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How to Find Good Locations for Family Portraits

how to find good locations for family portraits

When you’re shooting a family portrait, about nine times out of ten the client will ask, “Do you have a place you typically like to photograph?”

We all do, of course, but if you take every portrait client to the same location, your portfolio will develop an undesirable, repetitive consistency.

That’s why it’s important to thoroughly scout the area where you live and work, to build a list of go-to spots for any scenario, circumstance, and style.

family portrait on a beach

So think about your city, and build a list of these places where you can shoot:

  • A field or shoreline with broad vistas to capture the aura and glow of twilight
  • A similar outdoor venue with features like tall grass or trees to provide a backdrop
  • An outdoor area with full shade, appropriate for shooting at midday
  • A covered outdoor space like a gazebo or covered porch for shoots in inclement weather
  • An indoor space with high ceilings and lots of windows for natural light

Because most family portrait sessions will include a variety of backdrops and poses, the perfect shooting location contains all of these elements. But that’s pretty rare and hard to find.

Finally, make sure that you have the required permits, permissions, and licenses to shoot in your desired locations, whether they’re public or private (many municipalities require a business license to shoot in public places like parks and beaches).

black and white family shot

Once you’ve built your list of go-to locations, you’re ready to schedule a session with a client.

Here are the two scenarios that could play out:

Scenario 1: The client has already chosen a location

It’s rare for a client to be dead set on a location, but sometimes there’s a family home or a special place with memories where they’d like to be photographed. Or maybe there’s an extended family gathered together already, and they’d like to keep the photoshoot as easy as possible by having you come to them. If you’re shooting for next year’s holiday portrait or another special event, your client may also choose a place that fits the theme, such as an evergreen forest or a snowy landscape.

If you’re not familiar with the location, ask questions about it when confirming the shoot. You may discover that you need to bring extra equipment, such as speedlights to fill in shadows (if, for instance, your client is hoping for a family portrait underneath a moss-strewn oak tree at two o’clock in the afternoon).

Likewise, indoor photoshoots – such as people gathered around the fireplace or around a Christmas tree, for example – may present difficulties with lighting that you’ll want to consider and be prepared for prior to the actual shoot. When feasible, visit the site of any session before arriving for the actual job.

woman holding her child over her head

Scenario 2: The client is open to your location suggestions

This is the more common scenario, and it allows you to pull out that list of locations you’ve already scouted.

Start by getting a sense of the feeling the family wants to capture in their photos. If you’re doing a holiday family portrait, the client may prefer a warm and rustic theme over something bright and urban, for example.

Timing should also affect your decision of where to shoot. When possible, schedule sessions for an hour to an hour and a half before sunset, giving you time to arrive and chat, time to get the family comfortable with your presence and style, and then time to be fully ready to capture beautiful, stunning portraits just when the changing light is at its peak.

kids playing at the beach

Sunset (and sunrise) shoots

For golden hour sessions, just after sunrise and just before sunset, choose a location that ideally has both broad vistas and objects of interest.

For example, if you’re shooting on the beach, don’t just choose a spot with wide-open sand (plus houses and passersby). Instead, aim to find a section of beach with sand dunes, tall grass, driftwood, or even distant trees.

These objects help frame the image and make it more interesting, without distracting from the subjects of the photograph. The same rules apply in a desert, lake, or city park scenario.

Midday shoots on a sunny day

The challenge with shooting at midday is the shadows. You don’t want your subjects to squint in full sun, and you don’t want shadows from tree branches or from other obstructions blocking portions of their faces. The key to shooting at sunny midday is to put your subjects fully in the shade.

woman hugging her child

When a client wants to schedule a midday session, I often lean toward urban areas with architectural interest. If your city or town has a historic neighborhood, seek out alleyways, parks, cobblestone streets, or even sidewalks that are shaded at midday, but that still present a beautiful surrounding for your subjects.

Cloudy day shoots

It’s a huge misconception that overcast days are bad for family portraits. Clients may be discouraged by the threat of rain, but encourage them with the news that cloud coverage actually makes for beautiful outdoor shots – there’s no squinting, plus there’s nice, even light.

That said, if there’s no drama in the sky (i.e., no dark clouds swirling on the horizon), an overcast day may be less exciting when shooting in broad vistas and open spaces.

Instead, turn to your surrounding objects (trees, historic buildings, etc.) to provide the intrigue in the photograph. Or add a pop of color with balloons and other props.

family portrait with balloons

On an overcast day, a local mural can actually make for a perfect backdrop – just make sure your subjects wear muted tones (black, white, gray, or beige) rather than colorful attire that might clash with the art.

family portrait locations kids on graffitied steps

Final tips and tricks for finding family portrait locations

Start by putting together your list of portrait locations. And make sure that where you decide to shoot won’t be crowded at the time you’re there; the last thing you want is a bunch of strangers in your backgrounds.

Finally, be flexible. Not every shoot will be perfect, but it’s your job as the photographer to ensure that your clients have an enjoyable experience. Have confidence in your skills, and work around obstacles as they arise. If you are engaged and the subjects are happy, it’s possible to create gorgeous family portraits that your clients can share on cards, calendars, and gifts throughout the year.

Now over to you:

How do you choose family portrait locations? Do you have a favorite type of location? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Hunter McRae
Hunter McRae

is an award-winning photojournalist and photography blogger for Shutterfly, based in Charleston, S.C. and a contributor to Shutterfly’s guide to the perfect family portrait. Hunter has been featured in The New York Times and travels all around the world for her career. For more pro tips on your family portraits, check out Hunter’s blog.

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