How to Photograph Family Portraits

Of all things photography I love photographing family portraits. For me, family portraiture is generally more flexible than any other type of photography, and it gives me lots of opportunities to express my creativity. If you are thinking about getting into family portraiture or perhaps someone asked you to photograph their family, you might not know where to start and how to plan it all out. In this article, I will talk about photographing family portraits and provide some tips on simple things you can do to come back with photos that the family will treasure for years to come.

Family Portraits

1) Communication

It goes without saying that communication is key in people photography. From the day you receive the first e-mail from the client, make sure that you stay continuously engaged. Respond to inquiries promptly and keep your clients informed at all times, especially on any potential schedule changes. Portrait sessions are not weddings and there is always a chance that your client might forget when and where the photo shoot is supposed to take place. Therefore, put some reminders in your calendar to notify your client several days in advance about the upcoming session. I typically remind my clients about a week in advance via email, phone or Facebook first, then send another reminder the day before the session. If my client does not respond, I call them and make sure that they get my message. Effective communication is important for a busy pro, because the schedule can get packed very quickly. Rescheduling a missed photo shoot can get costly, especially if you have that one weekend day planned for a family outing.

Photographing Family Portraits

2) Ideas for photographing family portraits

Every time you book a new family portrait session, do your best to get to know your client first. Your goal should be to create something unique and memorable, which might not only result in a long term relationship, but will also result in lots of future referrals. And speaking of referrals, pretty much every family I photographed was a result of a referral – I have never advertised my photography services anywhere. By “unique”, I do not mean your photography style or technique – I am talking about bringing out the uniqueness of each family. In the course of your communication with them, find out more about their interests and hobbies. If they hired you as a photographer, it means that this family cares about memories, their children and their relationship with each other. Take it further to the next step and finely incorporate their everyday traits, hobbies and lifestyle into the photo session. Throw this idea to the family and give them some time to think about it. Often, if not every time, my clients come back with fun ideas for the their shoot and we pick up from there to work on the logistics.

If the family enjoys fishing, go to a nearby lake with some fishing rods and snap away while they have a blast. If they enjoy reading, have them pick their favorite books for some fun snaps. These kinds of things won’t take much of your time, but they will create great moments. After-all, people are most comfortable when they engage in something they love doing.

Family Portraiture

Family Portrait Tips

3) Working with a timeline

Just like any other photo session, you will need to work within a certain timeline. If you are a studio photographer, the time of the day might not matter. But if you are a natural light photographer, considering the ideal time of the day is very important in my opinion. Sure, you can use flashes, diffusers and other equipment to balance harsh sunlight and open up shadows on your subjects’ faces. But I personally wouldn’t trade soft, natural light with artificial light. Not when equipment takes time to set up, plan and perhaps even require an assistant. Why not shoot early in the morning or late in the afternoon instead, when light is softer much easier to control? Best times obviously change with seasons and geographic locations. Those of us that live near the south or north poles can enjoy a full day of shooting during Summer Solstice. Here in Colorado, USA, timing changes significantly with each season and is pretty easy to determine. For example, during the summer months, I offer my clients two different times – early in the morning from 6:30-8:30 AM (close to sunrise) and late in the afternoon from 6:30-8:30 PM (close to sunset). During winter months, this timeline can shift quite a bit, with morning sessions starting at 8-10 AM and later in the afternoon between 4-6 PM.

As for the length of the session, I usually aim for 1-2 hours max. Anything longer is too tiring for the family, especially if there are smaller kids involved.

Family Portraiture Tips

How to Photograph Families

4) Wardrobe selection

Many of my clients ask for my suggestions when it comes to clothing / wardrobe selection, so be prepared to give them some guidance. First and foremost, you want your clients to be comfortable in whatever they choose to wear. Advise your clients to wear something that matches their personality but is not too matchy-matchy with the rest of the family. Remember, that if your clients look good, they will feel confident. Confidence shows in the photos! I personally love pastel colors and I am biased towards marigold, peach, fuchsia pink, jade green, aqua and violet colors. I also tend to recommend my clients to avoid wearing clothing with writings/logos and too much texture – basically anything that is too distracting.

Depending on the overall idea for the session, I typically recommend my clients to choose one classic and one casual attire. I ask my clients to wear the classic clothing at the beginning of the session. However much you try to plan to make things easy for your clients, the first 30 minutes of your session will be slightly tense and, well, formal! This is the time to take all “serious” photos out of the way. As your clients start easing up and getting used to you as an intruder with a camera (paparazzi anyone?) you can slowly let them ease into their fun mode and change into their more relaxing outfits.

Photographing Families

Photographing Family Tips

5) Location for the photo session

As much as the idea of choosing the location for the session sounds lucrative and easy for you, I would recommend considering what your clients might offer location-wise. Get their input about their favorite spots and advise them throughout your conversation if certain locations may not fit for what you are planning. Scout / check out those locations and give your verdict. If the location your client chose is not in par with what you are planning, suggest a different location. Typically I suggest locations that have large shaded areas with beautiful trees and a location which has an open area for little children to run around. Local parks can be great for these sessions, but if you choose to shoot in a state park or other government property, make sure to obtain a permit in advance. You definitely do not want to be kicked out or potentially fined during a photo shoot, as it will leave a very negative impression with your client.

Family Portraits Tutorial

Photographing Family Portraiture

6) Accessories

I talked a little about this earlier, so let me expand on it. There is nothing worse than having a group of 5 people standing there and not knowing what to do. Aside from posing my clients, my biggest help in these instances is to give them something to do! The idea is to make them feel like they are in their own backyards and give them accessories close to their hobbies and lifestyle. For example, I’ve head a pleasure of photographing a beautiful family who liked playing chess and reading books. While these might sound very ordinary, the idea behind it is to bring out the uniqueness of every family who plays those games in their own ways. Your job is to play a photojournalist and shoot away the laughter, the quirkiness the awkwardness and all the fun moments this family has.

One more thing. If the family session will include elderly people, think ahead and make sure you cater to their comfort, too. Take a couple of folding chairs with you – sometimes those come in handy when grandpas and grandmas get tired!

Photographing Family Portraits Tutorial

7) Photographing groups

Most likely, you will photograph all family members as a group at some point during your session. Before you take on this task, make sure that your camera settings are correct to cover the whole group. The last thing you want is to have a group photo with a couple of people in focus and the rest out of focus, a completely blurry photo or a photo with many closed eyes. Remember, group photos are the typical candidates for those large framed photos on a wall, so you want to make sure that you capture them perfectly.

One of the biggest requests from our readers at Photography Life, is to provide tips on group portraits. While I won’t go into this subject in too much detail (we will provide a separate article on how to take group photos), here are some handy tips for you that I personally use all the time:

  1. Try not to use long focal lengths at short distances for group shots, since you will need a lot of depth of field, especially for multi-row group portraits. That lovely 70-200mm lens of yours might need to be changed to a wider lens. When you go wide, try not to go too wide. A super wide angle lens will distort your subjects like crazy, especially the ones near the corner of the frame. There is no general recommendation for a particular focal length, because there are too many factors involved, such as the size of the group, headshot vs whole body shot, camera to subject distance, etc. Generally, the larger the group, the wider you will go. My personal favorite for group shots is a mid-range lens like 24-70mm.
  2. If your group can be fit in a single row, make sure to place all subjects on the same plane / line right across from the camera, parallel to the camera. This will ensure that everyone in your shot is within the depth of field, so everyone will be in focus. When taking pictures, ask the group to stay within the defined line. Don’t do those circular arrangements, because you will need a lot of depth of field to cover that much distance.
  3. Ask everyone to get close to each other. You do not want to end up with large gaps in your shots.
  4. Make sure to monitor your shutter speed. If your aperture is too small, something like f/16, your shutter speed will suffer and will introduce motion blur and camera shake. I try to keep my shutter speed reasonably fast, something like 1/100th of a second (depending on the focal length). As a rule of thumb, your shutter speed should be equal to or faster than your focal length (see Nasim’s article on exposure basics if you have trouble understanding this). Nikon’s new DSLRs have excellent Auto ISO capabilities that automatically take into account the focal length, so you can control your shutter speed by using Auto ISO and tuning it to your needs.
  5. Try not to go high on ISO speed, since it might introduce too much noise to your photos. I like to set mine to ISO 100 for base value and 1600-3200 for max ISO on full-frame digital cameras. Sometimes even 3200 is too noisy for my taste, so I tend to stay in the 100-1600 ISO range.
  6. Make sure to snap photos with everyone’s eyes open. You can utilize a couple of techniques to make this happen. I mostly ask everyone to close their eyes and open them right after I say three. I loudly count till three and right at three I click away. You can shoot multiple frames in continuous release mode and fix the blinkies during post processing, but if you have the ability to get it right in the camera, do so.

Of all things, have fun with your clients!

Tips on Photographing Family

Tips on Photographing Families

If you have any other things that you want to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.


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Avatar of Lola Elise About Lola Elise

is a professional wedding and portrait photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. She is the co-author of Photography Life and author of the Lola Elise website. Read more about Lola here.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) emad

    wow beautiful photos, im going to read now

  2. very beautiful portraits! Good advise for my next family shooting!
    Thomas

  3. 3
    ) sylvester

    Lola ! Thanks a lot for sharing it. Worth reading.

    • You are most welcome Sylvester!

  4. Thank you Lola! This post couldn’t come at better time. Love your photos and the great tips you youve pointed out.

    • Thank you for your feedback Fernando :)

      • 34
        ) kaushik

        thanks

  5. 5
    ) John Adams

    Like many amateur photographers, I find the majority of my pictures are focused on people. In the people category, the majority are of my family. Any future articles with tips about shooting family candids (children playing, family holidays, birthday parties, etc.) would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, Lola.

  6. 6
    ) Dave Culpin

    Great article. Clear and concise – a bit like the photos! Love the picture with the books.

    • Thank you Dave, appreciate the feedback

  7. 7
    ) Mark

    Love all of your portraits. Every one of them is full of the personalities of the subjects.

    • Thank you Mark, I have to give credit to my lovely subjects – they have all been phenomenal to work with!

  8. 8
    ) Jason

    Thanks for this great article, this is the type of information is so very helpful for those of us that normally photograph inanimate objects!

    Warm regards

    • You are most welcome Jason and I am glad that you found the article useful.

  9. 17
    ) Ryano

    Hi Lola, very nice article and photos.

    Your photos are great and have crystal clear clarity. Could you please give a tip on how you pp the photos to get that clarity?

    I use Nikon d800, 24-70, 70-200 vr2, shoot raw and pp with photoshop cs6 and never get that kind of clarity.

    Thanks.

    • Hi Ryano,

      It does look like the photos got some heavyish post prod. With some saturation boost , contrast and such.
      (I do like to boost the whites and lower the blacks for a similar effect )

      But you can tell that the exposition and white balance is spot on. I really love those pics

      Cheers

  10. Hi Madame Elise

    Thanks for sharing !!
    Lovely photos !
    They are very inspiring

    But it seems odd for a tutorial on “how to” that we don’t have any infos on your settings and lens infos on each photos… It would be so instructive

    Cheers from France

    • Duncan, we always provide that info in EXIF data of each image :)

      • Thanks for your answer Nasim,

        So i have to use firefox and download that addon thingy and then click right and select read the Exif Data….. such a hassle for a few words under a picture…. Maybe I’m the only one here without this knowledge of Exif data but it does seem like a pain… Can you tell me the reason for this ?

        And I didn’t even mention the person who are viewing this article on an Ipad or such…. I don’t think that it will work…

        Thanks for your time

      • 35
        ) SweetNana55

        Nasim, Thank you so much for enlightening me with the info on EXIF data. I usually use Chrome for my browser, but also have Firefox installed. It was so easy to install the EXIF data reader following the info on your link. It only took a second and the info it provides is priceless. That’s way more info than you would ever want to type as a caption, and why should you when so much is readily available? I now feel empowered and look forward to using this new (to me) tool as I explore the web for photos that I love.

  11. I’m in the middle of stablishing myself as a family/children photographer and I enjoyed every word of this post!

  12. Thank you very much for sharing, Lola!

  13. 24
    ) Sundar Anupindi

    I follow your website regularly. If you can post along with the pictures along with the Picture details like the ISO, Shutter speed, Lens, Camera used.

  14. 25
    ) Kumar Dosi

    Absolutely love the first picture and others as well. However (and I am from a different part of the world), I feel the colours are a tad saturated… Thanks for sharing your insights.

  15. 26
    ) Roberto Aguirre

    Thanks for your tips! This is in my opinion a tremendous article and help me a
    lot. Sometimes we just forgot these kind of rules for portraits.

  16. 27
    ) Silkway

    i think family photos is best shining at full frame cameras with tiny depth of field

    also its idea is like a psychologist

    coz if family see their happy photos – relationship may become better

    so good family photos is key to good family relationships

  17. This article is absolutely great. This guide in taking family photos are incredible and so helpful. It really takes so much to consider in capturing the perfect moments of the family. Thanks for sharing all these wonderful ideas in photography.

  18. 29
    ) Tonio

    Excuse my nitpicking but surely the title is wrong. It’s how to take family portraits or how to photograph families. Photographing portraits is a rather dull technical undertaking.

  19. 30
    ) karen chase

    These are great ideas, I love the creativity! My family and I have been thinking about getting family portraits done for my grandmother’s birthday. I thought they’d be expensive, but Glamour Shots prices are reasonably priced. I’ll definitely be taking these tips into consideration.

  20. 31
    ) Immy

    Thank you Lola! Your instruction is effective and most valued- God bless you :-)

  21. 32
    ) Claus

    This is very inspirational. I truly appreciate the practical aspect of this and the many other articles on your website. I have a couple of questions:
    1) I have been “afraid” of using F/2.8 when I shoot more than one person – unless they are positioned right next to each other (in the focal plane). I see that you use a lot of 2.8 and 1.8 in your shots. Why is it that I tend to get one of the subjects all blurry? I see that you are using (your bellowed :-)) 50mm. Could it be because I often use 85 or 135mm?
    2) Where do you normally focus. I assume on one eye on one of the subjects – do you have any “tricks” or recommendations or perhaps even “golden rules” you can share?

    Thank you so much for making photography “accessible” for the rest of us!!

  22. 33
    ) nagi

    hi..where would i focus in taking a family portrait?

  23. 36
    ) Brenda

    Your photos are crisp and very clear. As an novice photographer – self-taught. I would really like to know your settings such as what is your F/stop, ISO and shutter speed on the photos? Thanks.

  24. I think you misinterpreted what was said by Mario. He refers to the use of manual focus, which you select yourself, not the camera you want to have in focus. On the other hand when using auto focus and block it for example the focus on the eyes, to reframe the composition is easy to lose focus as the distance to the focus point varies by rotating the camera, especially when working at short distances and often in For portraits.

  25. 38
    ) martins

    I love the post, Which lens did you use for the pictures above?

  26. 39
    ) Enyo

    Beautiful Pictures! Lots of helpful information :) Thank you

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