8 Tips For Capturing Family Gathering Candids

8 Tips For Capturing Family Gathering Candids

It’s the time of year when family and friends come together for a meal or two celebrating any number of special occasions. No matter the holiday, family gatherings are a time worth sharing and remembering through photography. In this post, Peter Carey takes a look at eight ways to capture great candid photos of your loved ones.

Copyright falling.bulletsWe’ve all seen the posed family photos around the dinner table, in front of the hearth or in any number of places. These types of shots are great and have their place in preserving your family memories. But some of us are looking for a more realistic representation of what went on at that meal or gathering. We want to convey the sense of laughter around the table, the craziness of having ten nieces and nephews under foot and the joy in sharing gifts. And posing doesn’t work well for these real world shots. That’s where candid photography comes in! Practice with these eight tips and you’ll be well on your way to preserving family get-togethers in a compelling, engaging manner.

Tip #1 – Let Them Know You’re Coming – At any family gathering someone is always taking photos. Most people like to ham it up for the camera or will avoid it like the plague. Letting your family know before hand that you’ll be taking some photos and to ‘act natural’ will greatly increase your odds of capturing the essence of the moment. Not everyone will heed this request, but it’s good for people to know they should generally ignore your photo taking to keep the photographer from distracting the event.

Tip #2 – But Don’t Let Them SEE You Coming – Now that you’ve prepped the crowd and they know what to expect, it’s ok to be a bit sneaky with the photo taking. Hide around corners and near the back of the crowd. Be polite. But don’t draw attention to yourself. Chances are someone else in the family already has the ‘Look over here!” photo responsibilities and you should capitalize on that by hanging in the wings. After people have posed for the standard photos, they’ll be more relaxed, acting like themselves and that’s a perfect time to be waiting in the background ready to capture family interactions.

Copyright coulored glassTip #3 – Use A Long Lens – If you have options, choose a 80mm lens, or slightly longer. A zoom is preferable but we’ll see the challenge with that in the next tip. Once in a while a wide angle will be helpful, but for the most part you’ll be capturing facial expression of those around you. And quarters may be a bit close so being able to zoom close from behind your other family members is crucial. With a telephoto lens (zoom or otherwise) you’ll be able to isolate one or two family members as they interact, open presents or prepare meals. This is all you’re really aiming for with candids. Too wide of a lens and you’ll miss the individual expressions.

Tip #4 – Use A Fast Lens – I realize a nice low f-stop lens may not be in everyone’s camera bag, mine included. But if you can take just one lens, bring your fastest one. Using a low f-stop and a slightly higher ISO of around 800-1000, you will be able to avoid using a flash and attracting more attention to yourself. Consider renting a fast lens for the holidays from any number of vendors online. Check out DPS’ post Where To Rent A Lens Online for more information and prices.

Tip #5 – When In Doubt, Shoot In Raw – Now that you’re not using a flash for your candid photos, light color will be a larger issue. There’s good news and bad in this, depending on your point of view. The good news is chances are most of the light will be from the same color temperature, such as incandescent or fluorescent lights. The bad news is it may change room to room, or indoors to out. The easiest way around this problem is, when in doubt, shoot RAW. Shooting in RAW will ensure you have a great chance of correcting for certain lighting conditions in the post processing. If you can set your camera accurately to the lighting situation, by all means, please go that route as it saves time later on. But if you’re not quite sure of colors, shoot in RAW.

Copyright Mike_el MadrileñoTip #6 – Focus On The Eyes – As with most any photo of people, tight focus on the eyes is a must. Eyes convey so much more than what is being said at the moment, which is good when you’re not recording sound. While some blurring in images is fine, especially when not using a flash, try to keep the eyes of the main subject sharp.

Tip #7 – Hang Out In The Kitchen – More and more, the kitchen in a home is becoming the default gathering place. People either want to help out with meal prep or just want to make sure the cooks in the family are involved. Plus the kitchen is usually more relaxed than a formal dinning room and a great place to capture family having fun.

Tip #8 – Have Fun! – This one should go without saying. But having fun is what family gatherings are all about. Don’t get too wrapped up in the photo taking that you forget to relax, enjoy some conversations and great food. Take a moment to reflect in the moment what it’s like to be surrounded by the people you love.

Now it’s your turn to share your favorite family gathering candid advice. Below you will find a comment box just waiting for your ideas and suggestions!

Are you looking for daily photographic inspiration? Peter hosts a Photo Of The Day RSS/Atom/email feed on his site, The Carey Adventures. Get inspiring photos from the world of travel and adventure delivered daily to your mailbox!

Read more from our category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Marcia October 22, 2011 11:07 pm

    I love these tips and I would like to add something I just recently discovered. I have started allowing the children the use of the camera of course mine is not a real expensive one, plus I have a really cheap one that I have ready as well, but I have been amazed at what the children are able to capture, of course there are some shots that arent that great but I always seem to get some really great ones, plus it gives them a sense of being a bigger part of the family. Just a thought

  • Lensman kc July 22, 2011 07:27 pm

    Really nice article!
    It would be great help for me :)

  • Aayushi Sachdeva January 6, 2011 10:18 pm

    I love clicking pictures of my family. The only problem is that I am not in any picture :)

  • jef nolan January 2, 2011 02:23 am

    and of course the best response is when your relatives and friends say, "when and how did you take that picture?" Candid is always fun.

  • "Ashes" January 1, 2011 06:45 pm

    Thank you guys SOO much for all these posts! I'm a first time photographer, well I've been taking photos ever since i learned how to point and shoot a disposable kodak but this is my first year in 4-H photography and I'm really trying to get the best out of my small fujifilm. I'm starting to think that I need a bigger camera, my parents want me to get interchangable lenses but I think it's too much... By the looks of this i do need different lenses! Anyway thanks for the help and everybody who comments really helps too :)

  • Chris Branch December 31, 2010 10:12 pm

    Great tips. Off to ring bells to see the old year out and the new year in in 90 minutes from now. Ringers are not always the best subjects but I like to not use the flash, so as not to disturb the concentration on their faces and a fast action setting option .I also like to capture the spirit of family-fun and other gatherings by using Auto-Collarge 2008 requiring the best of at least 7 images - light colours and faces automatically take centre stage and look great. Happy New Year from the UK to all.


  • Jodjac December 31, 2010 04:36 pm

    Darla- clean your lens! When shooting into the light, as in when there is a bright window behind your subject, light will reflect off if the dust on your lens creating those white spots. But be careful whenever you actually touch the lens, the surface is coated and can easily be scratched (or marked). Hope this helps. Happy Jolidays.......New Year!!!¡¡¡¡!!!!¡!¡!¡!¡

  • Gayle Hardin December 31, 2010 01:04 pm

    Offer the camera if it is small and durable to a child in the room................let the fun begin. Every one is helping that set of young hands learn something and he/she might get an even better candid shot. I did it with a two year old and lumix we all had fun watching him.

  • Andrew December 31, 2010 12:17 pm

    :: Happy New Year, thanks for the tips. One thing I don’t completely agree with. Shooting in Raw, Now that you can open jpgs in raw, makes it not so important, because you can now do all the adjustments to jpgs as you can with raw. I have been doing some experiments with this, by taking the same image in raw + jpg and doing the same adjustments on both, there is no significant difference. Ernie ::

    I appreciate your comment, but when you try to get people to believe what you say is not right. Just because you tried and it didn't work, it doesn't mean it doesn't work. The person who wrote the article, is in fact, a professional photographer and when pros share with you, you must admit to yourself that it's not some lame amateur telling you to shoot in RAW.
    Professionals know what they're saying, you can trust me on that one. If you do family candids once a year, yes, maybe you're right; but when you work everyday with photos, you gotta be honest with yourself - RAW is the way to go. It's just like video - you get raw footage, then you come home, edit it, and burn the edited version of your footage on Video CD / DVD.

    Anyone interested, please read an excerpt from an email I've received from a pro photographer recently:

    " RAW Quality "

    You might ask, why not shoot in JPEG from the start, if you have to convert RAW files to JPEG later? Well, if you had to brighten the image considerably, RAW files allow you to maintain the quality of the image much better than JPEG. It also allows more natural-looking images, which would be harder to produce if you had to considerably brighten JPEG images using Levels and Curves. The reason for this flexibility is because RAW files contain a lot more image data than JPEG. RAW files contain 12-bits of data, while JPEG files only have 8-bits. RAW files are also stored in a lossless format, while JPEG files are stored in a lossy format. A lossless format is one which does not have image data thrown away, usually resulting in a larger file. This means that the image quality is preserved, no matter how many times the file is opened and saved. Typical lossless formats are RAW and TIFF. A lossy format is one which has some image data removed with the intention of achieving a smaller file size. Each time you open a JPEG file and save it again in JPEG format, you lose a bit of image quality. Opening and saving a JPEG several times will result in a visible loss of quality. Typical lossy formats are JPEG and GIF.

    GO TO FULL ARTICLE: http://www.picturecorrect.com/tips/raw-files-in-photography/

    At the end of my comment here, I'd like to advise you on this: take the photo that you edited as JPEG along with the RAW file format and take them to the photo printing store such as Ritz Camera or Pro Photo Supply. Have the store enlarge both photos to 24" X 36" and you'll see the difference.

    Here are a few photos I've shot in RAW format (each un-edited, but saved as JPEG) :

    And I'm sorry the website is in a different language, photos are the ones that count, right?

    Interstate 5 Bridge - Connecting Oregon State with Washington State
    [eimg url='http://kubanphoto.ru/photo/115077/' title='115077']

    Peaceful Lake

    This photo I took in JPEG format. Made an enlargement to 20" X 30", I wish I shot in RAW!!!

    Lower River Falls, Washington State

  • Rob Hickey December 31, 2010 05:04 am

    Looks like a lot of us enjoy the candid shots. It's amazing the facial expressions that you can capture sometimes, so snap away as these are really hard to re-create or duplicate when not done naturally!

  • Demelza December 31, 2010 12:14 am

    I love 'lurking' in the background when the group are posing for someone else, it makes for some fun, interesting shots, paparazzi anyone?
    Lots of other great suggestions in the postings here, thanks everyone for your input.

  • Steve B December 30, 2010 07:28 pm

    High ISO and no flash is the best. It's amazing with today's image stabilization how good a shot you can get at 1/15 or slower with a little timing.

    And as much as possible, I keep the camera away from my face. With practice, I can shoot with the camera at my hip or somewhere low, pointing up. Most people think I'm just playing around or that I'm an idiot (with or without the camera) and couldn't possibly be getting good shots that way. But I get some of my best candid portraits without looking through the lens when I shoot. And in a group where people are interacting and not "focused" on the guy with the camera, it can be very rewarding.

    And hey, it's digital. Shoot till your finger's sore. For every 200 pics taken like this, I find 5 - 10 that I like. Happy holidays!!

  • Denise December 30, 2010 05:51 pm

    I photographed our family Xmas with my new 50 - 200 lens, an external flash with a .99 cent defuser (purchased on ebay) what fun! Got great shots, turned them into a slide show that everyone enjoyed. The only problem - I was not in a single shot - again!

  • Lori December 30, 2010 03:09 pm

    I have a Nikon D90. It has 4 different options for raw. I am not sure which one to shoot in. There is NEF (RAW) , NEF (RAW) + JPEG basic, NEF (RAW) + JPEG normal, NEF (RAW) + JPEG fine. My next question is when shooting with a high ISO I was always told that the higher the number you would need a tripod. In situations like a home gathering how would I manage that and still get snap shots of the family?

  • William December 28, 2010 01:20 pm

    I have this philosophy about pictures and it is; "The worst photo ever is the one that wasn't taken."
    If your family is like my family then they know I'm bringing at least one camera to our family event. They also know I'm going to take their photo like it or not. If you don't take photos of people in your family that don't like their photo taken then there will be no photos of them.
    I share my family event photos using a social networking site where I can limit who views my photos. Family members not on the site then I email them the files.
    RAW vs JPEG is only an issue for those that are into editing their photos.
    I would suggest that if you are into editing then you should add in the EXIF data the names of all the people in group shots. Trust me someone some day will ask who is this and no one will remember who it was.
    I think probably the tips are good as a starting point. A simpler version is; Bring camera, take lots of photos. Back in the days of film the rule was out of 100 photos 3 would be 'good' and out of a 1000 there would be one 'nice' photo.
    Remember we are capturing memories of our family being together. It won't matter if it is a good or bad photo as long as the memory brings a smile to your face.

  • Judi December 28, 2010 01:56 am

    I never, ever shoot anyone eating. I also ask beforehand if anyone wants to be missed - there is usually someone who thanks me for asking, and is able to relax and enjoy the day without dodging me.

  • Beth December 23, 2009 01:18 am

    I agree with Ed. No food on their faces. No food in their mouths. They all end up with chipmunk cheeks.


    Photograph pairs and threesomes who are not related.

    Don't let the parents dictate that you take "family portraits."

    It's more fun later to have people in a photo who are almost never seen together!

  • Beth December 23, 2009 01:13 am

    Great advice.

    I have to say that I use a wide angle instead of a long lens.
    It's faster and it allows me to sit within conversational distance and shoot. The lens is not so imposing. The camera is not up to my face, because I'm looking at the screen not through the viewfinder.

    After a couple of shots no one seems to notice.

    The photos have an intimate close-in feel.

  • Alisan December 20, 2009 08:44 pm

    Another advantage of letting the children walk around with a camera is that people either tend to ignore them (and this can result in good shots) or are far more willing to 'pose' to humour the child (which can also result in good shots). Though camera shake etc is a downside for these budding photographists. I Sometimes prep my two up wth photos I would like taken and the end result can be more relaxed than when I am behind the lens.

    Also, as we live overseas from family, I endeavour to get shots of the children opening presents from people and email the photo with a comment from the child so the person can 'share' in the joy the child expresses in the gift.

  • Anne December 20, 2009 09:53 am

    If someone is opening a special present, set your camera to 'burst' mode. One of the shots is sure to be just right!

  • Sarah Graham-Taylor December 18, 2009 06:23 am

    Another tip: get down to people's levels. If you always stand whilst taking photos, you get a very static viewpoint. If they are sitting at table, kneel on the floor. If there are children playing around, get down on the floor with them. You will find much more interesting viewpoints.

  • Betty Huth December 18, 2009 04:49 am

    I just checked our copy of Photoshop Elements and it works the same. So you should be set.

  • Angie December 18, 2009 03:58 am

    Thank you Betty! I have Photoshop Elements, so I'll have to check and see if that option is available.

  • Betty Huth December 18, 2009 03:51 am


    You can open a jpg in Camera Raw in Photoshop. When you go to Open and find your image at the bottom left of the dialog box there is a drop down menu called "Format" that offers choices. One of the choices is Camera Raw.
    CHoose it and when you click open, you get the Camera Raw dialog box and you can then choose your color balance, and all the adjustments available for a "raw" image. Hope this helps.

  • Angie December 18, 2009 03:23 am

    How do you open a jpg in raw? I saw this question asked earlier- but no answer yet. My camera software won't do that, so I'm curious how it's done....

  • Paul Lorger July 4, 2009 09:50 am

    Great tips and comments.

    Something else that can be part of Tip 8 Have Fun!

    "Let the children take some shots".

    If its not too difficult at quiet time, maybe after lunch, let some of the young kids task some shots. Toddlers can have their hands steam cleaned (joke), be sitting on your knee with the camera strap safely around your neck (etc) and fire away. With the image on the LCD straight away its amazing how quickly the catch on. Live view help if you have it.

    Older ones may be able to handle the camera by themselves, that's your call. Also too many children may make this impossible to do with out causing a riot!

    Anyway they have a different view on the world, some of the images will be interesting and its a lot of fun

  • Sukis January 6, 2009 09:54 pm

    Thank's for the Great tips You're the master's of photograpy
    I allready Have a Great pictures's From This...

  • Ciobi January 6, 2009 07:12 pm

    Thank you for the advice. Now I am gone wait for the next Family Gathering

  • Ed January 6, 2009 12:08 pm

    Great tips. Also, it's not cool taking pics of family members with food hanging out of their mouths.

  • rodrigo b. fermin January 2, 2009 05:00 am

    great tips....thanks and happy holidays!

    they love being photographed

  • Julie January 1, 2009 09:23 am

    I agree with Speed - if I show family the pics on the LCD - they just relax - "hey I look okay so shoot some more!" kind of thoughts. Love it! and they think I am less of a nut case.
    Also I like to record the details - Aunt Jean's famous meatballs and those hands reaching for more cashews. It's about preserving memories and I am addicted to doing this!
    I am off to a New Year party. I promise to shoot in Raw the whole night!

  • Duke December 31, 2008 02:22 pm

    I shoot lots of family gatherings, plus twice a year meetings for a dental group my wife and I manage. My number one foolproof rule of thumb: No looking at the camera. You look, I delete. Makes all the difference in the world, and there are very few "bad" shots when people aren't locked into pose mode.

  • craig December 31, 2008 10:53 am

    the advice is great. def use raw and your fastest lense available. at a recent party i shot 400 21MP raws, used 47 in the end. all 50mm F1.2. raw add's ability to recover info, the fast lense is a blessing. HAVE FUN!

  • Linda Casper December 31, 2008 10:52 am

    Letting people know you are taking candid shots helps. Sometimes they will try to get out of the way when they see you taking a picture not realizing you are taking a picture of them. I am known as the candid picture taker in my family and if we have guest my family tells them. I do my best to let everyone see the pictures. I think everyone feels better when they see them. I try to respect their space if they do not like their picture taken I try to minimize the pictures I take of that person and try to take pictures of them with others so they do not feel centered out.

  • emma December 31, 2008 10:32 am

    Darla? Try setting the ISO lower, not using flash or setting the shutter speed at a faster speed so then you don't capture as much light. Just experiment with those three and i'm sure you will figure out a good light exposure.

  • Darla December 30, 2008 01:18 am

    I am new to photography and have a question about lighting. I was shooting some pics of my family a couple of days ago and they all turned out with all these little "light spots" all over the pics. The room I was shooting in was full of windows and very light. I haven't gotten past the maual mode, but is there anything I can do next time so these light spots won't show up in the pics?

    Any advice is appreciated!!!

  • Angie December 28, 2008 12:17 pm

    I guess I missed the memo. How do you open a jpg in raw? I didn't know this was an option.

  • Sandy December 28, 2008 04:24 am

    I totally agree with the "Don't let them see you coming". At least for certain people. I have found some people are better shot candid, but others are better if you ask them for a simple pose. (I'm one...all candid shots of me look like I'm making funny faces!)
    The best thing is to know your people. Know who hides from the camera, and know who likes to pose, and who likes to have silly photos taken. I have one brother in law who hates having his picture taken, and I could not get one of him at Thanksgiving. But he actually posed for me with a giant bow on his head!
    Kids are the ones who most like to see the photo on the display. I have a niece (6 yrs old) who does every time. Even when I take a picture of her favorite cousin. It adds to the fun, and encourages more opportunities.

  • Sourabh December 27, 2008 09:41 pm

    Merry Christmas everyone. The Tips are really great thanks all. have a great new year ahead. :)

  • erniehatt December 27, 2008 07:56 am

    Happy New Year, thanks for the tips. One thing I don't completely agree with. Shooting in Raw, Now that you can open jpgs in raw, makes it not so important, because you can now do all the adjustments to jpgs as you can with raw. I have been doing some experiments with this, by taking the same image in raw + jpg and doing the same adjustments on both, there is no significant difference. Ernie

  • Lisa C December 27, 2008 03:16 am

    Thanks for the great article, I wish I could have read it before the day I was with my family… not the day after… Every day you have something new and fun to learn here, thanks!

  • Lisa C December 27, 2008 03:16 am

    Thanks for the great article, I wish I could have read it before the day I was with my family... not the day after... Every day you have something new and fun to learn here, thanks!

  • Marion Brizendine December 27, 2008 02:28 am

    We need this article several days BEFORE the events, not the day after.
    Have a great holiday and keep up the good work.

  • Rosh- New media photographer December 26, 2008 12:38 pm

    I like to use my 135mm 2.8. It's light- weight and I can get in close from the other side of the room


  • Jonno December 26, 2008 10:28 am

    Thanks for the tips. Candid shots are the best, particularly at family gatherings. They really can capture the relaxed and friendly atmosphere.

  • MoneyNing December 26, 2008 08:48 am

    Great tips (I especially like the one about not having them see you coming).

    Speed's comment about not sharing EVERY picture is also a must read for everyone. It's SOOO much better when someone takes the time to post only the best pictures!!

  • allan December 26, 2008 05:38 am

    Thanks for the great tip... really helpful when you're forgetting the basics because you're too excited about what's happening around you.

  • Speed December 26, 2008 01:06 am

    Use the LCD on the back of your camera to show people a few of the pictures while you're shooting. As much as they say "I don't look good in pictures" they really love to see themselves having a good time with friends and family. And they relax after seeing that you're not turning them into two dimensional monsters.

    Send out some prints -- make sure they're your best. A small reward for putting up with you. Careful about e-mailing or posting on a public site. Not everyone wants their face plastered all over the web. If you decided to post some pictures stick to a very small number of the very best. Posting hundreds of pictures of the same people doing the same stuff over and over gets old and most people lose interest after the first six dozen. And make sure you spend some time cropping, correcting and removing red-eye.