5 Tips for Young Family Portraits

5 Tips for Young Family Portraits

young-family-portraits.jpgThis post is based on the portrait shoot of a young family who are DPS readers. After hearing of my work in Battle Ground, they contacted me for a portrait session. I am very happy to feature them in this post.

Shooting family portraits is always a varied experience based on the number of people you are photographing. Depending on the number and ages of your clients, you will need to be spontaneous and learn to adapt to different levels of interaction. Portraits of a young family is no exception. Here is a starting point for a Young families portrait session:

1. Interact with the children

If the children in your shoot are happy, the parents will be comfortable, and you will be able to achieve natural portraits. This said, focus on interacting with the children. Do your best to be “entertaining” through the session to draw out laughter and smiles.

2. Avoid “posing”

Children do not sit in one place for a long time. They are active and moving. Keep your session this way also. Constantly be moving with your clients. You may be able to position or pose the couple where you want them, and then encourage the child to move around – walking, twirling, etc.

3. Follow the Child

Sometimes you may not be working with children who will follow your guidance. In this situation, keep the session lighthearted and fun, by having the parents follow the child until the child stops. Your job then is to have the parents draw close to the child, and then snap a series of shots.

4. Be shutter happy

Especially working with small children, don’t be afraid to take more shots than a normal portrait shoot. You want to make sure to catch the right expressions and no blinking – and with children this is much easier said than done.

5. Be ready for anything

Don’t walk into a family shoot with set ideas that can’t be adapted to in the scenario. Have some ideas in mind that may serve you if possible, but be prepared to take what you have and run with it.

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography www.BrideInspired.com and leadership with www.RevMediaBlog.com.

Some Older Comments

  • vernesia October 20, 2012 08:31 am

    I work for a national portrait company, and I have to agree with you - toddlers are a challenge. When I started, i was told to pose the little ones - HAHAHAHAHAHAAA! They were off as soon as mom let them go. I learned to be fast and just add props to 'slow them down' for more than a sec. I have to say I have gotten very good at it and the parents are amazed that I caught half of the pics i did!

    When working with families, especially ones with toddlers, patience can get you the best pics in the world!

  • Samantha April 5, 2012 11:57 am

    Great blog Darren!

    I am doing my first family session ever this weekend for a family I babysit for. These tips make me feel much less nervous and way more confident that I can do it. Especially knowing I should keep the kids happy in order to keep the session going for all parties. Thanks for all your articles, they are so, so helpful!


  • Paul March 6, 2012 11:28 pm

    Nice little article and useful tips. Thanks

  • satyam November 8, 2011 10:42 pm

    for a good shots.for eg. be with your regular kids, understand their body language jsut like their mother...u have to know what they do with their physical or facial or emotional expressions after some movement they do...for eg. if any kid sniffs or hiccups I am ready with half press on shutter button to catch that very moment when the kid gives a sudden smile of ..cry....when he does..i go snapp ssnapp snapp..!!!! hahhaha

  • Ian Manning November 7, 2011 11:11 pm

    In regard to the spray and pray theory. Most people who object to this and then come up with calculations to prove how bad it is, are missing a really important point.
    You dont just point you camera in any direction hold the button down and hope that something runs in front of the lens in the 9/125 second.
    Burst mode is a great feature of modern digital cameras that helps to reduce that sinking feeling when you know you waited just a fraction of a second too long for the moment to develop.
    Any good photographer will interact and study their subjects to learn how they react so that you can predict when those magical moments will occur and it would be stupid to ignore the fact that your camera has the ability to grab a sequence of pictures after you decide to push the shutter in order to increase your chances of capturing the moment at its best.
    For each time that I see that moment approaching I have 9 chances of catching it not just 1.
    Don't get trigger happy and snap everything in the hope of getting something good but don't turn off helpful features because some people are too focused to appreciate the whole picture.
    I rarely use burst mode with adult portraits because the action is slower and they can repeat it if I missed it but it is rarely off whit child portraits.
    I would love to compare shots from a Karate tournament againts someone not using burst mode and see who gets the best shots.

  • satyam November 5, 2011 03:24 pm

    this is exactly what i do when shooting portraits...I was so convinced to read these.Thank you !I will be reading more from DPS !

  • Cam November 5, 2011 10:35 am

    If the kids are shy, focus on being nice to the parents (and maybe wink at the kids here and there). Then when the kids see their parents like you, they will open up too.

  • Mark November 4, 2011 02:34 pm

    Given the point about children never staying still is there a preferred focal length/aperture to use to get the mix of shutter speed and adequate depth of field combined with background blur? I like to get shots of the kids that really pop from the background due to it being out of focus but this often requires an aperture value that makes front-back movement cause shots to look poorly focused i.e. tip of nose in focus rather than eyes etc. So far I find my 70-200 wide open (f4) doesn't perform too badly, what do others use?

  • Gnslngr45 November 3, 2011 01:38 am

    My whole reason to learn a dSLR was to take good shots of my ever moving toddlers (3 & 2). SInce learning and improving, I have shot sessions and events for several friends - all of which included toddlers. These are by far the most difficult pics to get right - unless it is candid. Even then, it's hard. These are second only to weddings in my opinion. Weddings are probably actually easier, but significantly more pressure to do well. I would never do a wedding unless I had years and years of learnings under my belt.


  • ccting November 2, 2011 07:49 pm

    hi, i love the pic very much

  • Dewan Demmer November 2, 2011 06:10 pm

    Simple and Logical and that's why the good rules. A number of people have mentioned it as well and that is eye level, the photos work so much better when you at eye level with you subject.
    Here I have a family and when it came to the little people I went where they went and when it mattered I made sure I was at eye level, in this case it did matter :)

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer November 2, 2011 03:08 pm

    Any semi-posed shots I usually try to get done in the very beginning of a portrait session. A few weeks ago I photographed a family on the beach with three young children. The parents really helped out by being able to corral their kids for a few quick whole family group shots:


    Having a parent pick up one of the kids is another way to keep them around too!

  • Wedding Photographer Perth November 2, 2011 02:51 pm

    I lay the parents with the young children down on a blanket or grass on there tummies with chin resting in hands then i get down also and shoot at grass level this gets them all at the same eye level also very flattering for the parents as it does not show any ...err maturity growth (spare tyer's)

  • Jerry November 2, 2011 09:14 am

    Some useful tips.

    This is a type of photography I have not done for some years. At the time it was often for friends with kids the same ages as my own (now all grown up). My best shots generally came from having the camera at the ready on arrival, and keeping a 70 - 200 zoom on the camera after the "session" when we were sitting with the parents having a drink. Both approaches allowed me to capture the really spontaneous shots, which I still rate as some of the best "people" photos I have taken.

    Black and white always gave the best results too. As these were pre-digital days burst mode was not as easy, but a little bit of observation and anticipation can often achieve more effective shots.

  • Dave Thielen November 2, 2011 08:39 am

    I read one more suggestion that includes the spray and pray theory I am going to puke. In my opinion that is the single worst piece of advice ever offered up in the history of photography.

    In fact, spraying and praying actually reduces your odds of catching the expression you are looking for. Lets use a standard outside bright sunshine, ISO 100 expsoure of 1/125 at f16. Now if you have a mult-thousand dollar camera you can reach 9 frames a second. So you punch and pray in one second you have taken 9 exposures that will total 9/125's of a second. Missing the other 116 portions of that second. That means you have a 92% chance of missing the shot. And that is with one of the fastest frame rates available in a DSLR.

    As you move down into the range of the consumer camera your chances of missing the shot move up to over 97%. .

  • Paul May 31, 2011 08:31 am

    Thanks for these tips, I have some family/child portraits coming up so will find this useful.

  • Becky May 29, 2011 07:21 am

    I find that when my husband is outside with us taking pictures...he tries to get our daughter to "look this way or that" I dont agree...I follow her and I catch her expressions...she's 14mths old and has a ton of them! keep it simple as possible...too many times we overcomplicate things. I love the bubbles idea, but I also make weird animal sounds "out of the blue" and get a phenomenal reaction. I love the idea of spontaniety (sp?) get the "portrait" shots, but get the fun/cute/natural ones too!

  • Gayleen October 12, 2009 07:03 pm

    I enjoy reading this tip. Great!!

  • Amit Bhatia October 11, 2009 03:44 am

    Good tips. Having done my first family shoot recently, it's so important to capture the moments. Sure there's a time and place where the entirely should pose for the camera, but the best shots are often those candid, naturalistic ones!

    Check it out: http://www.flickr.com/photos/amit-bhatia/sets/72157622348114065/

  • Norml October 6, 2009 07:38 am

    For Eileen (above) and anyone else who finds them selved in front of a LARGE group of folks who need their photo take.
    Bring and use a flash or two. No matter how you choose your location, chances are that some faces will be better lit than others. Best to do this in late afternoon, avoiding direct sun. Cloudy day would be good, too.

    Make sure you can see everyone's entire face. Chins often disappear in group shots. Even if they say they can see you, doesn't mean that you can see their entire face.

    Take many, many photos. You'll need to, as certainly someone will not look good in just about each shot. It's practically exponential to how many in the group. For 10 people, take at least 20 shots. For 20, take at least 40. Just put your camera on burst mode. Fire off several bursts, as long as your flash can keep up. I've tried to get away with fewer, as people, especially children, get fidgety. Once I had to literally Photoshop a hand off a kid's face to fix even my best exposure. Better to get it right in the camera.
    That's my two cents. Good luck!

  • Matthias October 3, 2009 07:29 am

    Great tips. I had my first family shooting last month and I think it worked out well. The family liked the pictures and this is all that counts ;)

    have a look here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/matthiashombauer/3840393263/

  • Just call me K October 3, 2009 03:48 am

    This are really good tips. I've read so many on time of day, after nap, making sure they're fed, colour co-ordination, etc etc but this really gives us some great practical ideas that I hadn't thought of before. I especially like the part about following the child around and then parents drawing in near when the child stops.

  • Eileen Haines October 3, 2009 03:21 am

    I was just asked to shoot a LARGE family photo. Parents with 4 married kids and their kids. Any help I can get will be appreciated. I am strictly an amatuer photographer, but have a digital SLR and tripod and they want it outdoors. Fall should be nice for the colors.

  • Phottix Journal | Editor October 3, 2009 12:30 am

    Great tips. Being flexible is most important. Communication with the parents before and during the shoot is also helpful.

  • Stock Photos October 2, 2009 11:26 pm

    I try to get them to dress with the same color shirts for family photos!

  • fancymom October 2, 2009 10:51 pm

    These are great tips, like everything I've come to expect from DPS. One question: there are people (I'm one) who do not necessarily prefer the 'candid' photography that is so popular just now. I do not want photos of my own family with my kids playing, twirling, etc. when I'm wanting family portraits. Some of my clients feel the same way. Anyone have tips for the old fashioned yet still desirable posed family portraiture?

  • Michael Hartman October 2, 2009 10:47 pm

    I enjoyed your article. I loved the picture that accompanied it.

  • Justin Bailey October 2, 2009 07:32 pm

    Interesting post and responses, A few points that may help.

    1. Never encourage food or snacks at a session this will only make things worse.
    2. If the child is over 3/4 years old try to shoot without the parents watching.
    3. Always sit yourself down on the same level as the child.
    4. Children are not silly talk to them as adults and the adults like children :)
    5. if you have a very fidgety child place a piece of sticky tape in his hand this keeps the occupied to capture that perfect shot.
    6. The Animal game, always a winner . "I am going to make the noise if an animal and you have to guess what it is, would you like an easy one or a hard one?' the child will answer and the build up to the noise will help release great expressions.
    7. Its not all about smiling! Every parent wants to make their child smile on snaps at home so why try to capture the same result. Its very important to capture varied expressions otherwise you have some great shots all different but with the same look.
    8. Any guessing games how old are you, what do you like best to eat etc are great its very important to get the child to respond with easy yes or no answers.
    9. Remain calm and focussed children are children, if you become a little fraught the chid will pick it up
    10. For young children always have them sat on a parents lap to start with then build your interaction slowly.
    I use a teddy bear which we call the 'naughty teddy' he falls of windows the camera and me.
    11. And finally the feather duster, an essential piece of kit for tickling mum or dad, again ask the child who to tickle, "shall we tickle mummy's feet of her nose?" Plus its a great prop to get the child to look where you want them too.

    I hope these tips help, have fun and make sure you have a plan there is no need to take hundreds of images, be patient and wait, why not pretend that you still have film in that camera and every shot costs you money...

  • ROD B. FERMIN October 2, 2009 04:44 pm

    very helpful tips for children photoshooting...thanks a lot!

  • robb October 2, 2009 04:28 pm

    i totally agree with your points there.
    if i might add, it's more or less the same with portraits for pets.

  • joseph October 2, 2009 02:22 pm

    great tips Darren !! love this pic !!!!

  • Steve October 2, 2009 11:28 am

    Good tips as always on this site. It's funny that this article came in today because this morning my sister sent me a similar one that she wrote (she's an editor at Ladies Home Journal). That one is here: http://www.lhj.com/blogs/ladieslounge/2009/10/01/mom-a-razzi-getting-the-shots/comment-page-1

    Combined I think the tips are all really helpful.

    With kids, I have good luck getting down on their level and just shooting away. This is "digital" photography school, right? So just shoot and don't worry about it. If you take 100 shots and get 1 good one, then you've got one good one!

  • Jamin October 2, 2009 08:08 am

    Thanks and great tips Darren! Love the pic... reminds me of my son :)

  • Norml October 2, 2009 07:29 am

    Good tips, Darren, especially the be shutter happy one. Coincidentally, I also just had an article published on practically this same topic: Children’s Casual Portraits: How to Get and Use the Best Lighting.http://www.marinmommies.com/children’s-casual-portraits-how-get-and-use-best-lighting

  • Zubin Patrawala October 2, 2009 05:48 am

    Good tutorial Darren. What post processing did you do on this image? I like it.

  • romalynn October 2, 2009 05:44 am

    These are great tips. I get the best pictures of my grandkids and nephews while they are playing. Such joy and innocence on their faces.

  • Michelle October 2, 2009 05:09 am

    Good tips, thanks and they will help as I have been wondering how to handle it when it isn't a cooperative child. I have a friends daughter who is a Miss Diva, very cute and precocious. I wanted to know how to handle her at a wedding where she is in a bridal party, I have already broached the subject re not posing her and I like a candid approach so your ideas fit nicely..

  • jessie October 2, 2009 05:01 am

    I find it useful to show up with a balloon, some bubbles, and beforehand I ask that the parents bring snacks. Kids get bored easily and feeding them ends up making them happy, but because of allergens and stuff I'd never provide food to someone else's kid.

    Mylar balloons from the dollar store though? A+

  • Gary October 2, 2009 04:56 am


    Unintentional posing but i think it worked out well.

  • tate davidson October 2, 2009 04:52 am

    I have had some really positive experiences with photographing kids. There is one thing though - they tend to listen early, and are less obedient as time goes on ... so get the "tough" or necessary poses / shots then. Once they lose patience, try to let them play in a contained area where you can get more shots.

  • Sarah October 2, 2009 04:06 am

    Great tips! I usually take 400-600 pics during a one hour young family portrait session. I find that choosing a location with a lot of diversity (e.g. park, playground, trail, etc.) can help keep the child's attention span going for longer. I definitely do a lot of running around following the little ones! Keeping things candid like this really helps produce genuine images that the parents always love.

  • Matt Sanderson October 2, 2009 04:03 am

    Great tips, especially about being shutter happy! Kids often pull the oddest faces, so you need to machine-gun to catch the nicest smile or grin!

    - Matt