A Behind-The-Scenes Look at a Family Photo Session

A Behind-The-Scenes Look at a Family Photo Session

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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.

Family photo tips - golden sunlight

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.

Gear

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.

Family photo tips - lightrrom

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.

The Session

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.

Family photo tips - sooc

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.

 

Family photo tips - sunflower field

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.

 

Family photo tips - siblings

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!”

 

Family photo tips - siblings

This is a nice photo after editing with Lightroom. It took 33 bad photos to get this good one.

 

Family photo tips - siblings

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.

 

Family photo tips - siblings

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.

 

Family photo tips - siblings

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.

 

Family photo tips - children

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.

 

Family photo tips - infant

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.

 

Family photo tips - infants

When they’re in a good mood it’s so much fun to make an infant smile.

 

Family photo tips - infants

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.

Candid Moments

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.

Family photo tips - candid

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.

 

Family photo tips - candid

This was a quiet moment before the session began. I love the soft light on the mom’s face.

 

Family photo session - candid

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.

 

Family photo tips - walking

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.

 

Family photo tips - infant

This candid moment came after a few posed photos with the mom and her little one.

Final Thoughts

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.

Family photo tips - dancing

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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mat Coker is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.

  • randypollock

    Do you use a fill flash now compared to not using one in these images.

  • Mat

    Hi Randy.

    I don’t use fill flash now. I had tried it for a while but wasn’t always happy with the results. I found that too often I tell that it was fill flash and didn’t like it. I also typically use 2 cameras, so that is a lot to lug around. If anything, my style has become more candid and the flashes seem to get in the way.
    Having said all that, I do love using off camera flash every now and then 🙂

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  • Jill Anderson

    Thank you so much for posting about one of your early family photo shoots. I am at the beginning of my photography journey…hobbyist for now (offering free family sessions to my siblings and in-laws), but I hope to someday become a professional. I was feeling a little discouraged that typically only about 10% of the photos I take are keepers. Thanks for your honesty and for encouraging those of us who are just getting started.

  • Mat

    You’re so welcome, Jill!
    I would say you’ve likely got a good discerning eye if you can narrow them down to 10%. I was quite surprised to discover that this is the norm for so many great photographers that I learned from.
    Since you’re thinking that you might like to go professional I’ll share another article that might be helpful to you. “The Truth About Becoming a Professional Family Photographer.”
    https://digital-photography-school.com/professional-family-photographer/
    Wishing the best for you!
    Mat

  • Steve Yates

    Interesting post, thank you for sharing, photography has become much more candid these days and I assume very few photographers make use of tripods when out on a shoot, for obvious reasons. However, I used to do professional portrait and wedding photography and we used to have a mantra, meter it, frame it, focus it, forget it! Our cameras were all ways on tripods. This meant that once we had done the necessary we never looked down the viewfinder again, we just concentrated on making sure that we got the right expressions and poses (we were using square format cameras). I get that when running-round shooting candids that is not possible. However, thinking and shooting this way can cut down on the number of shots needed.

  • Scott Finchler

    Thanks for a well written post about the reality of a photo shoot. Vey helpful for atl of us who get discouraged from time to time when it seems like no one else’s shoots have the same challenges as ours. Helps to know we’re not alone .

  • Mat

    You’re welcome, Scott! Yes, it was really helpful for me when I found out that the photographers I look up to struggled in many of the same ways.

  • Mat

    That is an amazing technique, Steve. I love to use it when doing studio photo sessions.

    You’re right it does cut down on the number of overall photos, while increasing the number of good photos. It’s amazing the connection you can have with your subject when the camera is on the tripod and you don’t have to be overly concerned with it.
    Thanks for adding this!

  • Steve Yates

    It sure is, for me having rapport with my subject and not worrying about camera settings is what helps us capture those important moments and those great expressions.

  • Steve Yates

    I learnt a very important lesson when doing people photography. The most important things is to have good report with your subject and to be comfortable with your camera and its functions. Also as photographers we are more critical of our own work than our clients are. They don’t look for perfection in a photo, they look for emotion, expressions and a photo they can warm too. They are not concerned with technical excellency. That’s our job 😉

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