How to Take Successful Family Portraits

A family picture of a small group.
Cheesy family portraits... gotta love it!

I shot another family portrait tonight.  It took me half way through the shoot before I remembered to change my shooting style.  While I am generally focused on the photography and getting the shot, when I shoot family portraits I have to remind myself that the Mom  of the family (the one I am trying to make happy) really only needs the photo to be decent.  As long as the photo generally looks nice, what she REALLY cares about is that she and her children are all smiling and looking straight at the camera.

A few times I have delivered photos to family clients that I was quite pleased with, but when the Mom saw the photos, all she noticed was that Sally wasn't smiling or Joe was looking away from the camera.  It can be disappointing for the photographer.

So my simple tip for today is when you're taking family portraits, you have to STOP thinking so much about the photography and start thinking about smart posing and interacting with the kids.  Just make sure you get what the MOM wants from the shoot, and allow your desire for technical photographic expertise to go on the back burner.

Six Tips for Shooting Family Portraits

Family Portrait Tip #1:  Shoot in continuous high and shoot a burst of four or five shots for each pose. This will be a life saver when you have to Photoshop eyes and faces from blinking dads and grumpy-faced toddlers.

Family Portrait Tip #2:  Do not expect to get as many poses in as you would in a normal shoot. Just focus on getting 5 or 6 poses where you KNOW you nailed it.  Most clients with kids won't be able to convince the kids to do too many poses, so keep the number low, but make sure you nail each one.

Family Picture Tips #3:  Place women with long hair on the downwind side of the family. I could put so many jokes in this paragraph about putting moms downwind, but I won't.  The purpose is to keep her hair from blowing across the face of another family member.  It's a simple thing, but Mom (the real client) will NOT like a picture where her hair is blowing over her face.

Family Photography Tip #4:  Find a staggered seating area. The toughest part of posing a small group is to find a way to make their head levels uneven but making them feel like a tight group.  If they are all lined up, the head levels can be distracting in a photo.  Finding a staircase where the family can sit, or boulders along the beach, or a small hill can be a perfect setting for a small group photo because the people can be staggered in height to create interest in the pose.

Small Group Photography # 5:  Give the kids breaks for candids. After a few poses when I can see that the kids are starting to wear out, I ask the parents to let the kids run free in the park or on the beach.  This is usually a relief for the parents so they don't have to wrangle their kids for a minute, and it gives you the opportunity to shoot candids of the kids for 10 or 15 minutes.  Once the kids have had a good break, you'll have smiles for the next few poses.

Family Photographer Tips #6:  Don't make grumpy kids grumpier. I have seen a few photographers do this when I've taken my family to get portraits.  When one of the kids starts crying or is grumpy, the photographer (a total stranger to the kid) starts talking to them and pointing at them and doing silly things to make the kid happier.  That might be okay for babies, but it makes most kids even grumpier or more shy.   The parents will most likely be more successful in talking with the kid.  The photographer's job is to support the parents in making the session happy for the kids.

8 thoughts on “How to Take Successful Family Portraits”

  1. Great points made. I am loving this website and all the articles. Is helping me have a greater understanding and hopefully making me a better photographer

  2. Thanks for the tips! I’m taking some photos today to help out a friend and I was feeling a bit intimidated by the process. I prefer to take candid photos, nothing formal. I found your blog on a random google search, much appreciated!

  3. It sounds like you’d get such cute pictures by letting the kids run around for a few minutes in between poses. My husband and I want to get a good family photo now that both of our kids are toddlers and having some candid photos would be a great bonus too. We’ll have to find someone who uses the same sorts of techniques you do.

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