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10 Tips for Creating Great Family Portraits

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With my background being in classic style studio portraiture (aka “boring”), and 25 years experience photographing portraits and weddings, I have a few tips up my sleeve for you. If you’ve never done a family or group portrait before don’t be intimidated. Be honest with the family and tell they you’re just learning, I bet they’ll be willing participants to help you out and they get some nice photos in exchange.

With a little planning, doing a family portrait should be fun for both you, and the family you’re photographing. Here are 10 quick tips to help you have a successful and fun photo session.

SUMMARY – 10 TIPS FOR BETTER FAMILY PORTRAITS

  1. Use a tripod when possible
  2. Shoot in Manual exposure mode
  3. Lock the focus or use manual focus
  4. Arrange people with heads staggered
  5. Allow kids to be kids and get goofy with them
  6. If it bends, bend it – how to help people pose
  7. Pose people to flatter them
  8. Lighting is key – get some in their eyes
  9. Expression is everything!
  10. Have a little fun with it and let go

Let’s take a look at each in more detail.

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#1 USE A TRIPOD WHENEVER POSSIBLE

“Ugh”, I already know what you’re thinking. A tripod cramps your style. It’s too heavy and cumbersome. Your style is more free flowing. That all may be true and in some cases (like photographing kids running or doing more documentary style photography) it may be better to shoot hand held.  However, just consider another side of the coin.

When being photographed  most, if not all, people are nervous. Yes nervous! Some are down right scared, and some would even go as far to say that they “hate it”. 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 the tripod.  Two actually.

#1 – it automatically forces you to slow down. That’s a good thing. You can check your settings, review the composition, and exposure to make sure you’ve got everything right. All to often it’s easy to get carried away once you put the camera up to your eye and forget to check something only to see later you had the wrong White Balance, or ISO was 6400, or you accidentally shot Small JPG. Slow down, avoid an “oops”.

#2 – it allows you to get your eye away from the camera so you can actually make eye contact with your subjects. They are very real people and they feel even more uncomfortable staring straight into your lens than they do looking at you. You can make gestures to get kids attention, or make faces. But you’ll get way better expressions by interacting with them than you will looking through the viewfinder. Try it!

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#2 SHOOT IN MANUAL EXPOSURE MODE

Assuming that you are setting something up, choosing the time of day and the location carefully, you have control of all the elements. Meaning, once you get set up the exposure should not need to change. But if you put it in Aperture or Shutter priority, depending in 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 them all out. It also can cause a slight color shift, increase noise (if underexposed) and other undesirable things. To keep your exposures consistent through the whole shoot, use Manual Mode. Just remember that each time you change the pose, location, etc, you need to check 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’ve taken #1 to heart and are using a tripod, you will not be moving. Likely if you’ve posed your group in a relatively static position, they will not be moving. Not much anyway. We are only concerned with moving closer to, or further away from the camera. So . . .

Set your camera up to do one of the following: use focus lock, 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 got another “oops”. If you aren’t sure how to do this, consult your camera manual.

Bonus tip: If your camera has video capabilities you have a neat way of doing manual focus. Turn on the 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 screen will zoom in (your lens doesn’t) so you can see what is in focus which allows for much most precise manual focusing. Press zoom again to return to normal view and turn off Live View.

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#4 STAGGER THE HEADS

You may or may not have heard this one before, or perhaps you weren’t 100% what it meant. What you want to avoid is a boring straight line, row, or column of heads. Diagonal lines are more dynamic and add interest to an image, so try to do that with the people in your grouping.

Imagine there is a line drawn from each face to the next. Try and position them so that no head is directly on top of, or beside (same level) another. Make diagonal lines not totem poles. Use props to seat some people or bring some small folding stools. Have some people sit down, or stand up on something. Use what is naturally in the environment to pose them, or if you have nothing available just arrange them so the heights are staggered.

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#5 IF IT BENDS, BEND IT

This is a general rule when photographing any 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 starters

  • get them to shift their weight to one foot and stick out one hip, away from the camera
  • get them to put a hand in a pocket, I usually recommend thumb out otherwise they have a tendancy to shove their hand to the bottom of the pocket also not looking natural
  • OR hook a finger on their belt or a belt loop
  • if they are sitting lean forward a bit and put weight on one hip
  • if standing against something have them cross one foot over the other, toe down
  • if sitting (males) put one knee up, foot flat on the ground (make sure they rotate so you aren’t looking straight into 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.

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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 you may have  a challenge with them. 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 that puts too much pressure on them to “perform”. I usually prepare my parents by getting them to tell their kids this instead:

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

That’s it! No expectations other than fun. Then prepare yourself. Bring along props, get mom to bring one of their favourite 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. Then them run around and be kids for a while and shoot that. Play with them, make it fun. Then they may cooperate and sit for a bit a few minutes later.

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, I play peek-a-boo behind the camera.  I run back and forth to the camera with the 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, let them have fun. Then be ready to capture it when it happens.

This was 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 she isn’t going to like them no matter how great the lighting and expressions (see #8 and #9 below). So get this one right.

Be aware of people’s perceived “flaws” and work with them. A list of 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 their eye level. Making them look up stretches it out and minimizes the chin/neck area
  • A bump on a nose will show up when they face one way and not the other (usually) study their face to find out which way to shoot them
  • When you have a couple that has a huge height difference get the man (usually the taller one) to stand with his feet further apart. That will make him 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. Works great every time. Hides tummies, stretches out chins and makes the kids closer in size because it’s just faces.
The lying in the grass, pile on top pose. Great for families with small children.

The lying in the grass, pile on top pose. Great for families with small children. This family didn’t need the pose to correct anything, it’s also 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, portraits are no different. The very derivative of the word photography is “drawing with light”. The biggest thing you want to make sure you do for portraits is get light into your subjects’ eyes. There are many ways to do that and that’s a whole huge topic but there are a few things you can do to set yourself up to start off with good light.

  • Choose the time of day to do the portrait! Ideally late evening about an hour before dusk is the best time for portraits. Why because the sun is lower on the horizon and you don’t get the harsh overhead light you do at midday. It’s more directional and usually a bit diffused if there’s haze on the horizon.
  • If you can’t shoot at dusk, find some shade. Get your family out of the sun, BUT make sure you don’t get the background lit up. 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 using 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 anyone with deep eye sockets.
  • Add some light using a reflector or a flash if need be. Again this is a whole other class on lighting but learn to know when you need more light on their faces. If you cannot see a catchlight (the lightsource reflected in their eyes) then there isn’t enough light in their faces.

Just as important as getting some light in the eyes is having it come from a good direction. We’ve established overhead isn’t good direction, neither is straight from camera. So turning on your built-in pop flash isn’t going to give you good light. Neither is sticking a speedlight on top. Light direct from the camera angle flattens the subject, that is not what you want. You want the light to come from the side more, 30-45 degrees from camera is a good starting point. To learn more about this read my article on the 6 Lighting Patterns Every Photographer Should Know.

This was done just before sunset. The sun is coming just over their shoulders on the left. I used a flash in an umbrella also to the left to add light to their faces, without it they'd be in shadow.

This was done just before sunset. The sun is coming just over their shoulders on the left, behind them. I used a flash, bounced into an umbrella also to the left to add light to their faces, without it they’d be in shadow.

#9 EXPRESSION IS EVERYTHING

So if lighting is king, getting the right expressions is everything! You can totally screw up the lighting, and the pose, but if you get them laughing or making “that” face – it’ll be a big hit!  So how do you do that?

See #1 first of all. Then look at #6. Being a photographer means that sometimes you have to also become 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 friends too. So I know I can bug him 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. But what always happens is you get the kids all looking and smiling, and what are the parents doing? Looking at the kids!  Oops again! 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”.

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Baby laughing, everyone else followed instructions and looked at me, success!

#10 HAVE A LITLE FUN WITH IT

Last tip is to no take yourself so seriously. Create a few really whacky shots at the end of the session (or even in the middle if the energy seems to be fading). Tell them to do a group squish and really get them to squish. Often they will start laughing and as they pull apart you grab the shot. Do a pile on down in the grass. Ask them to jump in the air or make goofy faces (you make one too). It breaks the tension and lightens up the mood.

I volunteered my time at an event called Help Portrait last year that has photographers, make up artists and organizers giving their time to create portraits for people that otherwise couldn’t afford a professional one. They ended up sending most of the families to me, initially because I had the biggest area to do the group photo and later because the other photographers said I was the best with the kids.  To see some of my photos from that event go to Help Portrait, Edmonton  2012

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I was making a similar face!

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My off camera flash stopped working so this is direct from camera, not my first choice. But we were all tired and I thought this would be fun so we just went for it. Notice dad has a new expression!

BONUS TIP

Get the family to think about what they are going to wear. Some people disagree with my point of view on that, which is totally fine. But if you want to read more about it go to Clothing for Portraits.

Get out there and photograph some families and have fun!

Further Reading: What to wear to a family photo shoot

PIN IT: if you’re on Pinterest and want to save this Family Portrait Tips Tutorial – here’s an image just for you.

10 Tips for Creating Great Family Portraits

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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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