10 Family Portrait Posing Tips For Photographers

In Portrait by Pete LaGregor14 Comments

If you came here looking for ten specific poses for families, you're probably going to be disappointed. But if you came here for some strategies and techniques for posing to get the best images from your family portrait sessions, then keep reading. Sure, some of these tips go a little beyond just actual posing, but if you are doing it right then it all blends seamlessly together for some epic family photos.

Posing is about more than just placing people in a specific position and having them hold it. It is about using your skill (and a few tricks) to help your subjects look their best in your photos. 

I should add a disclaimer here. I talk a lot about avoiding traditional posing and more about a relaxed fun atmosphere. That does not mean that learning posing techniques is useless. In fact, it is tremendously helpful and important for you to know everything about more traditional posing fundamentals that you can learn. However, don't rely on just that when dealing with families. They aren't models. Personality and emotion is far more important than positioning. You will need to know the fundamentals so that you can quickly move a hand into a more flattering position or tilt the shoulders to get the best angle. However, consider these to be small tweaks to throw in when necessary, not the only thing that matters.

So let's get started…

1. Find a good spot and Work It

Some sports are perfect. If you have shot a few family portraits, then you know these spots. It's where the light is soft, diffused, non-directional and the background is simple and aesthetically pleasing. The open shade area with lush green trees (or beautiful Fall colors) in the background, for example. It's hard to get the wrong angle or bad light in these situations. I had one of these recently. I was on a beach during golden hour and there was a large pier blocking the direct sun. I had all the golden goodness and none of the shadows of the direct light. As a result, we could really focus on getting the positioning right.

This spot under the pier was perfect. It was in the shade and also created great image depth by lining up the pier supports.

Identify these locations and work through your poses in this spot. Get your safe shots here. Get your close ups of the kids here. Do that fun shot of dad throwing his four year old in the air here. This is where you can get all your bread and butter shots. This also lets you focus on the posing without worrying about the light or camera settings or flash. It is a great time to really hone in on the little things like hand placement, body angles, weight distribution, and all those other things that we tend to forget about when there are light issues to worry about. It is also a great place to get creative.

Even once you are a pro at posing, finding this “happy place” where you don't have to worry about other things can help you take your posing to the next level.

2. Give Basic Guidelines Rather than Specific Poses

I may get some disagreement on this one but the days of the intricately posed family photo are over. Sure, you want to get those one or two classic shots of the whole family so they can hang it over their fireplace or send an 8×10 to the grandparents, but make the rest of the shoot fun for them. Instead of spending the entire time positioning them, give them some basics of posing and let them relax and take it from there.

Some of the tips I usually give are:

  • Extend your chin towards the camera (just slightly!) and then lower it (just slightly!).
  • Women shouldn't square your shoulders to the camera but the men can (unless they want to look a little slimmer).
  • Get close to each other. Open space between your subjects is rarely a good thing. Every shoot I tell them, “make believe you like each other” and tighten it up!

I am sure you all have more of these kind of basic tips, so let's hear them in the comments below.

3. Move Yourself To Create New Poses

Depending on the ages of the kids, once you get a family in a good spot, it can take a while to move them and get them reset in another spot. So make the most of every time you get them set up. I am not a huge fan of overly posed shots, but if I am going to take the time to set them up in a pose and get everyone aligned the right way, you can bet I'll get plenty of shots from that setup before I make them move again.

First, get the standard eye level classic type of shot. Then get low, get high, move around to the side, and do whatever else you can to create different looks from that same setup. It is a lot easier to move yourself than it is to move a whole family, especially if they have little ones. You can usually tell which angle is going to catch the light just right but you never know which one the client will fall in love with. So go for different options. If any are complete failures, just don't present that particular option to your client.

4. Plan Out Groupings Rather than Poses

Remember what is important to most family portrait clients…each other. Your clients may not ever notice that their hand is in a perfect position or that they form a perfect triangle formation. They will notice if they don't have an image with a family member they want. Combinations like Dad and daughter, Mom and son, Grandma and the kids are all very important to your clients. In most instances this is more important to them then creative poses, good lighting, or even being in perfect focus! These are the images that will find their way to various family member's walls.

This family was all about having fun. They didn't need any posing and their photos came out great.

As their photographer, it is your job and duty to make sure you get all these combinations. It helps to ask your clients ahead of time what combinations are important to them. Get those first! Then move onto other combinations. This is also a great way to get interactions from your subjects. Which leads me to my next tip…

5. Shoot Reactions and Interactions

This is less of a posing technique and more of a shooting philosophy. I would rather let kids do their own thing and be a silent observer than have to force them into a pose. This is where you can get the genuine reactions and unique photos. Tell them a joke (kid appropriate of course!) or, better yet, let them tell you a joke. Most kids have a joke ready that they think is funny and they almost always laugh at their own joke. Half the time its not even a real joke but they think it's funny and are cracking up about it. That is usually contagious and before you know it, the entire family is laughing. That's all you need.

There is nothing wrong with getting the posed shots, but don't forget to let your clients have fun, interact with each other, and relax. Even with adults, this is a surefire way to let their personality show through. One of my favorite posing tricks when shooting a couple is to tell one of them to whisper something in the other's ear and I won't listen. To this day I have no idea what any of them have said to each other and I'll never ask. They could be making fun of me for all I know, but it works! Whether the words are sweet and romamtic, cute and funny, or something that can't be repeated here, you are bound to get some kind of reaction from them.

6. Get On Their Level

Kids are small. We know this, yet most people (and many photographers) will stand up while taking their photo. This is a sure way to make it look like every other snapshot that mom has on her phone. Get down on their level. A lot of things happen when you do this.

You create a unique perspective. Everyone is used to the photos of their kid looking up at the camera. Get your shots at eye level and you've already created something unique that they will like. You also engage the child more. Once you get down there, he or she will be more interested in interacting with you. Keeping them interested is how you get little ones to “pose.” Sometimes I ask them what they see in the lens. Usually they can see their reflection and I get some great reactions. None of this is possible if you are standing up and shooting down on them.

Now get even lower! Get on your stomach and shoot up at the kids. No one ever takes snapshots like this so you know this is a perspective they have never seen before. It may work, it may not, but it will be unique and when it works, it will help the family realize the value in hiring you as opposed to using their phone to take photos of their kids.

7. Get the Kids Involved In Posing

Kids have short attention spans. Some are really into cheesing it up in front of the camera and others want nothing to do with posing or even having a camera pointed at them. So let them call the shots (sometimes). I'll ask them how they want to pose. Most of the time you will get some goofy faces (which can still make for some great photos) and sometimes you get some genuine personality from them.

Then ask them to pose their parents or their siblings. Most kids will have fun with this and make them do some goofy stuff. You will be surprised how good some of these photos can turn out though! Your job is to be ready and capture that moment that shows a family having fun with each other.

This guy was not posing, he was playing. His enjoyment really showed in the photo.

8. Don't Pose the Little Ones

This goes along with the previous tip. You will never be able to effectively pose a 1 year old. I am pretty sure that is one of the accepted rules of the universe. So don't try. Interact with them. Talk to them. Get them to laugh if you can. Make sure they are having fun and are comfortable. This is partly their parent's job but also yours. You don't want them afraid of you. So don't just bark orders at the little ones. Try your best to connect with them. Ask them about their favorite TV show or toy or simply just make some goofy faces and noises.

One thing to keep in mind here is that the parents will often be so focused on getting their cute little baby to laugh, that they are looking at them the whole time and forget to look at the camera themselves! This is totally fine and makes for a really endearing shot of mom and baby looking at each other laughing, for example, but you also want to make sure you get at least a few shots where you can see the parent's faces! It can help to subtly remind mom and dad before the shoot to remember to look up once they get a good reaction.

9. Be ready

If you have listened to the previous eight tips then you know that capturing the perfect family photo is about more then placing everyone in the right spot and pressing the shutter once. Just like our clients don't have to stand still while a guy in a top hat ignites a flash lamp made of gun powder to take their photo, we as photographers are not limited to perfectly held poses. Today's family photographer needs some very similar skills to a sports photographer.

Kids have a lot of energy and once they get riled up, they will not be standing still. This is not necessarily a bad thing as you can capture some very dynamic action shots of the kids playing. But you have to be ready for it. How do you make sure you are ready?

  • Get comfortable shooting in manual.

Priority modes can be thrown off by something bright in the frame as your subject moves and you follow them. You want to be dialed in to the right settings for the subject and not have to worry about slight variations in the background throwing everything off.

This was clearly not a planned pose, but it's one that this family will treasure forever.

  • Shoot in continuous mode.

Just like sports, you never know exactly when that perfect moment is coming. So it helps if you can track your subject and fire off short bursts. Don't go crazy. Short targeted bursts work better than spraying 100 frames (and its easier to edit too). As an aside, this helps even with the static shots to make sure you get multiple frames to increase your chances of everyone looking at the camera at the same time.

  • Back button focus.

There are two schools of thought on this but switching to back button focus improved my ability to adapt to changing situations quickly. It let's you lock on to a static subject and keep that focus from changing as you take multiple shots and also lets you track a moving subject all without changing any settings. Do an internet search for “back button focus” to learn more about it. You may ultimately decide against it, but its worth trying.

  • Zoom lenses.

I know primes are prettier and sharper and all that. But if I am grabbing a shot of a 4 year old running across the beach, I want some zoom action!

10. Plan Ahead

There is nothing worse than showing up to a shoot, getting a few poses done quick because your clients are so easy to work with, and then having no more ideas left. Always have a bunch of posing ideas ready to go either on a small notepad or on your phone. Make sure you know what the family wants from the shoot. Are they serious? Are they goofy? Are they athletic? The more you can get to know them, the better the photos will be.

Once you have this information, use it! So many photographers will take the time to get to know a family and then just run through their regular posing routine. I just had a client tell me, “We need a couple traditional posed shots but then no more posing, just having fun.” This came out after the third time I had talked to them. First time was when I booked them. I asked the mom to tell me about her family. Second time was a pre-shoot phone call where we talked about their style and what shots they wanted (and they never mentioned this). Then finally, right before the shoot, I just started the conversation again by saying, “hey this is what I had in mind, what do you think?” and after all our previous conversations, the mom had been giving a lot of thought and figured out what they wanted. This would never have happened if I hadn't made it a point to keep the conversation going. As a photographer, it's your job to make sure to get poses that the client wants.

It also helps to be prepared for the location. Get there early, even if you have been there before. See where the sun is. See where the “happy places” are. Figure out what kind of shots will work in specific locations. Make a plan, but don't be bound by it. A plan is there to guide you, not to restrict you. Let your client take you in the direction they want to go but have a plan ready for when they aren't sure where they want to go. As a professional, your job is to guide them, not force them into great photos.

Don't Stop Learning…

This is obviously not an exhaustive primer on posing. You should take these tips and start implementing them right away but also take the time to learn more about the fundamentals of posing. Watch a tutorial, read a book, study the posing of the masters of portrait photography. Learn what positions work best to get a certain look and, more importantly, why they work. This is how we can all improve.

Of course, I am sure there are so many other great tips you can think of for making the most out of that family portrait, so let's hear them in the comments below.


About the Author

Pete LaGregor

Pete is a lawyer in NJ, runs a portrait photography business, and is a co-founder of Play It Forward Sports, a non-profit charity group, for whom he does photography, video, and marketing work. You can find him on his website and on Pinterest.

Comments

  1. Thanks Pete

    Useful piece
    Even the things Ive heard before/know already are worth hearing again as a refresher.

  2. When taking photos of people, I sometimes find (when editing) that they are not in focus–that the background is sharp. It is not noticeable when looking at the photo immediately after taking it, and many people don’t see the slight fuzziness that I notice. Which focusing setting should I be using? I do use back button focus and have the focus area set as the center 9 boxes….

    1. Author

      Hey Stacy, I find that single point focus is helpful when shooting portraits. As long as your subject is not moving, then you don’t need the larger area of focus points and you can be more precise as to what you focus on. Sometimes when your focus area is too large, the camera can make the mistake of focusing on the background instead.

      With groups, make sure you aren’t using a really wide aperture. f/1.8 or even f/2/8 may give you a nice blurry background, but with more than one person, you may have one or more of them outside the focus plane. If I am shooting two or more people, I almost never go below f/3.5 on a full frame (you can get away with f/2.8 on a crop sensor though).

      And don’t be afraid to check your image after you shoot it by zooming in on the preview on the camera. Zooming in is important because the screen on the camera is too small to really check the focus otherwise. Better to make your subject wait a few second while you check than to discover it after the fact.

  3. Very good read, I took notes and can’t wait to try out some of these new pointers. Thanks so much!

  4. Those are great tips, thank you! Although they focus a lot on families with small children. Of course there are also families with teenage or adult kids and obviously some things will have to be done in a different way then. You also seem to be talking about outdoor photo shoots all the time (maybe this was just my impression when reading it). In my opinion, studio photos can be just as great, sometimes even better, but they are often underestimated.
    I would agree that you should try to get some fun pictures, but I also think that it can be attractive to have some serious looking portraits as well (true, maybe this goes rather for single portraits, not so much for families).
    You don’t say much about clothing. I would say, clothing should be as casual as possible, so just jeans and a simple t-shirt without writing on it will do the job just fine. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to match exactly, but clothes should be coordinated of course. And in the studio or during home sessions, ALWAYS remove all shoes and socks. This is really important, as shoes (and worse: socks) will look completely out of place in a casual photo like this, whereas bare feet will give the whole setting a really relaxed and warm touch. And of course, it is essential not to allow exceptions there, as one person in socks will ruin the whole shot.
    Wouldn’t you agree?

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