Family gatherings are a wonderful time to experience the joy and fun of those you love. And as a photographer (if you are reading this, you are probably a photographer) your internal mission is often to capture the best photos of all the activity as it unfolds.
Maybe relatives are making a special trip across the country or across the world for the gathering. Or perhaps it is an annual tradition. No matter which, these tips will help give you the advantage you need to capture some truly memorable photos at your own family gathering!
Shoot The Front Door
While I don't mean the front door itself (although that can be a nice photo at the beginning of a slide show or photo album) unless it is highly decorated, I am talking here about shooting the activity at the front door. As guest show up, it is great to capture photos of the welcoming hugs and handshakes. This is also when people are most relaxed and themselves.
Not only are people relaxed, if there is a chance to stand behind and above the head greeter, such as on steps, you will not be noticed at all. This leaves the trap perfectly set to shoot a few genuine smiles and hugs before any one notices their picture being taken. And let's face it, once people know a camera is near, they start posing or changing their demeanor. Get them while they are fresh and unsuspecting, at the front door!
Increase the ISO and Drop the Flash
Modern DSLRs are quickly becoming more and more effective in low light. While ISO 400 was once the highest useable setting, now decent photos can be shot up to ISO 1600, depending on the camera in use. This higher ISO lends itself well to the low lighting in some houses when families gather.
Shooting without a flash allows for far more stealth. More stealth leads to more natural shots, the shots that remind you of the actual activities of the gathering, not the posed moments. (Posed moments are fine, by the way, and we will cover them in a bit.) When shooting without a flash, it is important to check the shutter speed to ensure there is no blurred action.
Use a Remote Control or Timer
Using a remote control, or a timer with the camera set in a non-conspicuous location, is a simple way to take candid photos when people are most relaxed. Warning, this may lead to some embarrassing photos as people are left to be themselves. We all do things when people aren't watching, that we would never do if we knew they were. And especially not if a camera was in our face.
Taking a cue from the previous point, setting the ISO higher and removing the need for flash will hopefully help your guest not even know the camera exists. The less they know of the camera, the more relaxed they will be.
Move the camera around at various times. A number of cameras have a remote control with a timer function, allowing the camera to take a photo every X minutes for up to 100 or more images. This can be very handy when you want to take a break and enjoy the party, but let your camera keep capturing the action.
There's going to be food at your gathering, that is almost assured. Whether or not that food is cooked on site is a different story. If the event is catered on-site or if the food is prepared by other family members in the kitchen, you will have a smorgasbord of photographic opportunities available. Wind your way behind the scenes and capture the kitchen magic.
Shoot the broad shots; the whole kitchen, food on the move and the happy chefs. But also get close and personal with the prep work. This is a side of the event some may not be witnessing (or you might have the entire party crowded into the kitchen).
Be sure to let them know where their food is coming from. The chopping, broiling, baking, frying and grilling that goes into making a family gathering feast. Whether it is an outdoor Bar-B-Que or a Wintery sit-down meal, the food preparation and work of the fine chefs in the kitchen deserve some spotlight.
The Food Itself!
Food, food, glorious food! Whether the family gathering is a sit-down affair or a backyard BBQ, food will most likely be involved. At times it is the main reason for gathering is to share a meal and that makes food photos all the more important.
There are a number great posts here on Tuts+ with instructional information on capturing quality food shots, such as Food Photography That’s Good Enough To Eat.
A personal caution about food shots. Actually, not so much about the food, but about the eating of it. While capturing the feel of the day, be thoughtful of those eating the glorious food. Rarely is there a good shot of someone eating just about any normal food. We humans are not fashionable in our normal food eating graces and photos can be downright embarrassing for some.
Here is where comedy can save the day. Instead of the normal “you caught me eating" photos, ask your subjects to pose in some way. Food as a prop lightens the mood and gives people something to do. It is usually a fun, spontaneous way to take unique photos of the event.
Get Crazy With (Some Of) The Poses
Family gatherings often require an obligatory group photo. Or a photo of certain parts of the family all together. The larger the group, the harder the shot. One quick bit of advice would be to shoot multiple shots of any group to avoid the dreaded blinkers from ruining it.
Beyond the blinkers are the wandering eyes. When people have been standing for a portrait too long, with other family gathering around to admire the fine grouping, the eyes of those in front of the camera will wander around to the distractions coming from behind the camera and that can spell disaster.
As the photographer your goal is to gain control of the situation and try to hold the family together for just a few brief seconds. I tend to make this promise with those in front of the camera when things are getting a bit out of control:
“I need to take three quick, normal photos. Then we will shoot five goofy ones when you can do whatever you want."
Is it cheap coercion just to get your way? Of course it is! And it works. If people know they will have a time to goof off that is more time than you are asking them to sit still and smile normal, they cave in and give you what you want. In return, there are always some keepers among the goofy set as well.
Employ Help, Especially Kids
This one can be a lot of fun if you know your family well. Enlist the help of a young one, someone who is outgoing and is a social butterfly, to wander the party and let you follow. Ask them to introduce you to the people they know.
Better yet, ask them to ask those at the party to pose for a photo. Again, it may seem like a type of coercion, but people often can't say no and are more relaxed around kids.
If a child is not around or willing, grab an adult who tends to be the life of the party. Preferably someone who is not too tipsy so they don't go off the deep end. You want someone who is fun and can get the crowd going without being obnoxious.
Follow this person around as they greet guests and ask to pose, then have them jump out of the picture so that one person doesn't fill your entire album.
Most people feel odd standing in front of a camera and smiling. Admittedly, it is one of the more unusual things photographers ask of their subjects. We don't naturally pose as we move through life. But we do work with props all the time. If things are seeming a bit humdrum in the photo field, grab an unlikely prop and walk through the party offering it up for people's impressions.
It may be something simple, or it may be something completely off the wall. Stuffed animals work well for kids and something as simple as a household decoration works for adults.
This can also be a running theme. I have seen albums created where, at one point, there are photographs of all the party-goers wearing the same hat. Be creative and liven things up!
Ask For A Favorite Memory
This technique works well if you plan to present the photos in some type of album (online or printed) and have room for captioning. It does take extra work, but the result is a great keepsake. The idea is to get your subject talking about a favorite memory they have about their family. This serves two purposes.
Firstly, it helps give context when captioning photos, such as “Uncle Jim loved fishing with his kids out at Lake Overfenchobie until the sky grew too dark to see."
Second, when remembering a pleasant (or not so pleasant) time, it is almost impossible for the subject to be overly concerned about their photo being taken. People tend to be most self-conscious when they are told not to be. But if they are given a pleasant task, their attention shifts and their expressions become more natural. They will probably even be laughing at some point, a great time to grab their photo.