Unposed Posing: Tried and True Tips for Photographing Families in Natural and Fun Ways

Unposed Posing: Tried and True Tips for Photographing Families in Natural and Fun Ways



verb: to present oneself insincerely
noun: a deliberate pretense or exaggerated display

I’m not a fan of posed portraits. I’m not even a fan of the word. Insincere exaggerated pretense is not how I want my images to look. I want honest responses, full-body laughter, and spills of emotion. A posed portrait maybe has a place in this world, but I am banking on my client’s children and my own children wanting to look back at pictures from their childhood and see their real reactions and meaningful expressions. You can’t get that in a pose. But you can get it in a set-up.

I use a couple tried and true set-ups every time I do a family shoot. I used to worry that all of my work would start looking the same and I would be known as the photographer that always takes pictures that look like this or that and nothing more. What I have realized though is when the ingredients are different, the end result never looks the same. Families bring their own energy to a shoot and even if I do the same “pose”, if I do it well and give it my all, it will never look the same as another family doing the same thing. To best illustrate this I am showing three different families doing the very same set-up.

Secrets don’t make Friends




But they do make for good pictures. The Set-Up: ask anyone in the picture to tell anyone else a secret. Honestly it doesn’t matter who because often it isn’t the secret shot itself that you are going for, but rather the reaction of said secret. Every once in a while I get a kiddo that doesn’t understand what a secret is or how to do it and when this happens I just tell them to lick their brother/sister/moms ear. Which would totally gross me out personally, but usually gets met with fits of hysterical laughter and there ain’t nothing bad about photographing that instead.

Line ‘Em Up




Like crows on a clothesline. The Set-Up: with a younger family, I get away with asking everyone to hold hands. Once kids get a little older, I just have everyone get on the same level. This takes on a different direction every time: a running contest, a stadium-style wave, a monkey swing. The goal is always interaction. And if that isn’t happening on it’s own, I find it’s never a bad idea to bust into song. Everyone likes a serenade. 

Surprise Attack




Kids take great delight in getting to run up behind their unknowing big people and surprise hug/tackle them. The Set-Up: if kids are too young to understand this or too old for it to work without being awkward, reverse it and have parents do the sneak attack. I usually save this for the end of a shoot because sometimes it can get a little crazy. Though my photography business has still never caused an emergency room visit. That I know of.

Kid Sandwich




Grown-ups are bread, kids are peanut butter and jelly. Or, pickles and prosciutto. (I’ve photographed some very sophisticated young folks.) The Set-Up: Depending on size and age of kids, have parents bookend the little people and either pick-up kids and smash everyone together, or just get low enough to make it work. If there are more kids than adults, this can get really funny but it’s quick. Be ready and consider being a bit lower than you usually would, as the pull of gravity is heavy here because the kids likely are too.

Giant Hug

HUG1 1

HUG2 1

HUG3 1

Now is probably a good time to mention that I get laughed at a lot. Usually 95% of what I ask people to do for photos is met with a sweet but certain: “I absolutely will not do that.” I just ignore that. Because they always do in the end. No one has ever flat-out refused and told me no when it comes down to it. Which may be something I should factor into my personal relationship issues, but that’s a different article. The Set-Up: This typically works best when you ask a grown-up to have REALLY BIG ARMS and hug everyone at the same time. Sometimes this requires encouragement and you have to think of yourself as a little hugging cheerleader. When I have to do this, I am just grateful that there is no one videoing my crazy hand motions and the way my voice gets squeaky.





My goal for each shoot is to do something random that I have never done before. When doing this, don’t over think it. It will work or it won’t; those are the only two options. If it works, great! You have a new idea. If it doesn’t work, great!

Now you know to never try that again and hopefully no one was sent to the emergency room in the process. The Set-Up: This is a good time to really shoot for the moon, knowing that it’s nothing more than a bonus. It honestly could be anything. Be brave and ask for something new—you’ll know pretty quickly if it’s going to work and there is nothing wrong with it not working—just know to move on.

These ideas, as with any type of lifestyle photography posing are about the reaction, not the concept itself. Shooting digitally allows us the ability to shoot constantly; keep the expectation open and allow the moment to play for itself. And have a funny song in your back pocket just in case.

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Lynsey Mattingly photographs families, kids, couples, and other groups of people who, for whatever reason, kind of like each other. Her portrait work has been featured in People Magazine, Us Weekly, BBC Magazine, and on national TV including CNN, Oprah, and Ellen, but most importantly, in the personal galleries of clients across the country. Her photography can be viewed at www.lynseymattingly.com or on Facebook.

Some Older Comments

  • Myles August 30, 2013 06:08 am

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  • Natarajan Ganesan August 9, 2013 06:38 am

    Great tips, great shots. Some of them just winners.

  • Tessa Dewsbury June 19, 2013 04:59 pm

    Wonderful, inspirational, practical schooling...I can't wait to get out there and try some of your tips. Thanks for sharing your talent and skills.

  • Lynsey Peterson June 15, 2013 09:05 am

    Thank you so much for the kind words and I'm so glad if this was a little helpful. :)

    Trish---couples "unposed" posing is probably it's own article, but I do a lot of the same stuff to be honest.

    Melissa, I hate shooting with a tripod. It feels like an anchor and not in a good way. But, totally just personal preference. I don't think maybe candid portrait shooters probably use a tripod. Lens is again just personal preference. I like a fixed because I think zoom should be my feet. :) Prime lenses in my opinion tend to be sharper.

  • Melissa Frey June 11, 2013 08:18 pm

    Great article. I'm about to shoot my first family portrait on the beach. Would you recommend a tripod? Were the pictures in this article taken with a tripod? Also, how size lens would be best? A fixed or a wide angle? I have a 10-24 or a 40mm.

  • Michael June 11, 2013 03:08 pm

    As well, true candid photography always sells better than posed. Everyone sees themselves in the mirror most every day. People would prefer to see themselves as others see them. It's only natural. I am retired now but I always used to tell a client never to look at me unless I ask them. I would also gather groups together as though preparing for a pose. I then walk away as if to get into position to shoot. Since I haven't posed them yet they are somewhat organized but not all in a row and standing tall. That's when I turn and take the shot. That was when I shot with film. You take some chances but that first candid shot usually goes well. Especially if you can get a startled look by making an alerting sound. Works great. Even better now with digital. Just shoot.

  • Megansacow June 10, 2013 07:31 am

    These are gorgeous, thanks so much for your article. I refuse to do portraits, but these images are making me want to have a go :)

  • Terry June 9, 2013 05:18 am

    Outstanding photos, the kind that make you smile at all these strangers. There's a kinship in spontaneity, everyone relates to everyone in their own way, accepting each just as they are...thank you much for taking the time to post and share well taken encouragement. Take care-

  • D Settle June 8, 2013 09:20 am

    Great ideas. Thanks for sharing. Best regards.

  • Debs June 7, 2013 10:04 pm

    These are great photos.. I am still learning and understand that it's important for eyes being focused,there are some good ones in this set.. What kind of Apreture wud you use to get all,eyes in focus

  • Trish June 7, 2013 10:02 pm

    Lovely set of photos

  • Yvonne June 7, 2013 06:41 pm

    Thank you for super great ideas Your photos are stunning

  • Debs June 7, 2013 05:55 pm

    These are fantastic photos all with a feeling of .. Feeling alive I am still learning I notice some group photos all eyes seem sharp, what Apreture would you need for this, as I been told always get the eyes in focus..

    Fantastic article.. Thank you for sharing..

  • Natalie13 June 7, 2013 09:28 am

    Thank you for sharing this article. I am doing a photoshoot next weekend with my sister-in-law's family. They have a three year old and a 7 month old so you have provided me with some great ideas for the day.

  • Simon June 7, 2013 08:20 am

    Great article. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas. I really love the way you write.
    Your photos are awesome and you have really inspired me!

  • Doc Taylor June 7, 2013 05:52 am

    Terrific piece. Gave me lots of good ideas--but the best idea is staying loose and creative, and having a sense of whimsy and humor.

    This one is really two articles: The photos speak for themselves.

  • Juan June 7, 2013 05:14 am

    Unposed is the way to go. Nice post and pictures, specially the last three.

  • Ashish June 7, 2013 04:50 am

    An interesting and inspiring article for those who believe in unposed clicks than the posed ones... For me as someone whom the shutterbug has bitten just recently, this article and the photos have increased my curiosity in this new-found interest..

  • Trish Gregory (Tarpon Springs, FL) June 7, 2013 02:30 am

    The family shots were wonderful. But what about couples? Do you have any advice for photographing just two people?

  • Lynsey Peterson June 6, 2013 11:08 am

    I'm so glad it was helpful! Ruth, I can't offer you fly on the wall, but I can offer you this video which is sort of a behind the scenes look at one of my shoots and also shows the final images. It's a few years old, but still sort of fun. :)


  • Ruth Blazer June 6, 2013 10:45 am

    Thanks for sharing your great ideas! I'd love to be a fly on the wall during one of your shoots...

  • Judy Royal Glenn June 6, 2013 10:41 am

    Great suggestions:) Thanks!

  • Joan Gray June 6, 2013 10:02 am

    I LOVE this article! Thank you for the great ideas ~ looks like relaxed, fun shooting! Easy on the families and less stress for everyone. Well done!

  • Jim B June 6, 2013 05:07 am

    Great advice in this article and I really appreciate it. But I do take issue with some of the sample photos. The photos under "surprise attack" bother me. I understand it's about spontaneity, but there's one face in each shot that is not visible. Unless it's clearly intentional, as in the first picture under "randomness" (which would be my favorite photo if mom's face was in focus and not the top of heads), it just doesn't work. It looks like sloppy photography.

  • sillyxone June 5, 2013 05:42 am

    This is brilliant! I love candid shots as they are natural, and each photo has its own context and memory. When my little one is at a studio, I always use this technique to distract her from "unnatural posing", let her act naturally, and the photographer just snapped away, but I've never thought about applying it myself when I take pictures.

    Since I take pictures of my family and relatives most of the time, I think I should push it further: hide the camera, talk them into doing something silly then snap the pictures unexpectedly. Somehow I still hate some of the pictures above how the parents stare into the camera; those "big anime" eyes look tired and unnatural. I guess it's quite straightforward to tell if they're still somewhat "posing".

  • Prashanth June 5, 2013 03:49 am

    I am learning and you are making it very interesting ....

  • Satesh June 4, 2013 09:39 pm

    Brilliant article. Thank you.

  • Cramer Imaging June 4, 2013 05:19 am

    Thanks for the suggestions. You have given me some great ideas for my portrait work. Some of those are amazing shots. I've been observing lately that you can really capture the essence of who people are if they're not posing or they think you're done with the shutter and start up conversations. These are some other great ideas to capturing who people really are. Great post.

  • Scott Madrigal June 4, 2013 04:45 am

    Thank you so much for this post! It's a great strategy and telling by the pictures you posted, one that works VERY well!

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer June 4, 2013 03:48 am

    The upside down boy getting kissed by siblings is a good idea and a fun shot. Unposed-posing is a good term to use because if you truly tell your portrait clients nothing about what to do, even ones who claim they want "candid" shots, then you will end up with nothing probably...some posing instruction has to be given. Of course it helps if the family has personality too.

    In this post I shared a variety of candid and posed-unposed family beach portraits ranging from a single family to their entire 12-person extended family (the client wanted the mid-afternoon shoot time rather than the usual sunset time):