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10 Tips for Creating Great Family Portraits

family portrait tips

Family portraits are a lot of fun – and they can be highly rewarding, too! However, it’s often tough to get started. After all, how do you pose an entire group of people? How do you interact with them? How do you get great photos?

Thanks to my background in classic-style studio portraiture, plus 25 years of experience photographing portraits and weddings, I have a few tips up my sleeve to share with you.

family portrait tips example

In fact, with a little planning, doing a family portrait will be fun for both you and the family you’re photographing. Here are 10 tips to help you have a successful and enjoyable photo session.

1. Use a tripod whenever possible

I already know what you’re thinking:

A tripod cramps your style. It’s too heavy and cumbersome, whereas your style is more free-flowing.

That all may be true, and in some cases (like when photographing kids running or doing more documentary-style photography), it may be better to shoot handheld. 

However, just consider another side of the coin.

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Most people are nervous when being photographed. Yes, nervous! Some are downright scared, and some would even go so far as to say that they hate having their photo taken.

So it is part of your job to help your subjects feel more comfortable and relaxed. That can be hard to do when you’re also nervous, especially if you’re new to portraits. But there’s a big advantage of putting that camera on a tripod. Two, actually.

  1. A tripod automatically forces you to slow down. That’s a good thing! You can check your settings, review the composition, and preview the exposure to make sure you’ve got everything right. It’s easy to get carried away once you put the camera up to your eye, only to later realize you had the wrong white balance, your ISO was 6400, or you accidentally shot tiny JPEGs instead of standard RAW files. A tripod will help you slow down to avoid an “Oops!” moment.
  2. A tripod allows you to get your eye away from the camera so you can actually make eye contact with your subjects. Your subjects are very real people, and they feel even more uncomfortable staring straight into your lens than they do looking at you. You can gesture to get the kids’ attention and you can make faces. But you’ll get way better expressions by interacting with your subjects than you’ll get while looking through the viewfinder. Try it!

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2. Shoot in Manual mode

Assuming that you’re setting up your family portrait photoshoot in advance, you have control over all the elements.

Meaning that, once you get set up, the exposure should not need to change.

Unfortunately, if you set your camera to Aperture or Shutter Priority mode, depending on the metering mode selected, the camera could choose a slightly different exposure for each frame. You do not want that! Consistency is very important.

Inconsistent exposures create more work in post-processing, as you have to even out all the photos. Plus, they can cause a slight color shift, increase noise (if some of the shots are underexposed), and result in other undesirable things.

To keep your exposures consistent throughout the whole shoot, use Manual mode. Just remember that each time you change the pose, location, etc., you need to check the exposure again. I just fire off a quick test shot, review the histogram, adjust if necessary, and continue.

3. Lock the focus

Just as you do not want the exposure to change from frame to frame, neither do you want the focus to be adjusted. Assuming you’re using a tripod, you will not be moving. And if you’ve posed your group in a relatively static position, they should not be moving, either. Not much, anyway. Here, we are only concerned with moving closer to the camera, or further away from the camera.

So set your camera up to do one of the following: use focus lock, use back button focus, or use manual focus. With any of those options, the focus will not change from shot to shot.

If you use the shutter button to focus and someone moves a little bit so that the focus dot hits the background, you’ll have another “Oops!” moment. If you aren’t sure how to focus using one of the methods I recommended above, consult your camera manual.

Bonus tip:

Here’s an easy way to focus manually with pinpoint accuracy:

Turn on Live View so you can see the image on your screen. Hit your Zoom button (it may have a magnifying glass or a “+” sign on it) once or twice. The image on the rear LCD will zoom in so you can see what is in focus, which allows for more precise manual focusing. Press the Zoom button again to return to normal view and turn off Live View.

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4. Stagger the heads

What you want to avoid here is a boring straight line, straight row, or straight column of heads. Diagonal lines are more dynamic and add interest to an image, so try to do that with the people in your portrait group.

Imagine there is a line drawn from each face to the next. Try and position your subjects so that no head is directly on top of, or beside (on the same level), another. Make diagonal lines, not flagpoles.

Use props to seat some people or bring some small folding stools. Have some people sit down or stand up on something. Use objects in the environment to pose your subjects, or if you have nothing available, just arrange them so the heights are staggered.

family by a lake

5. If it bends, bend it

This is a general rule for photographing people, and it’s a good one. People tend to stand stiff and rigid when you position them, so you need to get them to bend a few body parts to look more natural. Nobody naturally stands stiff as a board.

Here are a few starter poses:

  • Get your subject to shift their weight to one foot and stick out one hip away from the camera.
  • Get your subject to put a hand in a pocket. I usually recommend they put their thumb out, otherwise they have a tendency to shove their hand to the bottom of the pocket, which looks unnatural.
  • Get your subject to hook a finger on their belt or through a belt loop.
  • If your subject is sitting, have them lean forward a bit and put weight on one hip.
  • If your subject is standing against something, have them cross one foot over the other, toe down.
  • Have sitting (males) put one knee up, foot flat on the ground (but make sure they rotate so you aren’t looking straight at their crotch).

You get the idea. The best way to get someone to do any of this is to do it yourself and have them mirror you. Face them, do the pose you want them to do, and have them mimic it exactly.

family by a building
An example of bending body parts. The girls did a much better job here than the guys, but even the arms bent at the elbow helps. Some people are stiff, and they may present a challenge. Just do your best.

6. Let kids be kids

I’ve found that often parents will tell their kids, “You need to be good and smile” before a photo session. For many kids, this puts too much pressure on them to perform. I usually prepare parents by getting them to tell their kids this instead:

We’re going to the park to take some photos. It will be a lot of fun.

That’s it! Set no expectations other than fun. Then you, as the photographer, should prepare yourself. Bring along props, and get Mom to bring one of the kids’ favorite toys or books. I usually have a hand puppet and bubbles in my camera bag along with my gear. If the kids don’t want to sit and smile, don’t force them. Let them run around and be kids for a while and shoot that. Play with them; make it fun. A few minutes later, they may cooperate and sit for a bit.

When I’m photographing kids, I make a total idiot of myself. I make funny noises, I sing songs (I’m really bad, but they don’t care), I make fish faces, and I play peek-a-boo behind the camera. I run back and forth to the camera with my hand puppet. I lie on the ground. I stick my butt out. Kids are the ones that have life the right way around; it’s us adults that ruin it. Let them be kids, and let them have fun. Then be ready to capture the fun when it happens!

Kids playing a game of peek-a-boo around the tree
This was a game of peek-a-boo around the tree. Look at those genuine smiles! You can’t force those.

7. Pose people to flatter them

Here’s the bottom line:

If Mom thinks she looks fat, then she isn’t going to like the photos, no matter how great the lighting and expressions (see the next tips). So you’ve got to get the posing right.

Be aware of people’s perceived “flaws” and work with them. Here are some quick tips:

  • If someone has a bigger bottom half, don’t pose them walking away from the camera using a wide-angle lens.
  • For double chins, take a slightly higher camera angle (above the subject’s eye level). Making them look up stretches their neck and minimizes the chin/neck area.
  • A bump on a nose will show up when they face one way and not the other (usually). So study their face to find out which way to shoot them.
  • When you have a couple with a huge height difference, get the taller partner to stand with their feet further apart. That will make them slightly shorter, closing the gap a bit.
  • For really heavy people (or those overly self-conscious of their weight), use the lying down in the grass pose and pile the kids on top (as shown in the image below). It works great every time, because it hides tummies, stretches out chins, and makes the kids closer in size (it just shows faces!).
family posing with kids
The lying in the grass, pile on top pose. It’s great for families with small children. This family didn’t need the pose to correct anything; it’s just fun having the kids jump on top and squish Mom and Dad.

8. Lighting is king; get some in their eyes

Light can make or break any photograph, and portraits are no different. The biggest thing you want to make sure you do for portraits is to get light into your subjects’ eyes. There are many ways to do that, and it’s a huge topic, but here are a few things you can do to start off with good light:

  • Choose the time of day to do the portraits very carefully. Generally, late evening – about an hour before dusk – is the best time for portraits. Why? Because the sun is lower in the sky, and you don’t get the harsh overhead light you do at midday. Light is more directional, and it’s usually a bit diffuse if there’s haze on the horizon.
  • If you can’t shoot at dusk, find some shade. Get the family out of the sun, but make sure you don’t get a lit-up background. Bright areas in the background will draw attention away from the subjects. Look for areas in the shade of large buildings or under large trees.
  • Avoid shooting on an overcast day simply because the lighting is even and less harsh than bright sunlight. While it is true the light is softer and less harsh, the direction isn’t great. Overcast days give you direct overhead lighting and dark eyes, especially for anyone with deep eye sockets.
  • Add some light using a reflector or a flash if need be. Again, this is a complex subject, but learn to tell when you need more light on your subjects’ faces. Here’s a quick tip: If you cannot see a catchlight (the light source reflected in your subject’s eyes), then there isn’t enough light on their face!

Just as important as getting some light in the eyes is having it come from a good direction. We’ve established that overhead isn’t good direction, and neither is light straight from the camera. So turning on your built-in pop-up flash isn’t going to give you good light. Neither is mounting an off-camera flash above your camera. Light direct from the camera flattens the subject, and that is not what you want.

Instead, you want the light to come slightly from the side; 30-45 degrees from camera is a good starting point. To learn more about this, read my article on the 6 Portrait Lighting Patterns Every Photographer Should Know.

family portrait just before sunset
This was done just before sunset. The sun is coming over the kids’ shoulders on the left (from behind). I used a flash bounced into an umbrella off to the left to add light to their faces. Without the flash, they’d be in shadow.

9. Expression is everything

Lighting is king, but getting the right expression is everything! You can totally screw up the lighting and the pose, but if you get your subjects laughing or making the perfect face, the photo will be a big hit!

So how do you do this?

Being a photographer means that you sometimes have to be a comedian or a clown. Knowing the right thing to say or do to make people smile is mostly experience.

Sometimes you’ll get tough adults, too. The dad in the photo above by the brick wall pretty much has the same expression all the time. I’ve known this family and photographed them for 13 years; they’re my friends. So I know I can bug the dad a little bit or get out the ducky to have some fun at his expense.

If there are small children or babies involved, make sure to get their attention. It even helps to have an assistant; tell them to bring Grandma along or a friend to help out.

What always happens is you get the kids all looking and smiling, but what are the parents doing? Looking at the kids! I always tell the parents, “No matter what, keep looking at me as I make a total fool of myself. Do not look at your child!”

family posing with a baby
The baby is laughing, while everyone else followed instructions and looked at me. Success!

10. Have a little fun with it

The last tip is to not take yourself so seriously. Create a few really whacky shots at the end of the session (or even in the middle of the session if the energy seems to be fading).

Tell your subjects to do a group squish and really get them to squish. Often, they will start laughing, and as they pull apart, you can grab the shot.

Do a pile-on down in the grass. Ask your subjects to jump in the air or make goofy faces (you make one, too!). It breaks the tension and lightens up the mood.

family with kids posing while making faces
I was making a similar face!
family jumping
My off-camera flash stopped working, so this shot used on-camera flash (not my first choice!). But we were all tired and I thought this would be fun, so we just went for it. Notice how Dad has a new expression!

Bonus tip

Get the family to think about what they are going to wear ahead of time.

Some people disagree with my point of view on this, which is totally fine. But if you want to read more about it, see my article called “Clothing for Portraits – How to Tell Your Subjects What to Wear.”

Tips for family portraits: conclusion

Capturing stunning family portraits isn’t hard – especially if you remember these ten tips.

Just don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself, and everything will turn out great.

So get out there, photograph some families, and have fun!

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Darlene Hildebrandt
Darlene Hildebrandt

is an educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their skills through free articles on her website Digital Photo Mentor, online photography classes, and travel tours to exotic places like Peru, Thailand, India, Cuba, Morocco, Bhutan, Vietnam and more. To help you improve and learn she has two email mini-courses. Sign up for her free beginner OR portrait photography email mini-course here. Or get both, no charge!

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