions for you)

57 Comments on “The Real Life Portrait Page Project (+ a free template download and instructions for you)”

  1. #1
    Jill B

    Thank you Cathy! I have been picking up other wonderful CZ Designs over at Designer Digitals while on sale. I’m just sayin! I am not sure I can pick just one imperfect place for the portrait. I have a couple of “perfect” examples. Have a great day! We sure do look forward to your encouraging words you keep it real for us.

  2. #2
    Kendra B

    Thank you for the download! Aidan is gorgeous!! 🙂 I had to laugh at this post because I used to do something similar because I hated to put my laundry away.

  3. #3

    Cathy, your theory may be slightly flawed. When I first saw the picture collage, all I saw was a beautiful girl. That smile is amazing. I didn’t even notice the setting. Then I read the text and found out she was being photographed in her messy room and had to go back and look! Now, I am a neat freak so, if I didn’t notice, I am not sure who would! Anyway, thanks for the template.

  4. #4
    Debby Riendeau

    Thank you for sharing. The photos are gorgeous in spite of (or maybe because of) the background. Some of my favorite portraits are the “real” ones that show personality.

  5. #9

    Love it, Cathy. It’s good we get the mess & jumble of our lives on camera, too. It doesn’t hurt having an adorable model in front of the mess, though!

  6. #11
    Lori - near Seattle

    When I first started scrapbooking many years ago, I always cropped my photos down so that the focus was on the person (usually shaped into a heart or cut with deckle scissors!). However, one day I was going through some of my mom’s old photos from her childhood. One of my favorite photos was of her – standing in her parents’ small town grocery store – with all of the food items neatly lined up, and showing the little staircase and doorway that led to her family home that was at the back of the store. At that particular time in my scrapbooking evolution, I would have cut my mom out into a tiny oval – leaving out all of that cool background information. But it really changed the way I look at photos.

  7. #12

    Cathy, this is a great idea! With a little one, there are always imperfect backgrounds all over the house, lol. Just need to decide which one is best for a pic. Thank you for the inspiration and the download!

  8. #13

    This post made me smile. As a mother of two girls who have moved out of their teens into their twenties they haven’t quite grown out of this messy room phase and I long for that day. Both would be far too horrified to have their pic taken period, let alone in their room. Last week my youngest turned 20 and I HAD to take a pic of her room to include in her birthday book which I titled ‘Now you are 20’. She laughed when she saw the room pic and I told her she will look back at this when she is my age! It has been such a privilege to document her real life for the future and I did sneak some portraits from her FB page as that is the ONLY way I get pics of her.
    Aidan is a stunning girl and I love her expression in these portraits – so will she in years to come.

  9. #15

    YOU are so real! That’s why we love reading your column! BTW, my daughter lives in a room like your daughter’s. She is actually cleaning it at this moment, but she takes EVERYTHING out and then puts it back together. Drives me nuts. Because I don’t clean that way. Anyways, my office/scrap room looks like your daughter’s room. I am ashamed of it. It’s been that way when my daughter moved back home. So I guess now your saying I need to “expose” my shame? Yikes. Not sure I’m ready. But thanks for starting with yours and for the download.

  10. #16

    love the idea that this is REAL. But I have to ask you, and other mothers who have daughters who dwell in messy rooms. I am not a neat freak but I do like things relatively tidy. My daughter’s room makes me CRAZY! After years of battling, ie: no friends/going out etc. until you clean up your room, I gave up. Last year when she turned 14 I decided to give up, pick my battles as I am sure at some point there may be bigger ones to stand my ground on. I still make her change her sheets once a week and remove any food stuffs but generally it is a big mess. I just take a deep breath and put a smile on my face when I enter…but goodness, it is exhausting!!! How do the rest of you handle the messy bedroom syndrome?

  11. #17

    I love love this idea! One of the reasons I failed at 365 again this year is because my hubby can’t stand pictures that show real life in the background. 🙂 I am so going to make this page.

  12. #18
    Annie F

    LOVE IT! You have no idea how this has spoken to my heart for several reasons. thank you for the reminder that we are all human and basically the same. Cheers and have a great day

  13. #19

    Thanks for the download. I’ve got several ideas for this ‘real life’ page. (Aidan’s room looks like my kids’ rooms.)

  14. #20

    I have to be honest: aidan figured out on her own that she prefers a clean room over a messy one. It happened in about the 7th grade or so and then it never took much prompting. She functions better and is happier in a clean room. But me? As a teen? Oh it was insane. Messiest room ever. Once I moved out and realized it was all up to me, I changed my tune.

    That said, Ive definitely chilled out on being a super neat nick. Life, as Im learning, is too short for perfection. : )

    However, I do believe in having clean rooms before social stuff is do-able. We make Cole do it and hes almost 13. He doesnt like it, but he has to do it.

  15. #21

    You have a genius for tossing out the kind of inspriation that continues to make scrapbooking relevant. And fun. Thanks for that and the free download too! I have a question for you that is WAY off the subject: would you recommend a good reference book to help me with the punctuation and grammar in my journaling?

  16. #22

    Thanks, Marilyn.

    Now, thats a tricky question… Let me ask my smart daughter when she gets home from her nanny job and report back. I bet she has some ideas.

  17. #24

    I can sooooooooooooo relate to the messy room! My son’s looks like a tornado ran thru it!

    Aidan—-I’m Lovin your long hair!

  18. #26
    Andi Sexton

    So true! I have a 14 year old daughter whose room is also not very perfect. My son? His is just right! Me? Somewhere between the two of them!

    I love real life scrap booking.. Warts and all.

  19. #27

    I love the idea of this challenge. My daughter does the same thing except she moves into the guest bedroom and avoids her mess altogether. She is on a mission trip this week so I can’t take her portrait however, I’m going to take this challenge and see if I can’t use it to capture her room and journal it. I avoid photographing these imperfections however, when I look back and see how it was on those accidental photos, I realize it isn’t that bad and it is how it is at the moment. Thanks again Cathy!!

  20. #28

    I may have to have someone take my picture by my (largely delicate cycle) work wardrobe which essentially lives on the drying rack downstairs. I pluck things off it to wear each day and they rarely make it upstairs into the closet and drawers. lol

  21. #29

    Thanks so much for the template Cathy. I really like the idea of shooting ‘real life’. That’s where the stories really live and the place where memories are really sweet (if a bit messy). I appreciate your blog and your honest documentation of your life. Blessings

  22. #30
    Kasandra Mathieson

    Cathy….love, love this template!! Would love to see everyone’s take on this page! Is there somewhere everyone can display this page they’ve done? Does anyone put their layouts on the Designer Digitals gallery?

  23. #32

    I love the template and especially love the reminder to just show our imperfect lives as they really are, not just how we would like them to be!

  24. #33

    Oh, I just love that top left photo of Aidan!

    And that messy room is nothing against what my looked like as a teenager… I guess almost everyone goes through it. I’m not a neat freak, although I love it when my house is all tidy and clean, but with two small children – my sanity depends on being able to overlook some of the mess.

    Happy Thursday!

  25. #34

    Thats a good question. I know theres ways to post to Flickr, possibly, but I dont really use Flickr myself. I would love to see image that people post over at DD! Maybe if you do, you should email me and let me know!

  26. #36
    Wendy H

    Love it! How do you get Aidan to pose for pictures still? My almost-14-year-old hides her face now whenever I try to take everyday shots. What’s your secret? I’m not above bribery…

  27. #38

    Thanks for reality Cathy! Besides your fun sense of humor, I love the reality of your blog and how open you are to the struggles/imperfections of life.

    Hey everyone, take those imperfect photos because when your children are grown you won’t be wishing you had done so. We all take the “staged” photos but capture those moments of REAL LIFE!

    okay off my soap box now. Thanks again Cathy for the post AND the template.

  28. #39

    I dont have Photoshope Elements but I think this is a WONDERFUL IDEA… I can even begin to tell you how many times I see the perfect shot, only to not take it or use it because of something (clutter) in the backgound. But why not??? I mean this is life and it is real and THAT is why I scrap….

  29. #42

    Thanks for your reply Cathy. I will continue to take a deep breath when I enter her room and try not to sweat the small stuff (and I will continue to hope this is just a faze, granted, a rather long one). As always I thoroughly enjoy reading what is going on in your world and in your head! Keep blogging…I so enjoy you!

  30. #43

    I Love that you took her photo in what her room really looks like 😀 Thank you for the free template too !

  31. #45
    Sue I.

    Wow! I come home from vacation and what do I find? A wonderful gift — a freebie from Cathy!!! THANK YOU!!!

  32. #47

    Thanks for the download. It looks fantastic. I’m quite sure I can take the same type of photo of my teen aged daughters room too!!

  33. #54

    Portraits has an “r” after the first “t”. Noticed that you misspelled it at least twice, in the main title and in the package title, but hey it’s a freebie. I thought you would want to know. I enjoyed both of your interviews today, July 23, 2014.

    1. #54.1
      Cathy Zielske

      Oh my! This is why I need a professional proofreader! LOL. Thanks, Ruth! Just changed to post title. Not sure when I’ll change the download, but I should at some point!

  34. #55
    Ashley G

    Great idea! I totally wish I or my mother would have done this when I was younger! This was totally how my room and was soo me! Would have liked this to look back on.

  35. #56

    I so needed this one today! THANK YOU!! I Love this! Awesome pic’s of you and your kids! Great reminder, my perspective is so off on what reality is, and what defines what I think is a perfect spot for photo taking….Found my way back to this one through your most recent post! Perfect timing. I find myself not taking pictures in my house (anymore) because my house is not perfect, it’s not even pretty in any way. It serves as a landing pad for us. As negative as that sounds, it’s true! I just don’t love my house! I love our home because of who is in it though. We just never seemed to have the extra to create more…At some point I stopped capturing little life moments in our house, I can actually recall the photos that created this for me. I had just had my 3rd baby boy, way back in 1997. Our new puppy chewed everything, including our couches. Of coarse that’s the spot the 1st photos of me were taken with my three little boys…a beautiful moment in my life captured on the ruined couch! Your post changed the way I look at it now. ? I really appreciate your perspective on real life.

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