back to top

How to Take Documentary Family Photography

Documentary family photography is authentic, real, and allows you as the photographer to be as creative as possible.

It also gives your clients photos that really show the dynamic of their family. The kids’ shenanigans, the adults’ laughter, and so much more.
A documentary family photography shot of a mother and son

What Is Documentary Family Photography

I like to think of documentary style photography as letting go of my preconceived notions of perfection. I’m documenting people and families in their natural environment. Being or doing what they do on any given day.
I find that by approaching family photography in a documentary fashion, I am able to have a richer photoshoot experience. My clients love the fact that there is no pressure on them to ‘perform’ in a way that is not natural to their family dynamics.

1. Understand the Family Dynamics

It is very important to understand family dynamics before the photoshoot. This goes beyond the typical questions about the names and ages of the kids.
Try to understand likes and dislikes. If there are young children involved, get to know the personalities of the kids as individuals, and with their siblings.
Is the family casual and easy going, or do they like formal, traditional posed pictures?
Just because they like a particular style of imagery does not mean you have to stick to that. But incorporate what they want first, then feel free to experiment.

A documentary family photography shot of 5 people and 2 dogs in relaxed and natural pose
With three kids over the age of 25, my client wanted documentary family photography that captured them as a family. So we got down on the grass and played with the pups. Everyone got involved and I was able to capture family photos that really spoke to them as a family.

2. How to Prepare Your Clients for the Photo Shoot

Have a consultation with the family at some point before the shoot.This can be over a few emails, a phone call, or an in person meeting at a coffee shop.
Address things like what the family will wear. Use a service like Pinterest to create a board for the family to look at for suggestions on how they might dress. Ask what time of day would be the best for them. And what they’re looking to get out of the shoot (i.e., candids, headshots, or a holiday card).
Send out an email a day or two before their appointment with the time, date, and place of the session. Provide a checklist reminding them to make sure the kids are fed and they pack any essentials with them.
Depending on the season, your checklist will change. For example, knit hat reminders in winter and sunscreen and water in the summer.
A family shoot will never go perfectly. But making sure the family is prepared will make things go as smoothly as possible.

A Documentary Family Photography shoot featuring a young boy on a couch reading
I like the feeling of this photo. The little boy on a big sofa surrounded by his toys – a documentary approach to family photos.

Sometimes documentary family photoshoots happen in the client’s home. In this case make sure the client is prepared for all eventualities.
Encourage the client to clean up as needed. While I don’t want a spotless kitchen and home, dishes in the sink or dirty laundry on the floor are distracting.

3. How to Capture Those Iconic Family Moments

Being present in every moment of every day is a life lesson we all can benefit from. It doesn’t just apply to documentary family photography.
Great moments happen every day around us that are worth documenting. Not just for our clients but also for ourselves so that we can live a richer, fuller life.
People watching is a great exercise in training your eye to really catch that which is unusual and unique to a family and place.
It is not uncommon for documentary family photos to be longer in duration than traditional family photos. Spend sometime getting to know the family and their mannerisms before you start clicking away.

A sweet documentary Family Photo of two young children hugging
We were almost done with the shoot and I turned around and saw this. I knew I had to document this cute moment between this brother-sister duo!

4. How to Structure the Photo Shoot

Trust me, this is key and will ensure you maintain your sanity during the family photoshoot. Have a plan of action.
Just because documentary family photoshoots are longer and less formal (at times), doesn’t mean they have to be unstructured. I make it a point to spend the first five minutes of every session telling my clients what they can expect.
The first few minutes is warmup time – testing the light, figuring out the right lens, etc.
I let my clients know what I’m doing, and many times, I get a lot of beautiful images during this time. Clients are much more relaxed if they think these first few minutes don’t really count.
Then we incorporate an activity like walking along a path, climbing a tree, or playing in the park. And I photograph around that activity. Finally we just sit down to enjoy each other’s company.
This not only lets the clients know exactly how we are going to spend our time but also helps keep me in check.
Because let’s face it, for most of us, once we start clicking that shutter, it is so easy to loose track of time!

A documentary family photography shot of a group of five with a dog posing outdoors
I include play time, family time, serious time and classic portraits in all my documentary family photos. You never know what photos you will get at the end of it all.

5. How to Make the Session Fun

This is a critical part of capturing connections among family members during the documentary family photoshoot.
For family portraits with little kids, try techniques like tickle-fest, blowing bubbles, or rocking out those dance moves. These and other such methods to get the kids in the spirit of having fun. If kids are a little older, try cracking jokes.
Bring some basic props if required and let the kids play. Photograph around the activity and capture candid moments of family interactions.
If all else fails, it is okay to set up the shot and work the family into the pose. Give them proper direction on what your end shot is going to be. And make sure to keep clicking so that you can get some candid photos through out the whole process.

7. Embrace the Outtakes

As photographers we want every photo to be a masterpiece – perfect light, natural expressions, everyone looking at the camera.
But sometimes the best photos that you wind up taking are the most ridiculous. A boy with his hand up his nose, a brother embracing his crying sister, or one sibling looking at the other with a crazy face.
Don’t stop shooting just because the kids aren’t cooperating for a moment, or the parents are chasing them around. Sometimes these situations can lend to the funniest and most memorable shots.
Remember that families that play together, stay together. Your job as a photographer is to capture these family dynamics in a fun and pleasing way.
If your clients have a great time during the shoot, it is more than likely that they will love your images. They will remember the experience in a positive light.

A cute and natural documentary family photography shot of two boys posing outdoors
Because a JCrew outtake never gets out of style – a perfect way to document cousins who are totally into fashion.

6. How to Set Goals for Your Photoshoot

It is unrealistic to expect that your clients will love each and every family photo you take during your documentary family photoshoot.
Documentary style is all about capturing real authentic interactions as they occur. Sometimes kids will cry, sometimes dad will be a bit upset.
If you click through these, the family may not like these images.
Your job is to click documentay family photos that reflect the true family dynamics and moments in the family’s life. Set the right expectations with the family and with yourself on what your end goals are.
Be real about why you are photographing in this style and what you want to gain out of each family photoshoot experience.

7. What Gear Should You Use

Packing for any sort of photoshoot is an art in itself. Documentary style family photography requires a different mindset in terms of gear than travel or portrait photography.
I find that for documentary style family photography a zoom lens like the ultra-wide angle focal length like the Canon 16-35mm f/4 or one like the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 works well for me.
While a fast lens is ideal, I don’t usually find myself photographing at an aperture lower than f/4 or f/5.6. More often than not, I have more than one subject in the scene and also want to capture some of the background in order to provide content to the shot.

8. Don’t Shoot at Maximum FPS and Hope for the Best

Documentary style family photography is generally quite fast paced. You are trying to capture a scene as it is playing out in front of you.
You might not have the time or the opportunity to re-compose the shot exactly and then click the shutter. Even if you ask the family to recreate that scene or action, it is not going to be exactly the same. Documentary style photography is more candid than staged.
However, this does not mean that you have to just fire away at the maximum fps (frames per second). And then pick the best of the lot in post-processing.
Use your technical as well as artistic skills to read the scene, analyze the light, assess the right camera settings, imagine the outcome, anticipate the shot and then take the picture. And bear in mind that you will not likely get a re-do.

A documentary family photography shot of a large group in relaxed and natural pose
I know the kind of photos I want with every documentary style family photoshoot and communicating them ahead of time with my client makes sure everyone is on the same page.

Conclusion

I hope these tips convey my love for documentary style family photography and do not scare you away from it. This style of photography has its own charm.
It may appear to be highly unplanned and random, it is a good balance between planning and authenticity. Give it a try the next time you have a family photoshoot and see the results for yourself.
For more great tips, check out our post on lifestyle photography!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

[type='text']
[type='text']
[type='password']
[type='password']
[activeKey]
[activeKey]
['rmockx.RealPlayer G2 Control', 'rmocx.RealPlayer G2 Control.1', 'RealPlayer.RealPlayer(tm) ActiveX Control (32-bit)', 'RealVideo.RealVideo(tm) ActiveX Control (32-bit)', 'RealPlayer']
['rmockx.RealPlayer G2 Control', 'rmocx.RealPlayer G2 Control.1', 'RealPlayer.RealPlayer(tm) ActiveX Control (32-bit)', 'RealVideo.RealVideo(tm) ActiveX Control (32-bit)', 'RealPlayer']
[index]
[index]
[i]
[i]
[type='text']
[type='text']
[type='password']
[type='password']
[activeKey]
[activeKey]
['rmockx.RealPlayer G2 Control', 'rmocx.RealPlayer G2 Control.1', 'RealPlayer.RealPlayer(tm) ActiveX Control (32-bit)', 'RealVideo.RealVideo(tm) ActiveX Control (32-bit)', 'RealPlayer']
['rmockx.RealPlayer G2 Control', 'rmocx.RealPlayer G2 Control.1', 'RealPlayer.RealPlayer(tm) ActiveX Control (32-bit)', 'RealVideo.RealVideo(tm) ActiveX Control (32-bit)', 'RealPlayer']
[index]
[index]
[i]
[i]
[type='text']
[type='text']
[type='password']
[type='password']
[activeKey]
[activeKey]
['rmockx.RealPlayer G2 Control', 'rmocx.RealPlayer G2 Control.1', 'RealPlayer.RealPlayer(tm) ActiveX Control (32-bit)', 'RealVideo.RealVideo(tm) ActiveX Control (32-bit)', 'RealPlayer']
['rmockx.RealPlayer G2 Control', 'rmocx.RealPlayer G2 Control.1', 'RealPlayer.RealPlayer(tm) ActiveX Control (32-bit)', 'RealVideo.RealVideo(tm) ActiveX Control (32-bit)', 'RealPlayer']
[index]
[index]
[i]
[i]