You’re probably used to seeing perfect family photos on Pinterest. After all, photographers love showing their best work. But you’ll learn a lot more from seeing an entire family photo session rather than just one perfect photo.
So today I’m giving you a glimpse into one of my traditional family photo sessions. I’ll tell you what gear I used, my thought processes during the shoot, how many photos it took to get a keeper, and how your mistakes can help you develop as a photographer.
I’ll show you the good, the bad, and the photos I didn’t even let the family see.
I love photos like this with golden back light in idyllic scenes. But the reality is for every ‘perfect’ photo like this there are dozens (if not hundreds) that don’t look so nice.
For this family photo session, I used a Nikon D7100. For most of the photos, my lens was an 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5, although a few were taken with a 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 lens. I decided to shoot in RAW and JPEG but only processed the RAW files using Lightroom.
Lightroom is my favorite post-processing program. I had 982 photos from this session. To narrow them down I flag the photos that stand out to me and then highlight the final keepers in yellow.
This session is from my earlier days as a family photographer. I chose it because there was a lot I hadn’t learned yet, and I’d rather show you a tough session because it will help you a lot more.
There was an infant and most of the kids were under five. Thankfully, I had a lot of experience photographing young kids after being a school photographer for a couple of years.
The aim was to get a variety of photos of the family, siblings and individual kids.
This photo is straight out of the camera (SOOC) and is typical of the photos I ended up with. It can be really challenging to get a family of six to all look at the camera and smile at the same time. One or two kids are always looking away or not smiling. Inevitably, the mom and dad end up looking at the kids instead of the camera. You’ll need to learn to capture their attention.
This is what the photos look like after editing with Lightroom. It took 70 photos to get this one. I was discouraged, but it taught me that I needed to get better at interacting with groups.
This photo is SOOC. It can be really tough to get four siblings (one of them an infant) to look at the camera and smile at the same time. It helps to have a parent or assistant standing directly behind you to get their attention. That person should be playful and silly to engage the kids. This is far better than having adults off to the side yelling at the kids to “look here!”
This is a nice photo after editing with Lightroom. It took 33 bad photos to get this good one.
Sometimes you’ve got to let little kids get the silliness out of them. Why shouldn’t a photo session be fun for them? But be careful. Sometimes letting them be silly unleashes too much craziness. Honestly, I think they were much happier by this point.
By now, you can see that most of my photos were underexposed. I had to brighten them a lot in Lightroom. Now I use a combination of aperture priority and exposure compensation. I aim for the brightest exposure I can without overexposing it. Them I can make final adjustments in Lightroom.
This final photo (edited in Lightroom) has a pretty relaxed feeling to it. I’m not always looking for stillness and perfect posture in a photo.
I found it much easier working with each child individually. I could connect with each of them and provoke nice expressions. As a group, it’s difficult to engage them all at once.
SOOC. Typically, infants don’t sit up very well on their own, especially while sitting on bales of hay. I always have a parent sitting nearby to steady them. They pull their arm away for a few seconds while I’m snapping photos.
When they’re in a good mood it’s so much fun to make an infant smile.
Infants and toddlers can be really tough to photograph when they’re in a bad mood. They need lots of snacks (but not bribes) and time to be themselves between photos.
This photo session should teach you the value of paying attention to your exposure in the moment. Watch your histogram and use exposure compensation to make adjustments.
Practice engaging kids and small groups of people so you can do it effortlessly at photo sessions.
Don’t worry that it might take you 10–20 photos to get one worth keeping. That’s pretty normal for many photographers.
One thing I hadn’t learned at this stage was the creative power of angles. Angles and candid moments are now the most important part of my approach to family photo sessions. The creative use of angles in combination with candid moments help make each photo more unique and personal.
While I had a fair bit of photography experience at this point (yearbook, several weddings, school photos, and some families), I certainly hadn’t developed my own vision or style. But this session was part of that development.
I share these candid photos with you because it was photos such as these that helped me develop as a photographer and made me who I am today.
This photo was taken right at the beginning on the way out to the sunflower field. You can take candid photos at the beginning of the session as a way to warm up and get everyone used to the camera.
This was a quiet moment before the session began. I love the soft light on the mom’s face.
This is a pretty good example of letting infants and toddlers explore during the session. They’re curious about the world around them. So let them explore and you’ll likely make some great candid photos.
The last place we took a family photo was outside a big barn. The girls played with the barn cats and I couldn’t resist a few photos (even though I felt like my job was to focus on posed photos). My camera misfocused, so this picture is blurry. But there’s something so priceless about the moment that I consider this photo worth keeping anyway. I actually find something nostalgic about the misfocus. It doesn’t look so bad as a small print or on a small screen. But I wouldn’t give this to the family or put it in my portfolio.
This photo of the family walking together was captured as we moved from one location to the other. These days I plan a circuit for sessions and capture candid photos between locations.
This candid moment came after a few posed photos with the mom and her little one.
If you’re in the early stages of being a family photographer, don’t feel bad if you haven’t settled in yet. Keep persevering through the tough moments and you’ll grow. Those rare photos that make your heart skip a beat are clues to who you will become as a photographer. Pursue more of those, but understand that you also need to pursue lots of other things because you never know what will make your heart skip a beat.
I saved this photo for last because it was one of the moments that changed me forever as a photographer. While I was photographing the mom and little sister I looked over and saw the big sister dancing on the path. To me, it was the essence of childhood. It didn’t take me 70 tries to get this shot. In fact, right after I took this photo she stopped dancing and posed. To this day, dancing is part of many photo sessions.
What else do you need to know?
I’m happy to share anything about this family photo session with you. Let me know in the comments what else would be helpful to you.