10 Tips to Take Great Family Portraits

10 Tips to Take Great Family Portraits

family portrait

Family Portrait by chemisti

We are told family comes first, so grab your camera and let’s get snapping… some great family portraits

10 Tips for Family Portraits

1. Be a Director

If you want that ‘traditional’ family photograph you are going to need to work the role of director to ensure all eyes and faces are on you. Working with a large group of people can be a bit trying so prepare to be patient and assertive will help in getting a handle of things.

When you’ve got everyone ready don’t be afraid to reel of a dozen or so shots or use the burst mode to ensure you have at least one frame with everyone is paying attention.

Eye contact isn’t always essential though and some shots which intentionally lack it can be more intriguing and relaxed. So rather than force the subjects to look continuously at the camera get them to look in a variety of directions to spice things ups.

2. Put Your Subjects at Ease

The ‘traditional’ shot isn’t for everyone so flex that creative muscle and engineer some fun, personality fused frames.

Putting your subjects at ease is the first step so fire a few pictures in a comfortable or familiar environment. This will help to lend character and narrative to the piece.

3. Lighting is Key: Indoor Tips

As with all photography lighting is key. If you are shooting inside and can’t afford expensive lighting use the most flattering and cheapest form of light there is – sun light! Position your group facing or parallel to a large clean window, if it is a particularly bright day cover it with a thin veil of material, such as a net curtain or peg a white cotton sheet across to act as a diffuser for softer, more flattering light.

If you decide to use flash indoors, perhaps employ a diffuser to soften the effect and avoid bleaching skin or flattening textures.

family portrait

Family Portrait by Dustin Diaz

4. Lighting Outdoors

You can really let your imagination run wild when it comes to photographing family portraits outside. Remember your light – as the sun can cause unflattering shadows to fall across the face.

With the sun behind the subjects you’ll get a creative silhouette or you could add a spot of fill in flash to bring back the details and generates a halo of light around the subjects, separating them from the background.

5. Avoid Squinting Subjects

Avoid having the sun behind you as the models will be pictured with odd squinting expressions, instead take a look around the vicinity – is there somewhere that offers some shade?

A porch, a beach umbrella or even a white sheet tied above their heads. For this last suggestion you may need to peg the corners of the sheet to four chairs and ask the group to sit underneath but this could convey a summery relaxed portrait.

6. Clothing and Props

It may sound cheesy, but as well as bearing a similar resemblence; you may want to include other elements to tie the members of the portrait together – to say ‘yes we are a family!’.

Suggestions include: matching splashes of colour, props or even aspects of the environment around them.

If you want to style the shot in a more traditional or relaxed fashion then ask the family to wear natural or pastel shades. Opt for bright, bold or clashing hues for a more energetic, frivolous shoot.

family portrait

Family Portrait by Kevin N. Murphy

7. Mix Up the Poses

As well as shooting the family sitting and then standing, experiment by having half the group stand and half sit.

By splitting the group onto different levels: the viewer is offered a more dynamic image forcing the eye to jump around the scene. Incorporate props, especially if you have children in the frame.

Not only will this again diversify the arrangement but it can help to reveal children’s personalities. For example a chair is not just for sitting, one could stand on it, crawl underneath it , lean on it, you could pose several children on it at one time etc.

8. Experiment

Ideally for traditional group shots a wide angle lens is great for framing the entire family.

If it’s more relaxed candids you want then use a zoom to switch between wide angle shots with back drop and close up spilt-second emotive portraits. Dial in a wide aperture of f5.6 or less and throw out the back drop. This offers the chance to play with whom and what is in focus.

9. Alter your Perspective

Forget boring head on shots, be original and look for more inspirational angles.

Climb a ladder or chair and shoot shooting downwards. This is great if you have a large group or want to get more creative with positioning.

Alternatively hit the deck and lie with you back on the ground and shoot straight up into the middle of huddle. Even slanting the camera at a jaunty angle can produce exciting options. Profile portraits can be quite creative too.

family portrait

Family Portrait by Roberta Taylor

Have some fun!

Unleash the enthusiasm and ask your family to run, jump, spin, give each other piggybacks, dance, play fight and in general – laugh!

Get them doing things that will dispense with any rigidity or formality. Incorporating motion into group shots develops interest and instantly relaxes your subjects and therefore viewers. To freeze action shoot between 1/125 to 1/500, you may need to crank up ISO in low light or use flash if necessary.

Alternatively to incorporate a creative blur and reflect the connotation of movement use a speed of around 1/8 to 1/15. Employ Continuous AF if your camera has it and pan with the movement to keep the subjects sharp.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) is the former editor of Digital Photographer magazine, and is now a freelance journalist and photographer who has written for dozens of photography and technology magazines and websites over the last decade. Recent author and tutor too.

Some Older Comments

  • Penelope December 26, 2012 11:55 am

    Awesome ideas!

  • Brian Steele May 1, 2012 03:59 pm

    With thirteen uncles and aunts on my dad's side, I have a very large extended family. I don't do family portraits often, but when I do, I've found that the best two techniques that work for me for ensuring everyone's looking in the same direction and are ready for the group shot is (1) telling them beforehand that if they can't see my camera's lens from their position in the group, then my camera is likely not going to see them either, so they need to find another position, and (2) I give them a "3-2-1" (or for larger groups, a "5-4-3-2-1") countdown before taking the shot. This usually results in me getting the shot I want pretty quickly, and I don't have to go through dozens of shots to find one where everyone is actually ready for their picture to be taken.

  • mick boyd April 29, 2012 09:51 am

    'Macdane'.Totally agree with you.Standards are slipping badly.It read as though it was a 'how to'instruction booklet from something made in China.

  • Draku Zeos April 27, 2012 02:50 pm

    VERY fun ... thinking outside the box creates portraits that make me happy, not roll my eyes. Thanks!

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer April 25, 2012 03:15 am

    2 years later I still really like the train tunnel shot, and still do not like the tag line at all, why have anything (including the black border) compete with the viewer's eye besides the family and tunnel itself?

    In the past 2 years I have transitioned from using a single speedlight to two speedlights for on location family portraits, even on the beach:


    I think a 2 speedlight setup is the most gear that can be managed without an assistant.

  • Alexx April 25, 2012 01:12 am

    I like traditional and creative!


  • Julian Knopf April 24, 2012 11:51 pm

    Great shots. What I've been struggling with recently is the balance between only release your best shots and how many I should deliver as proofs to a client ( along with what the concept of a proof is ). Whilst each of the examples above is a single shot I betting there were many more to choose from as an output from each session. Many of my portrait shoots are around 45 mins to a bit over an hour and in that time I will take a range of head, mid body and full length shots along with various groups. My last session took a bit over one hour with a family of 5 and resulted in around 200 pics ( a good number of which were burst mode of kids jumping off Walls ). I selected a fair range of around 60-70 pics and did some basic proof edit cropping and light balancing, the standard stuff and delivered a disc to the client. As I am starting out my model is to deliver a disc to the client rather than sell prints I don't have that bandwidth just yet and I price accordingly with that in mind. I've had some interesting conversations since that made me think I should have delivered fewer pics ( maybe 1 or 2 of each pose ) which would have meant a delivery set of about 30 pics. So what is the right balance ?

  • macdane April 24, 2012 10:19 pm

    I get that you can't have fresh new content every day and must resort to recycling material, but could you at least do some basic proofing please?

    I tried to read this article but gave up quickly. The first tip alone contains at least four or five instances of the wrong word -- or wrong form of a word -- being used. We're photographers, not writers, but there's no excuse for such lousy basic communication skills. Even if you don't wish to hold your contributors to a standard, you surely make enough money from this site to have someone take a low-level proofing run through the articles before posting publicly. Please?

  • steve slater April 24, 2012 05:04 pm

    My daughter wanted me to take a photo of her outdoors. When we got there she went all shy and did not want to show her face. Did a rear view hdr instead:


  • Jeff E Jensen April 24, 2012 12:54 pm

    Cool, some great tips! I love the image with the faces on the computers. Very cool. I've got a couple of sessions coming up, I might have to try that.

    Here's one of my favorites from a while ago:


  • ccting April 24, 2012 09:33 am

    hi Natalie Johnson,

    What lens are you using.. those photos looks excellent.

  • Bronwen Hall July 9, 2011 01:53 pm

    Thanks for the great tips Natalie. One of the other things I would encourage amateur or diy photographers to do is to not be afraid to take lots of photos. The more photos you take the better your odds of getting a really nice photo or three. And in the age of digital photography you can just delete the ones you don't want.

  • Harry Sue May 12, 2010 06:45 pm

    nice, same with my family condition, I'll try it at home :) wish me luck

  • Dustin Diaz April 7, 2010 02:03 am

    Mindy, the family in the shot bought the photo. I remember we had quite a bit of fun that day and they absolutely loved it.

  • Mindy March 30, 2010 12:31 pm

    These are interesting examples, but I can't think of any client that I've had who would actually purchase the subway shot. What does it say about their family? There isn't congruence in their expressions - that isn't 100% necessary, of course, but in this image it makes me wonder why the photographer chose to present them this way. Middle and bottom sister are just not in to making this image and to me it is very distracting. Now, if it were simply an interesting image, all this is fine - but if we are talking about portraits that mean something to the subjects (who presumably commissioned the work), then I think we need to work harder to engage the people in the shot.

  • mervet March 26, 2010 03:08 pm

    I just started studio portraits but somehow I m missing out on the right positions and angles. can somebody give me a tip

  • Jim Gray March 26, 2010 01:15 pm

    Angie, think about using a slow shutter speed. Those cadets should be good at holding a pose with the training they have had.......

  • iromanda March 26, 2010 12:35 pm

    love this post and the great photo examples...

  • Anne March 26, 2010 12:17 pm

    Personally, I think the less wild the colors, the less likely you are to look back at your photos 30 years from now and say, "Oh, what was I thinking when I wore that style, color, etc." KISS

  • Jim Gray March 26, 2010 09:12 am

    Great tips! I tend to be the photographer for a family of 10 siblings, with 33 children collectively, and, so far, 16 grandchildren. It can be real challenging to get that many folks' heads even visible from the shooter's point of view. Most of all, it takes practice, practice, practice on the part of the subjects.... and a great sense of humor. That many people are not going to look into the sun, or wait very long to have their photo taken. My best advice is to be prepared and have your equipment set so that expediency will promote spontaneity and candor. That way everyone naturally looks genuinely happy and NOT anxious to "get this over with".

  • Angie March 26, 2010 07:44 am

    Help is what i need!!!!!!!! . I am doing a group photo of 13-16 army cadets (All will be standing "on guard "). The lighting is not good where i am doing the shot. I have a 2 pc. (250w) set of continuous set . Any ideas on how not to make a mess of the photo ? Thanks

  • Nick March 26, 2010 05:32 am

    I had to laugh when I saw Roberta's picture in the article. The Taylors are good friends of mine and it was funny seeing them show up in a DPS article lol.

  • Manav March 26, 2010 04:35 am

    Wonderful Post. Very useful Tips. thanks a lot Sir Darren Rowse.

  • dblayn March 26, 2010 02:48 am

    Ideas spark ideas -- great article -- thanks. I love the reminder that props can be used however like a chair is not only to sit it. It can be crawed under, tipped over. stood upon. I'm always looking to take new/different fun shots of family and my little ones.

  • Alicia States March 26, 2010 02:29 am

    I absolutely LOVE this post! Thank you! I primarily shoot families, and really have been wanting inspiration for diversity in my shots, (more for my sake than the families! :) Thanks!

  • Killian March 25, 2010 03:23 am

    Jason -- Sorry for the late reply! For me, it's all about personality. I've had families who all wore gaudy Hawaiian shirts (you would think it would be horrid with the clashing, but it actually worked beautifully!), all in shades of (color), University sweatshirts, swimsuits and scuba gear, sports uniforms, whatever. Their personality and their own flavor should guide their clothing. As a general rule, I do ask that they don't mix wild patterns (with the one exception above) but other than that, I figure I can work it out by who's standing next to whom, if that makes sense.

    One memorable one had a set of parents with 3 daughters and a son. They had decided to all wear green, but their son was at that obstinate age (gotta love 3 year olds!), and insisted on wearing his favorite orange shirt. The mom was very apologetic, but would rather have smiling portraits than tear stained, sullen glares. I laughed and told her it wasn't a problem. We set him in the middle of a loose circle, and did a few other fun things with them. If you're creative, and by what I see on your site, you are indeed, you'll be fine.

    This set was an informal shoot, but they had a lot of fun. The guy wanted to wear his grandfather's suit jacket and his father's dogtags, but hates dressing up. The girl is totally girly in every way, but wanted to show off her new tattoo of a begonia. Nontraditional, but hey, it worked, and everyone was happy. =)


  • mike.j.p March 24, 2010 11:03 pm

    great shots - great tips. new little girl just joined our family, so need to get cracking in updating our family photos.

  • Gina March 24, 2010 04:21 am

    My family is difficult to take anything other than the most straightforward shots. Their patience grows thin quickly and the little kids have no interest in standing still.

  • Photografied March 24, 2010 02:32 am

    Great tips. I love the shot of the family holding the frame.

  • james jordan March 23, 2010 10:12 pm

    I detect a bias toward available light, seeing as the only time artificial light was even hinted at, it was accompanied by the adjective "expensive." Funny how cameras aren't expensive, but flashes are.

    By the way, the family in the subway pic used "expensive" light:

  • RustyBadger March 23, 2010 05:30 pm

    Well, it's gratifying to see our photo in this article (the laptop family). I love seeing what creative choices other families make for their portraits- the DOF in the train platform photo makes it a fantastic shot!

    Thanks for posting our portrait!

  • andy the photographer March 23, 2010 01:49 pm

    I like the creativity of those shots. The laptop shot is really cute

  • Jack Fussell March 23, 2010 08:55 am

    Some fun shots...I didn't think the train one was vulgar...but funny. I don't care for matching outfits at all... I tell people to dress like they all shopped at the same store....with similar color tones. I'll be shooting a family this weekend with this in mind...hopefully it'll turn out well.

  • corina March 23, 2010 08:32 am

    if it's your own family, don't forget to include yourself and use the self-timer :)

  • Jay McIntyre March 23, 2010 06:30 am

    I'm a big fan of those laptop shots. You can do a lot with phones and p+s cameras in your shoots these days.

    Although I am not really a big fan of the picture frame idea i did make use of it in this shoot: http://jmphotographyonline.wordpress.com/2009/09/12/kaia-kenzie/

    Dustin's subway shot reminds me of getting yelled at while taking this one(Not a portrait, but similar perspective): http://jmphotographyonline.wordpress.com/2010/01/28/the-better-way/

  • Jay McIntyre March 23, 2010 06:28 am

    I'm a big fan of those laptop shots. You can do a lot with phones and p+s cameras in your shoots these days.

    Although I am not really a big fan of the picture frame idea i did make use of it in this shoot: http://jmphotographyonline.wordpress.com/2009/09/12/kaia-kenzie/

    Dustin's subway shot reminds me of getting yelled at while taking this one(Not a portrait, but similar perspective): http://jmphotographyonline.wordpress.com/2010/01/28/the-better-way/
    [eimg url='http://jmphotographyonline.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/dsc_0103_2.jpg' title='dsc_0103_2.jpg']

  • Jason Collin Photography March 23, 2010 05:57 am

    @killian -- no doubt my mind goes to such places easily, but I think if you use the "if you show me _____ I'll show you mine" expression, anyone under 50 would associate that with at the least the old elementary school myth. In your line of thinking I would have chosen, "Where is your train going?" or something like that.

    I agree, white shirt and jeans are totally common, as well as khaki pants....can you link to any examples of cooler, less common alternatives? I am always looking for something to spice up my portraits.

  • Killian March 23, 2010 05:27 am

    Actually, I didn't take the train caption as vulgar at all. But then, i guess my mind doesn't go there naturally, especially when looking at a family. My interpretation was that a family's life is like a train ride; show us where you're going, we'll show you where we're going.

    I like the white shirts and jeans or khaki pants sometimes, but it's pretty common, and can get boring. I much prefer the family to show their personality, to use shots of color for fun. I'm not a traditionalist, though, that's for sure! =)

  • Jason Collin Photography March 23, 2010 03:47 am

    Thank you Susie!

  • Susie March 23, 2010 03:40 am

    Jason, i love your beach pictures!!

  • Jason Collin Photography March 23, 2010 01:47 am

    I really like the train platform family portrait. Very creative, though I could do without the vulgar sounding tagline.

    Having the family all wear similar colors is definitely a good idea, otherwise the group shots come out looking very random, unless that random look is what they want.

    I photograph families mostly on the beach here in Florida, and the standard is to wear white shirts with blue jeans or cacky pants.

    Here are some examples of beach portraits with natural light and using only a single off camera speedlight:


  • Greg Taylor March 23, 2010 01:00 am

    There are two choices when it comes to family portraits: Traditional and Creative. I believe the photos above illustrate both instances. Great examples.