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A Beginner's Guide to Family Portrait Photography

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Getting all your family in the same place at the same time can be hard enough. Add to that trying to organize them into a coherent group for their photograph to be taken, and it can be a nightmare. But in my experience, it's always worth the effort.

Family portraits capture a moment in time alongside those you care for most. Those photos can be hung in the homes of family members to remind you of those closest to you. As time goes on, the family will welcome new members and see other pass on. These photos will become a treasured reminder and document that can be looked back upon fondly to share memories. So, no pressure, right?

We're here to help. Here are a few simple tips for capturing family portraits allowing you to get the best results.


1. Location

Getting what can feel like an elusive family group shot is all about taking your chances. Many families are spread over a large geographical area, so when that special occasion gets booked in, you know everyone will be in attendance. Grab your opportunity to set aside 10 minutes to get the shot of everyone together looking their best!

If possible, choose a location that has significance, purely to add to the emotional depth of the shot. For example, use the garden of a family member or a viewpoint that overlooks a city in which some of the family live or used to live.

If that's not a possibility, a simple open space will be sufficient, although ensure there are no distractions in the background of your shot to detract from the main focus, the family!


Photo by Zepfanman

2. Arranging People

It's important to arrange your family to ensure your have a visually engaging and balanced shot. Make sure there are a variety of levels within the shot, the children will naturally aid that, but it may be necessary to have the older members of the family seated, so place them at the centre of the image with the family around them. Take your time to set it up correctly, with tall people at the back and making sure you can see everyone's face clearly.

When arranging your family members, ensure there isn't too much distance between them. You want to portray a loving family and togetherness, so get them nice and cosy, maybe with partners holding hands or with an arm around each other and it'll really give the shot that family feel.


Photo by Jeremy Wong

3. Light and smiles

When positioning the shot, it's essential that you don't have your family facing the sun, otherwise you'll have a shot full of squinting faces. Similarly, you don't want the camera facing the sun as you'll have a shot full of faces cast with shadow, so aim for a set up within which the family is side on to the natural light.

Having said that, you can almost guarantee that there'll be someone blinking or wincing in your shots, so keep checking your LCD preview to make sure you've got everyone looking your way with their eyes open. Whilst you've got everyone there and in position, keep on shooting, it'll give you the best chance of getting the shot you want.


Photo by NCBrian

4. Settings

As far as settings are concerned, you'll want a fairly narrow aperture, something from f/8 up to f/11 should ensure that you've got everything in focus front to back. You may have to compensate for that with a slightly longer shutter speed than usual.

Remember that you want to freeze the scene as people are always inclined to shuffle and move, so experiment depending on the light available. If you're having trouble, maybe crank up the ISO a notch or two to ensure you've got enough light within the shot without having to extend the shutter speed to much.


Photo by HaWee

5. Group Photographs

It's essential that as the photographer you are in control of the shoot. There will alway be certain family members that want to dictate what goes on, but as the photographer, it's up to you manage the situation. Be sure that you've got everyone in the frame, facing your way, smiling and generally being attentive, rather than worrying about what your great auntie is telling them to do.

If you are also going to be in the shot, place your camera on a tripod, set it up as you see fit and crucially, make sure there is a spot for you in the shot. Don't just kneel at the front on the floor or sneak in behind everyone at the back. Make sure you have a spot that suits the dynamic of the shot, then either use the timer or a remote release to take the shots, and as I mentioned before, repeat this a few times to insure you get the shot you want.


Photo by SFlovestory

6. Small Group Portrait Shots

As well as capturing the complete family in one large shot, it can be nice to work with smaller family groups. You'll find you have more freedom to cater the shots to their needs with more options for locations, angles and the style of shots.

These shot naturally lend themselves to being less formal. Select a slightly wider aperture than before, maybe f/5.6, which will enable you to capture the smiling faces and blur out the background.


Photo by Gary Robson

7. Be inventive!

Be open to experiment with slightly more exciting set ups. Move away from the standard family portrait set up and try something different. You could try putting the family in age order, or even height order to mix it up a bit!

For shots of smaller groups that contain the more agile members of the family, you could get them all to jump up or make a human pyramid. Try asking the family to see whether they have any ideas, especially the kids. Often they'll be the ones that want to do something exciting and get mum and dad be a little silly, too!


8. Personal Moments

As you are working in and around the family, it can be a great opportunity to get some reportage style shots. Working discretely, like you would at a wedding reception, capture those interactions between family members.

These shots can often portray people at their most relaxed, alongside those closest to them, sharing jokes, stories and anecdotes. As long as they don't realize that they're being photographed, they'll continue to look natural and expressive.


9. Preserving special relationships

At these sorts of events, it's a great idea to try and highlight certain relationships within the family. Grandparents will always love a shot alongside their grandchildren. A shot of the youngest family member with the oldest family member can create a very heart warming image.

If you're not a member of the family that you're photographing, make sure you chat to someone to find out some background to the family members. There may be, for example, brothers who live on opposite sides of the world who rarely see each other, united for a short space of time, so look to capture that type of interaction.


Photo by Greg Dawson

10 . Capturing the Kids!

As any new parent will tell you, it's difficult to resist taking lots of photos of the children, especially as new borns. But as they grow up, and start spending more time exploring rather than sitting still, it can be harder to get the shots you want.

The best thing to do is to get down to their level and engage them with something they find interesting. Maybe your partner or the child's parents will be able to attract a child's attention with a toy, encouraging them to look up in order for you to get the shots you want.

I've always found that photographing kids on the move is all about anticipation. Always be ready with your exposure settings as you want them, so as soon as the scene in front of you takes shape, you can snap away.


Photo by Anders Ruff

11. Have a go yourself!

So there we have it, hopefully you have all the guidance you need to get those family shots that you've been waiting to get. Remember to utilize the strong relationships that you have with your family. This can work in your favor as they will take direction from you and you'll be able to work together to get the shots you all want.

We all enjoy having photos of our families up in our homes, and if you are able to capture the shots yourself, as you'd wish them to be taken, it will feel that much better when they're displayed in the homes of your family members.

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