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How to Find Good Locations for Family Portraits

When you’re shooting a family portrait, about nine out of 10 times the client will ask, “Do you have a place you typically like to shoot?”

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

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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 backdrop
  • An outdoor area with full shade, appropriate for shooting 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 rare 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).

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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:

1 – The client has already chosen a location

It’s surprisingly 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 perhaps there’s extended family gathered together already, and they’d like to keep the photo shoot as easy as possible by having you come to them. If you’re shooting for next year’s holiday portrait or another special event, they 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 while confirming the shoot. You may discover that you need to bring extra equipment like lighting to fill in shadows, if they’re hoping for a family portrait underneath a moss-strewn oak tree at two o’clock in the afternoon.

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

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2 – The client is open to your location suggestions

This is the more common scenario, where you 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 it’s a holiday family portrait, they may prefer a warm and rustic theme over something bright and urban, for example. Or they may want a look that’s relevant throughout the year.

Timing will also have a lot of influence over your decision on 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, get the family comfortable with your presence and style, and then be fully ready to capture beautiful, stunning portraits just when the changing light is at its peak.

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Sunset (and sunrise) shoots

For golden hour sessions, just after sunrise and 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 beach (plus houses and passersby) – 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 shadows. You don’t want your subjects to squint in full sun, and you don’t want shadows from tree branches, or manmade obstructions, blocking portions of their faces. The key to shooting in midday on a sunny day is to put your subjects fully in the shade.

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When a client wants to schedule midday, 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 present a beautiful surrounding for 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 even cloud coverage actually makes for beautiful outdoor shots — there’s no squinting and nice even light.

But, if there’s no drama in the sky (dark clouds swirling on the horizon), an overcast day may be less exciting when shooting with broad vistas and open spaces. Turn to your surrounding objects (trees, historic buildings) to provide the intrigue in the photograph. Or bring in a pop of color with balloons or other props.

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

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Final tips and tricks

Start by putting together your list of places. Keep the same principles in mind that helped you choose those spots, when giving feedback to a client on their suggested locations. In addition, make sure that wherever 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 the background.

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.

Do you have any other location scouting tips? Please share 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.