Family portraits are not just images. They are memories that will remain with us for a long time. With this in mind, a family photoshoot is a big responsibility for a photographer and can lead to some stressful situations.
However, when you know certain tricks, a family photoshoot becomes fun and enjoyable. They are a great opportunity to take photos that convey lots of love and joy.
I have put together 12 Dos and Don’ts that will help you successfully start with family portrait photography.
1. DO Tell Them What to Do
If your clients are enjoying themselves, you’ll have a higher chance of beautiful family photos. You might find a family that is experienced in photo shoots and who like posing in front of the camera. But it is not common.
Posing is not a natural thing for most people. Some of the family members (if not all of them) might feel a bit uncomfortable. This discomfort will appear in the photo and make it look fake.
Instead of directing and ordering them to pose, organise the session and plan things for them to do: walk, run, dance, play, lean on a wall, hide behind a tree and peek from the sides, hug each other, make shapes, play games etc.
Take candid photos while the family is having fun. Your images will look beautiful and will also remind them of the great time they spent together.
2.Do NOT Pose Your Clients Facing the Sun
If you can, avoid having the family looking towards the sun or strong light sources. A lot of people still believe that taking photos with the sun at the back of the subject is not right.
You might think that posing with the sun in front of them offers more light, but the end results can be extremely unflattering. Ugly shadows will appear under their eyebrows, nose and neck.
On top of that, the family will be annoyed by the light shinning into their eyes. They will either close their eyes or squint until the torture is over. To avoid all this, just have them turn around.
When it comes to settings, pay attention to exposure. Take into account the backlight entering into your sensor. If you are shooting in semi-automatic mode, one trick is to meter the image using Matrix Metering (in the case of Nikon. Evaluative Metering for Canon cameras). Then overexpose 0.3 steps.
For Manual shooting, you can meter the light using the spot metering on the family. In both cases the family will be well exposed and the background overexposed.
But as the important thing here is the family, a slightly burnt background is a fair price to pay for avoiding photos with the eyes closed.
3. DO Communicate With Your Clients
Most families don’t pose for professional photos often. They are not used to it and might feel a bit awkward. If you want natural looking family photos, besides the technical aspects of photography, you should also take special care to make them feel comfortable with you.
I play and talk with the kids as much as I can. With the adults, I start a conversation about random subjects until I find something they like and we go from there. I avoid potentially stressful subjects such as politics or job situation. I prefer talking about travelling, holidays or hobbies.
I also make it clear that if they don’t like a pose or they feel strange doing something, then they don’t have to do it. All they need to do is say the word and we’ll do something else.
Knowing that they are in control and won’t be forced to pose one way or another builds trust and makes them more comfortable. Establishing a good relationship is important because you are a stranger to them. And they need to show intimate and personal moments and feelings in front of you.
4. Do NOT Forget the Surroundings
Before pressing the shutter release of your camera you need to take care of a lot of things: composition, camera settings for the right exposure, check that your models are feeling fine, etc.
It’s easy to forget that there are other things you need to be aware of. For example, if you are at the beach, you don’t want them to get their shoes wet by a sudden wave. Or you can’t tell them to move backwards without checking first if they are going to collide with something.
It is good to get used to always paying attention to the environment. Then it gets natural to do it.
5. DO Tell the Family How to Pose
There’s always that chance that a family of three will understand your posing directions in four different ways. If this happens, the situation can turn into a mess. Each person would be doing a different thing.
To avoid this, simplify your instructions and try to make them as precise and clear as you can. Use your body to show how to pose, where to stand and so on. You can even go ahead and demonstrate poses yourself first if you can.
I always show my clients how to lean against the wall by doing it myself first
If you need to add instructions, use short sentences and reference objects instead of direction. Avoid “to the right” or “to the left”. Your clients won’t know if you are talking about your right or their right. Instead, you can refer to objects that you have around: “Turn towards the tree”, “Look at the sea”, etc.
6. Do NOT Go Overboard With Editing
Family photos are meant to last for a long time. They are the type of images that we want to keep and check years later or show to the grandkids.
For that reason I recommend you don’t apply trendy editing styles and effects. These will probably look weird or unappealing twenty years down the line. Your aim is to create timeless images. Stick to classic editing styles and simplicity.
This doesn’t mean you can’t add a personal touch, but before finishing the editing ask yourself if you will like this photo 20 years from now. If the answer is yes, perfect! If not, try to simplify the editing.
7. DO Keep an Open Mind About the Results
This is especially true if you are working with kids in the family photo session. You might have a list of photos to take that, in your brain, work really well.
But if the family doesn’t like them so much or the kids feel like doing something else, you should adjust to the situation. It is always better to take a beautiful unplanned photo showing a happy family than a forced one where you can see they are feeling uncomfortable.
8. Do NOT Take Just One Photo
Every photographer knows the terrible feeling of taking a group photo just to later realise there’s something wrong in the photo. Someone had their eyes closed or otherwise wasn’t ready for the picture to be taken.
For that reason, in case of family photography, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Taking several photos increases your chances that at least one will have everyone coordinated.
You can set the camera to shoot in burst mode to take a sequence of images, just like in a sporting event. Remember to adjust the shutter speed to avoid unwanted blurriness due to movements. Something around 1/250 sec is a good starting point for this type of action.
9. DO Use the Environment
It is not unusual to feel a bit weird posing in front of a camera in the middle of a park or a street. When it comes to outdoor family photos, you can use anything around to help them get over any initial awkwardness.
You can tell them to lean on a tree or a wall, sit on a bench or even on the floor (first make sure that it is clean enough). Keep an eye out for any natural frames, which will add a bit more to the composition of the image.
10. Do NOT Set Your Aperture Value too Low
Portraits have a special vibe when you manage to get your models sharp and the background blurry. You can create this effect by setting a low aperture value (a small f). Using an aperture around 2.8, will give you a beautiful blur. Check our article on creating beautiful bokeh background or achieving beautiful motion blur.
However, there’s a risk to it. If your models move, they might be partially or completely out of focus. This is true also for specific body parts on the same person. If your model looks to the side, one eye could be in focus while the other is blurry.
In this family portrait I like the effect created by using a small f value. However, it doesn’t always work so well. You need to be aware and decide if you want somebody in the image to appear blurry or not and adjust the f value accordingly.
If you want the whole family to appear sharp in the photo, you might need to increase the aperture number. You might not get the background blur effect as strongly as you wanted, but everybody in the family will come out sharp.
11. DO Offer Family Photo Outfit Advice
One of the most common questions before the photo sessions is “What should we wear?”. The idea is that all the family members should look coordinated to convey a feeling of togetherness.
This doesn’t mean they have to be dressed in identical clothes. It means wearing the same style of clothes: all of them looking casual, or all of them wearing elegant clothes and with similar colours or shades.
I always recommend they wear natural shades and avoid bright colours that stand out. The person wearing it will catch all the attention in the photo (unless this is what you want).
The same can happen with big illustrations on T-shirts, that are quite eye-catching too. Unless it adds to the photo, I would avoid them.
12. DO Meet at a Convenient Time for the Kids
This might complicate the organisation process, but respecting the natural rhythm of the kids makes it totally worth it. Tired, sleepy or hungry kids are difficult to handle. It is almost impossible to have them cooperate or even make them look happy for the photo.
I usually try to combine a good time for the kids and a frame of time with beautiful light. This means that sometimes I arrange the photo sessions early in the morning. Kids are awake, just had breakfast, and I can use the morning golden hour.
But each family is different and their schedules will be different, so I adjust the photo session to each one.
With family photoshoots, you need to show both your best technical and social skills. You have to adjust camera settings to get a good exposure, learn how to use backlight and natural light, adjust the depth of field to get the desired effects and so on.
However, above all, you need to make the family feel comfortable to show their love for each other.
If you keep all these points in mind your family photos will surely become wonderful family memories.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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