8 Tips for Getting Great Expressions in Family Portraits

8 Tips for Getting Great Expressions in Family Portraits

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8 Tips for Getting Great Expressions in Family Portraits

Sometimes as a photographer, you are lucky enough to get a family session full of models with perfect natural smiles in every photo. It doesn’t take much to get a photo that is ready to hang on the wall. However, most of the time with family portraits it isn’t that easy.

Maybe you’ve got somebody who doesn’t want to be there or little kids that have no idea what you’re trying to get them to do. And maybe, just maybe, you’d like to have some photos that show some extra personality. Everyone looking at the camera and smiling is nice, but I always love the ones that show a little more of who the family really is. I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve to help you through the more difficult sessions, and to help you get some fun full-of-personality shots and great expressions with any family.

1. You’re in charge of the kids

8 Tips for Getting Great Expressions in Family Portraits kids

Many times during a family session, you’ll have parents that are really concerned about whether or not their kids are looking and smiling at the camera. They don’t realize that the moment their little one looks and smiles, their faces aren’t photo-ready because they’re spending all their time wondering what their kid is doing.

Remind the parents to keep their faces ready for photos at all times, and you, as the photographer, will take care of getting their kids to look and smile. If they are talking to their child, it will be hard for their child to look at you, because he’ll think he needs to be looking at mom or dad. Whether you want the parents looking at the camera or not for a particular photo, remind them to do their part for the photo and leave the rest to you.

2. Let the parents help sometimes

parents - 8 Tips for Getting Great Expressions in Family Portraits

This might seem to contradict point #1 above, but there are times when getting those genuine smiles from the kiddos requires a little bit of help from the parents. If you have a reluctant smiler and you want to get a good individual photo of the child smiling, ask the parent to make a funny face, or do something silly off-camera. If you want the subject looking at the camera, ask the parent to get right behind you. Parents often know one silly word that will get their child giggling, or the child might just need the comfort of seeing a parent smiling at them to know that it’s all okay.

You can also have photos with the parents interacting with their children in the frame. These often end up being some of my favorites. I love capturing the genuine interactions, and those expressions that the parent sees every day. Put the parent and child together, and simply ask them to smile at each other. Often this initially awkward directive gets them really giggling together, and you’ve got the perfect expressions.

3. Laugh at the silly one

laugh silly - 8 Tips for Getting Great Expressions in Family Portraits

One of my most effective prompts for natural looking family interaction and genuine expressions is to ask them to laugh at the silly one. Sometimes they all look to the same person right away, and everyone will start truly laughing. Sometimes they all look at someone different, and after a second of bewilderment, they all start laughing.

This one can backfire, though, and needs to be used with caution. Some kids automatically think that laughing means to be over the top silly, and they over-exaggerate a huge laugh that doesn’t look natural at all. Some kids think that laughing also must be accompanied by pointing, and that never looks great in a photo either. In these cases, I tell them to giggle quietly and to keep their hands down. Usually, that solves the problem. If it doesn’t, I just move on to something else and let the moment go.

4. Simply hug

hug - 8 Tips for Getting Great Expressions in Family Portraits

Oftentimes in sessions, I position everyone into a nice arrangement, take a photo of them all smiling and looking, and then I just say, “Now, everyone hug each other.” or “Put your arm around the person next to you.” When I look at the photos side by side later, I’m always amazed at how much more natural the smiles are in the hugging photos.

I think that when photos feel really formal, it’s hard to relax, and people end up with stiff smiles. When they feel comfortable, the true smiles come out. There’s just something about being surrounded and hugged by those you love that makes you feel safe. Sometimes you need to prompt them to hug each other but make sure they’re still looking at you. Occasionally you get the real huggers that will turn right around and give their mom a bear hug. Although that looks cute in real life, it doesn’t work as well for a photo.

5. Let the personalities shine

personality - 8 Tips for Getting Great Expressions in Family Portraits

Sometimes you might have a perfect photo in mind, but you just have some little guys that have big personalities. You could spend the whole session trying to get them to be somebody they’re not, or you can just go with it and laugh about it.

Let’s be honest, sometimes those expressions that just scream personality make the best photos. Families will treasure those photos and laugh about them throughout their whole lives. You can try to get that perfect family photo for mom, but don’t make everyone miserable by insisting on squelching unique poses and expressions every time they pop up. That said, I don’t encourage them in their silliness because sometimes that can make them go a bit out of control. Just simply take the photo, and don’t make a big deal out of it.

6. Big groups are fun too

big groups - 8 Tips for Getting Great Expressions in Family Portraits

Giant group photos can look very dull at times. When you have tons of people in one photo, it can be a task just to get them all arranged, and then after all that work the photo just looks like a bunch of little boring faces.

Try getting a few photos that are just for fun. Ask the entire group to hug or kiss their neighbor. (Give them the option. Nobody likes to be told they must kiss the person next to them.) If you have a bride and groom, you can have the bride and groom kiss, and ask everyone else to cheer or to react however they’d like.

When you have a big group of people with funny happy faces, it makes a photo that you want to look at for awhile, and you can’t help but smile. These photos are never perfect, but they’re fun, and end up being the photos the families really love.

7. Capture life

life - 8 Tips for Getting Great Expressions in Family Portraits

You don’t always need smiles, nor do you need all the eyes showing. Capture the family participating in an activity together, and just let their expressions happen naturally. These lifestyle photos will capture the family as they are, right now. They will be the photos that really bring back memories for your families when they come across them later. You don’t have to set up anything elaborate. It can be as involved as a picnic together with the blanket and basket and everything, or as simple as holding hands and walking together. If you do have them walking away from you, ask the family to look at each other as they walk, so you get some profile expressions, and interaction with each other.

You don’t have to set up anything elaborate. It can be as involved as a picnic together with the blanket and basket and everything, or as simple as holding hands and walking together. If you do have them walking away from you, ask the family to look at each other as they walk, so you get some profile expressions, and interaction with each other.

8. Take a lot of photos in a row

8 Tips for Getting Great Expressions in Family Portraits

When you’ve got a lot of people to capture at once, the chances of getting all of them with a great expression at the same time is slim to none. I snap a lot of photos in a row of one pose because the chances of catching smiles and open eyes for each person go up greatly when you have a lot to choose from. If all else fails, you have a lot in nearly the same position, so you can swap eyes, faces, or heads if needed.

It can be so frustrating when you have a family photo that is nearly perfect, but one family member is blinking. Trust me, even three in a row may sometimes not be enough to get every expression that you need. I don’t head swap often because I usually have one in the series that captures everything as I want, but it’s nice to have the option of swapping something if needed.

I’d love to see your family portraits in the comments! What tricks have you found to capture great expressions in your family sessions?

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Melinda Smith was born to be a teacher. She teaches violin lessons and fitness classes, as well as photography classes and mentoring. She lives on a mini farm in Eastern Utah with her camera, husband, kids, chickens, horses, bunnies, dogs, and cats. Visit her at Melinda Smith Photography.