Along with weddings, family portrait photography is a staple of many photography businesses. Whether you are doing an informal favor for friends or are looking to broaden your portfolio, most shutterbugs give family pictures a try at one time or another.
Why’s it so common? Because, just like a wedding ceremony, family life is a fleeting moment. Parents realize that their kids grow up fast, and capturing the moments of a special time in their life is a great idea.
What is Family Photography?
Family photos are basically group portraits. You can look at them the same way, and they are certainly similar to the shots that many wedding photographers take. Most customers will want a mix of candids and posed shots. You must modify your compositions depending on how many children and whoever else is being included. The term family is so flexible that this type of work might involve everything from a couple to a huge extended family group with grandparents and cousins. Pets are sometimes included too!
Family portraits are usually requested for the kids. The parents or grandparents want to remember a particular time when the children are young.
So, how is it different from other styles of portraiture? For one thing, you’ll nearly always be shooting a group of three or four individuals who are related. This means you’ll need to get a feeling for who gets along with who, and a rough idea of their type of relationship. It also means that you’ll get the opportunity to have some say in the organization of the shoot, including wardrobe and locations.
From a business standpoint, being a family pictures photographer offers a lot of opportunities. If you already shoot weddings, family pictures are a natural follow up. You can even offer an annual repeat customer discount to your wedding clients. They are also a great way to build repeat customers. Clients might want to update their portraits every year, or at least every time a new child comes around. And word of mouth advertising can be powerful since proud moms and dads are sure to show your pictures off.
The Best Equipment for Family Portraits
Nearly all of the choices you make for your family photo sessions are going to revolve around your choice of location. Sure, some clients are still looking for classic studio portraits. But much more common now are on-location shoots that feature somewhere beautiful and meaningful to fill in the background.
If you are shooting in a studio, all the standard portrait rules apply. You’ll want a sturdy tripod, strobes, softboxes or beauty dishes, reflectors, and backgrounds. Don’t forget to have appropriate furniture for sitting and leaning shots. You might need to extend your studio a little bit to have space for everybody. It might be a good idea to practice your setup to see what the maximum number of people you can have in one photograph is. Read our article to learn more on setting up your home Photography studio.
For location shoots, you’re going to need to focus on mobility. Most shots will be hand-held, and off-camera strobes are going to be awkward. You might be better off with an on-camera strobe with a good diffuser. Remember, in this scenario, you’ll be shooting candids as well as posed shots, and many times the best examples come in between poses. That means you need to be ready throughout the shoot, much like at a wedding.
While there are no hard and fast rules about the camera you choose, you’ll want to think through your shoot and make sure the camera you choose is capable of what you ask of it. Manual settings to control difficult lighting situations is a must-have. You may also find spot or center-weighted metering to be a great help. Pretty much any consumer or prosumer DSLR or mirrorless system will work. Whatever type it is, it should capture in RAW format to help your post-production workflow.
Maybe more important than the choice of camera is your choice of lens. Location shoots can be pretty varied, with impromptu compositions and poses. What you need is a versatile lens to match. You’ll want something with a wide aperture that makes a nice bokeh in the background. Wondering how to master the art of bokeh? Here are some easy tips on bokeh photography. You’re probably going to shoot a variety of wide-angle and telephoto shots, so it will be hard to pick one lens that will do it all.
Many photographers enjoy shooting with prime lenses. But during most family sessions, you might find yourself changing lenses often. At a minimum, you’d want to have a wide-angle, a normal, and a telephoto. Many might find it a lot easier to use a high-quality zoom lens, like a 24-70 mm or 28-135 mm. In the end, it just depends on your style of photography and your equipment budget.
If you take a tour of online portfolios and look for great examples of family images, the first thing you will notice is that the wardrobes are often coordinated. Is it necessary? No, but it makes a big difference and for the better. It shows that effort was taken, and it improves the entire composition. So what works and what doesn’t?
Here are examples of outstanding photography portfolios, built on Pixpa to inspire you to create yours. These photographers have made excellent use of Pixpa, an easy to use website builder to showcase their photos. You can draw inspiration from these creative professionals and study their portfolios, to get a clearer idea of how you want to showcase your repertoire of work.
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Unfortunately, unless you work in fashion and have a wardrobe department at your disposal, photographers have to give up a little power here. We’re usually at the client’s mercy, but we can help point them in the right direction. The trick is communicating clearly and working closely with the person who came to you to organize the shoot.
The easiest thing to do is to help that person pick their wardrobe, or at least discuss their choices. Then let them, marshall, the rest of the family to find coordinating pieces. As always, having examples or an idea board ready to show them will help them see what they like.
Color is usually the hardest part of clothing choices to make. You don’t want the pieces to clash, and you don’t want lively prints that will add more to the photos. You also don’t want it to be too drab. If you’re working with all one color, consider varying the type of fabrics to add some texture to the photo. However, be careful to avoid velvet, which is very difficult to light. White and black items can also lead to exposure problems, so it’s often better to stick with off-whites and grays.
A good starting point is to decide where the shoot is going to take place. If the background is dark and drab, pick something that contrasts to that to brighten the entire composition. If the environment is bright and outdoorsy, pick a wardrobe for the family that will match. This isn’t just about color, either. If shooting your photos at the beach or the park, pick outdoorsy garments that tell the whole story. If you are going to take pictures in the winter, everyone should be dressed appropriately.
You’ll also want to pay some attention to the garments picked. You might have little control over it in the end, but providing your clients with a few guidelines will go a long way. Flattering necklines, like v-neck or scoop cuts, look best on most people. And make sure that clothing is not oversized and baggy. Flowy dresses work great for outdoor shoots.
As the photographer, try to guide your client with a few suggestions while not being pushy. In the end, it’s their photoshoot, and it should represent their uniqueness as a family of individuals.
Like most portraiture, family poses usually fall into three main sets. Standing, sitting, and reclined poses are all common in family lifestyle photography. Again, your pose choices are going to be dictated to some extent by your location.
Standing poses are a great place to start as it allows the family to move around and work out some nervous energy, which is especially helpful if they have children. Have them walk hand in hand, and look for candid shots where they are enjoying each other’s company or the scenery. Parents can carry small children so that they are eye-to-eye. You can also have toddlers lead their parents by the hand. Try shooting these images from down low, at the toddler’s eye level.
Standing poses also include leaning against objects, like walls, trees, or railings. This adds an informality to the composition. You can have the rebellious child of the family lean while the others stand or sit. There are no hard rules when posing with families since each shoot is going to be different.
Sitting poses are good options too, and they are commonly mixed with other poses. For example, having the parents sit while the children stand or lean gets everyone on the same level and makes it easier to frame the composition. It can sometimes be a challenge to frame it well with people of different heights. You can also play with the angle at which you arrange your subjects since they do not need to be side-by-side and shoulder-to-shoulder. Try putting them together in a line arranged from shortest to tallest individual. Just make sure that no one is blocking anyone else.
Laying down or reclining poses are rarer, but there are some situations where they might work. For example, you might have an outdoor or beach shoot with a picnic theme. With everyone lying on the picnic blanket, have them rest their head on their hands and look towards the camera. You can line your subjects up as necessary for the composition. Many photographers are now using drones during their shoots. You could have them family lay in a shape like a triangle or a rectangle and shoot from directly above.
15 Tips for Family Portrait Photography
Make it a Fun Experience
As with all portrait sessions, it’s up to the photographer to set the tone of the shoot. The photographer’s number one goal needs to be to make it fun. Discomfort will show up immediately in the pictures, which will then look awkward and posed. Be friendly and personable, and take the time to get to know each member of the family a little bit. Learn everyone’s names and work hard to put them at ease. Make the entire shoot a fun experience for everyone, not a task or chore that needs to be gotten through.
Give Yourself the Right Amount of Time
Just like you want to be calm and upbeat, you also don’t want to be rushed. Don’t schedule multiple shoots close to one another. And don’t cut the session shorter than it needs to be. In truth, it takes time to build the relationship of trust with your clients that you need to make them feel comfortable. Plan at least a few hours, and then give yourself a reasonable amount of time to deliver the photos.
The Location Matters
Picking the perfect location for the shoot is step one. The setting should match the people. Are they beachgoers? City folks? Farm dwellers in the country? Find out the answers in your initial consultation. Many times the client with come out and tell you where they’d like to do it, but other times you might have to make suggestions.
Picking the right spot makes the images more meaningful by making the setting a prop. It helps tell their story and adds to the overall composition of the photos.
Know Your Favorite Locations
Whatever you do, avoid going into a new location blind. Ideally, you want to have a few spots near your business that you know like the back of your hand. You should know how the light falls in the afternoon, where the best backgrounds are, and when it’s least crowded. You should know what camera settings and lenses work and don’t work.
But be ready for a New Place
Occasionally you will have to work at a client’s house or a new venue. If this is the case, arrange for a consultation before the day of the shoot so that you can make a scouting trip. Get an idea of what sort of extra lighting you might need, or any other props or accessories. Run through all your equipment choices in advance so that on the day of the shoot, you can focus on the family.
Make Sure the Pose Matches the Mood
The poses you choose for your family should match the people they are. For example, photos with the subject’s heads tilted towards one another add an intimate or romantic look. Maybe that’s okay for mom and dad, but it’s probably best reserved for an engagement shoot.
Everyone at Eye Level
One of the most helpful things to help your compositions is to try to get everyone at eye level. This usually means getting the adults to sit or crouch down while the kids stand. With babies, you can have the parents lift them up high. Talking of this specialized kind of portraiture, you might want to read our guide on newborn photography. Encourage goofing around, like little kids walking between their parent’s legs. Look for impromptu smiles and candid shots.
Black and White Family Portraits
Black and white family portrait photography is surprisingly popular. While many photographers write off black and whites as fine art, it’s very well suited for family sessions. For one thing, it removes the problems brought by contrasting wardrobe choices. It emphasizes the people and binds the composition together. It adds a special artistic flair to your images. When done well, it’s something that most people associate with a professional artist. Here are top 10 tips for beginners on Black and white photography.
But before you move that saturation bar down to zero, stop and think about the composition. The best black and white images are made purposefully. It requires carefully balancing the lights and darks in the composition. Not every image can or should just be turned into black and white in post-production.
Look for New Perspective
One of the quickest ways to spice up your photos is to find a fresh perspective on something common. Instead of moving your subjects, move yourself! Shoot from up high or down low. Kneel and shoot up with sky behind, or get on a ladder and take the photo from above.
Use a Drone
For a unique perspective, many photographers are adding camera drones to their equipment packs. Fly the drone overhead and take straight-down shots. For outdoor scenics, this is a great way to feature the location as well as the family. Take wide, sweeping shots that can’t get gotten any other way. Of course, remember that most countries require licensing for the commercial use of drones.
Documentary Family Photography
Lifestyle photography is a documentary in nature. Read more on the wide-ranging art of documentary photography here. While most photographers are planning a posed shoot with some candids thrown in, some families and photographers are looking for something more real. Family pictures show the private lives of their subjects, so not everything needs to be posed and perfect. The candid pictures are important since they document honest relationships with each member of the family. Look for meaningful glances and smiles during conversations that add a special touch to the image.
The Golden Hour is a special time right around sunrise and sunset when the light is diffuse, and the sky is aglow. The warm quality of the light adds a surreal feeling to the photos that are impossible to replicate. While you probably won’t have much luck marketing family lifestyle photography before sunrise, planning your shoots for the late afternoon has a few advantages. Give yourself plenty of time to meet the family and make everyone comfortable, and start shooting well before Golden Hour arrives. This way, you should have a mix of shots from afternoon blue skies to sunset and Golden Hour.
For portraits, having the sun at such a low angle can cause some problems, like harsh facial shadows. You’ll want to be ready for this, so bring an off-camera fill flash or a big reflector and stand.
Get Everyone on the Same Page
Anytime you work with big groups, it becomes harder and harder to control all of the little details. When you have one face looking back at your through the viewfinder, it’s easy to snap the photo at just the right moment of a wide smile. But when four or five people are there, it’s hard to get it just right every time. Having an assistant helps since it frees you up to worry about the camera settings and the shot. The assistant can then be the crowd wrangler.
This is where a little practice comes in handy. After a few sessions, you’ll start to realize that a few key items really hurt the final photos. The first one is facial expressions. Always shoot more than one image for each pose. Shoot a lot to increase the chances that you’re capturing open eyes and smiles. This is where varying the pose just slight helps too. Having a countdown or a catchy saying to get the family ready to smile also helps. Whatever you use will work, from a 1-2-3 count to the classic, “Say cheese!” It lets the subjects know you’re ready and cues them to look at the camera and smile. Take some shots before and after the cue too.
Watch for Small Details to Prevent Problems Later
Other details to pay attention to are things that are going to be glaringly apparent in the final photos. Pay attention to the small details like clothes tags, hairbands on wrists, and sunglasses on heads. Watch for cell phones bulging in pockets on even in hands. If everyone is wearing a similar outfit, make sure shirts are all tucked or all untucked, whatever the situation may be. In other words, look for the odd one out and then decide if it’s a problem or if it adds to the composition.
The family pictures photographer has a fun challenge on their hands. One part of the job is certainly all about technical excellence. Mastering things like the basics of good composition, dynamic lighting setups, and the exposure triangle is important. But an equal part of the task involves soft skills like making people comfortable and having a good time. You have to be good at working with kids and the elderly, and sometimes with worried moms and dads. It’s a fun challenge, and getting to capture these special moments is a privilege.