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Tips for Taking the Torture out of Extended Family Portrait Sessions

I have yet to meet someone who loves getting their picture taken with the whole extended family. The thought of getting all the dramatic aunts, crazy uncles, wild kids, and tired grandparents together and smiling all at the same time seems nearly impossible, and not at all fun. I know of many photographers who refuse to do big family portraits because they can be so unpleasant. I have grown to love big extended family portrait sessions throughout the years. You can too, whether you’re the photographer, or one of the silly cousins getting her photo taken.

Extended Family Portrait Session

Think of big groups as your own family

The first thing that helped me love extended family sessions was the way that I thought of them. Instead of a difficult crazy session, I try to think of them as my own family, and take the photos with love. Let me share a story that may change your mind about extended family sessions too.

A while ago I was asked to add a missing brother to an extended family photo. The entire family had been there when they had the photo taken, except for this one brother who couldn’t get off work. Months later, one of the other brothers tragically passed away. Their most recent family portrait wasn’t complete, and they’d never be able to get a new one.

So, I took this working brother to the same location, took a photo of him, worked him into the photo through the magic of Photoshop. I matched everything the best that I could, so they could have the last most complete family portrait. It made me realize how fragile life is, and how fragile families are. If I have an opportunity to capture a family right now, today, as they are, I’m happy to do it. You never know when or why that portrait may become priceless to them.

Not only are these photos precious and invaluable, but they can be a lot of fun, and not too difficult to pull off. Let me give you some tips to help.

Extended Family Portrait Session

Take charge, be bold, move fast

When you’re working with a big group of people, someone has to be in charge. That person is you, the photographer. This is not a time to be timid and quiet, hoping things will fall into place. As soon as you’re ready to start, get everyone’s attention. Taking charge right away will let them know that you are confident, that you know what you are doing, and that they can trust you. Smile a lot, and if it works for you, throw in some humor. Tell your group that if they will listen to you closely, and do everything you say, that it will be quick, painless, and even fun. Everyone there likes to hear “quick, painless, and fun”, so you’ll have their attention right away.

Don’t take a long time getting everything situated. Have everything scoped out beforehand, and have a firm idea of where and how you will place everyone. Know what order you will be photographing each group, and if you have any stragglers, kindly, but firmly move them toward the picture location. If there are a lot of small children, this is especially imperative. You will lose their interest and patience so quickly, so you need to take advantage of any time when they are even remotely cooperative. You won’t get any good photos when everyone is exhausted and sick of you, so you have to be done before that happens.

Extended Family Portrait Session

Add some personality

With a big group, it seems like you might only have one option – get everyone to look at you, and hope they are smiling. Many clients do want a more traditional family photo, very posed, with everyone looking and smiling. But try giving them a few photos with a little bit of their family’s personality. When you are working with so many people it’s really hard to get a perfect traditional photo anyway. Most of my clients know that isn’t really my style, so they are happy with the more fun, casual photos.

My favorite thing is to ask everyone to hug in to Grandpa and Grandma, or hug someone next to them. Set everyone up for the more formal photo, and once you’ve captured that, just ask them all to hug. Usually it feels silly enough that they start to laugh, and you get genuine laughs and connection.

Extended Family Portrait Session

Try different poses and positions

It can be a challenge to know how to arrange a really big family group. You could easily have four generations in one photo, which can add even more challenges with arrangements. Some families like family photos where they are all squished in together, in one big family group. I’ve had some that want them completely mixed up, where nobody is grouped into separate families. This is okay, but I find that most families like to at least be able to tell which small families within the group belong together. You can do this by just having each family stand next to each other, or you can even put gaps in between each family. I usually do both, so they have options to choose from later.

I usually place Grandpa and Grandma in the center then evenly distribute their children’s families on either side.

Extended Family Portrait Session

My style doesn’t involve a lot of props, so you won’t notice a lot of chairs and stools in my family photos. They are an option if you’d like to create different levels, but it usually takes a lot of time to get that set up, and your subjects lose patience fast. I prefer a more casual, natural look to something that looks very precise and contrived. Sometimes worrying about those extra things can cause a lot of stress for you, and for your families, and make the whole process more of a chore. But feel free to use them if it’s your style and preference.

Extended Family Portrait Session

Find suitable locations

If you want to have some seated photos, look for locations that have places to sit built in. I love rocks, logs, or even park benches. You can also have some people sit on the ground, some kneel, some stand, but again, be careful not to take so long over-posing that you lose their patience.

It can be difficult to find a place that will work for such a large group. Try to find locations with simple backgrounds that don’t detract from the faces. If possible, schedule the session during the early morning or evening, to take advantage of better lighting. Look for places that have large trees or buildings to filter the light. It’s much harder to make difficult lighting situations work with 30 people than it is when you’re just photographing one.

Don’t move around a lot with a large family once you’ve found a good spot. Find one or two good backgrounds, three if they’re really close to each other, and stick with them. This will keep their photo groupings more consistent with each other, and will make the session go much faster and smoother. Try getting 30 people to move quickly over to a different rock, and you’ll see what I mean.

Extended Family Portrait Session

Get all the break-off groupings

Once you’ve photographed the big huge family, it’s time to get all of the little groups. Keep this moving quickly, and be efficient moving from one group to the next. Here’s a list of the different groupings that I do:

  • Entire extended family
  • Grandpa and Grandma (Dad and Mom) alone
  • Dad and Mom with their children (siblings)
  • Dad and Mom with their children and children’s spouses
  • All the siblings
  • The siblings and their spouses
  • Grandpa and Grandma with the grandchildren
  • All the grandchildren
  • The sisters together
  • The brothers together
  • Each separate family

I don’t do every one of these every time. It depends on what the family wants. Also, I know every family is different, and there may not be Mom and Dad, or any grandchildren, etc. This is just to give an idea of how you might break the groupings up.

I try to do the whole family first, and then the smaller groupings. Because it’s hardest to get everyone paying attention and happy for the whole group, you want to get that in when everyone’s fresh. However, sometimes some of the families arrive before others. It’s a great use of time to take the photos of those families while you’re waiting for the entire group to get there. They’ll be happy that they’re finished early, and that they don’t have to sit around doing nothing while they’re waiting for the latecomers.

Extended Family Portrait Session

A few more tips

Remember when you’re working with big families, that letting go of perfection can save you, and them, from a miserable experience. Kids often don’t cooperate, and sometimes some of the family is really grumpy about being there for photos. Do the best you can, and let the rest go. If there are little ones not looking at the camera, or even crying, you are still capturing that family at this moment in time, and giving them a gift. They may end up treasuring the silly faces, and loving the memories of when one grandchild was going through his never-sit-still phase.

Direct the adults

Tell the parents and grandparents to do their best to continue looking at you and smiling, even if you are trying to get their kids’ attention. Many a good photo is ruined by a parent looking down and lecturing their child right at the moment when the child finally does look up and smile. If the adults are picture-ready at all times, then you will have a chance at catching the split second that their kid smiles, and they’ll be smiling too.

Extended Family Portrait Session

Shoot lots of the big group

Take LOTS of photos in a row with the big group. You may think that you have what you need, but then later when you look at the photos full size, you’ll realize that Uncle Bob blinked in every single one. If you take a lot of photos, one right after the other, you can do head swaps later if you need to open some eyes. If they’re taken at approximately the same time, it will be really easy to change the faces, because they’ll be in the same place in every photo.

Love your families

Lastly, remember to love the families you are photographing. They love each other, even through their faults and imperfections, enough to want to preserve a moment in their lives. This photo is so important to at least one person there. Important enough to go through all the hassle of gathering their entire family together in one place at one time. They are trusting you to give them this cherished gift. Consider yourself one of the family for that hour or so, and let your lens capture the love.

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Melinda Smith
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.

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