Taking a family portrait is simply amazing. You will soon find out why. With my background as a classic studio portrait photographer I have a few tricks in store for you. I think these are valuable for photographers with or without experience. So also helpful if you have never taken a family portrait yourself. It will definitely be exciting!
# 1 The tripod – more advantages than you think
You probably think to yourself now: “Don’t!” … A tripod in the family portrait only restricts me. It is too heavy and too cumbersome. You usually take pictures much more freely and fluently. All of this may be true, and in some cases (such as baby photography or documentary photos) it is actually better to take photos from your hand. When photographing a family portrait , you have to consider the following:
Most – if not all – people are nervous about being photographed. Quite right, nervous! Some are really afraid of the camera. Others go even further and say that they “hate” it. It is also part of your job to ensure that your models feel comfortable and relaxed. Especially with the family portrait. It can be difficult. Especially if you are nervous yourself. And especially if a family portrait is still new territory for you. So placing the camera on a tripod has a big advantage.
- # 1 – You automatically slow down. It is a positive thing. You can control your camera settings and exposure for the family portrait and look at your subject again in peace. With this you can make sure that everything is as it should be. Too often you get carried away too quickly when you raise your camera and don’t check everything again. Later you are horrified to find out that the white balance is not correct, ISO 6400 was set, or that you accidentally shot too small JPGs. As an experienced photographer, you know, of course, that this is not a problem when you shoot in RAW . Nevertheless. Play it safe and avoid a “uuuups” moment.
- # 2 – With a tripod you can look up from the camera and make eye contact. You are dealing with normal people. They feel even more uncomfortable when they have to stare into the lens of your camera instead of your eyes. A tripod for a family portrait simply gives you the necessary freedom of movement. For example, you can gesture better to make the children aware of you. The best family photos are made when you interact directly with people. Just try it out!
# 2 The light is crucial
The light determines the quality of every photo, and it’s no different with a family portrait. Even the word photography originally means “drawing with light”. The most important thing you have to do with a family portrait is to bring light into the eyes of your models . There are many ways to do this. So that’s actually a topic in itself. But with these basics you can prepare well and know what is important.
- Choose the right time of day for the family photo! The best time is early evening, about an hour before dawn . Why? Because the sun is low on the horizon and no longer shines as brightly and directly from above as at noon. The light is then more directed and, when there is haze on the horizon, it scatters a little.
- If twilight is not an option, find a shady spot. Get the family out of the sun, BUT be careful that the background doesn’t shine too much. Individual, bright areas in the background distract attention from the models. The shade of large buildings or large trees is best suited.
- Avoid cloudy days if possible. The light is then more even and less glaring than in the direct sun, but unfortunately also non-directional. On cloudy days, the light comes directly from above and makes the eyes look dark. Especially for people whose eyes are deep in the caves.
- If necessary, use a reflector or flash as an additional light source . This is a completely different level of lighting. But learn as early as possible how to handle a flash properly . With it you can quickly bring light to the faces and illuminate them properly. If you can’t see any highlights (the light source that is reflected in the eyes), the faces are not illuminated enough.
It is no less important that the light comes from the right direction than it extends to the eyes. We have already noticed that direct skylight is not good – just like light directly from the direction of the camera. Therefore, the built-in flash is not an optimal light source . A flash mounted on the camera does not work either. The motif appears flat from this direction, and you don’t want that. You want the light to come from the side, from 30-45 degrees to the side of the camera is a good start. Read everything here about the unleashed flashing for exciting setups.
Family portrait camera settings
# 3 Use manual exposure mode
What influence does the exposure time have ? When preparing the family portrait, you need to choose the time of day and the place carefully. This will allow you to better implement your ideas and details later. Why does the time of day matter? Series of images are most beautiful when the image style or effect of the individual images is always similar. Of course, this is also influenced by the exposure.
If you plan your family portrait shoot at a time of day with constant ambient light (e.g. 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.), then you have already laid the basis for uniform images . Once you set the exposure, you don’t usually have to change it again. Also make sure that you do not change the exposure mode (automatic shutter or aperture) during the family portrait shoot. Or at least only for certain series.
In automatic mode , the camera could – depending on the selected measurement type – choose a slightly different exposure for each shot. You definitely don’t want that! Consistency is very important. Therefore, if possible, always take pictures in manual mode M.
# 4 Constant exposure and histogram
Varying exposure during the family portrait session means more post-processing because it has to be balanced on every single picture. It can also cause a slight color shift or increase noise (in the case of underexposure) and other undesirable effects. Of course you can use varying exposures if you are not sure about the brightness – there is the well-known technique of bracketing .
If you make the settings yourself, the exposure remains the same throughout the shoot. Just remember to control your exposure when you change the layout, location, etc. I then shoot a quick test pattern, check the histogram, adjust what is necessary, and continue. Read this article to properly read and understand the histogram .
# 5 Use your focus lock
Just like the exposure, the focus should not change from picture to picture. If you take family portrait tip # 1 to heart and use a tripod, you won’t move. Since you have probably positioned the family in a relatively fixed location, it will not move either. At least not much. We only move closer to or away from the camera. So…
Set your camera for the family portrait as follows: Use the focus lock, back-button focus or manual focus . With any of these camera settings, the focus will not change from shot to shot. If you use the shutter release and the subject moves , then the focus point suddenly lies in the background … and you have your next “uuuups” moment. If you are not sure how to make the necessary settings, see the instruction manual for your camera.
Bonus portrait family portrait : If your camera can shoot videos, there is a particularly pleasant way to set up manual focus:
- Switch to live view mode so that you can see the image on your screen.
- Press your zoom button once or twice. There is probably a magnifying glass or a “+” sign on it
- The display on your screen is enlarged (nothing changes on the lens) so that you can see exactly what is in focus. This allows you to set the manual focus much more precisely.
- Press the zoom button again to return to normal view and turn Live View off.
Family portrait ideas and poses
# 6 Arrange the family according to size
Different poses are extremely important and loosen up the shoot. Maybe you already know the following family portrait tip, maybe not. Or maybe you didn’t understand him 100%. You want to avoid a boring row of heads sorted by size at all costs. Diagonals are more dynamic and make the picture more interesting. So try to arrange the people for the family portrait as follows:
Imagine a line going from one face to the next . Try to position people so that no head is directly above or at the same level next to another. You want diagonals, not totem poles. Use typical family portraits or bring your own folding stool. Let some people sit or raise them with such a stool. Use the possibilities of the environment to reach different heights. If nothing is available, they should simply be offset according to size.
# 7 Bend what can bend
This next basic rule always applies when you take pictures of people. So also with a family portrait. It is extremely helpful. Most people stand stiff and cramped when they have to stand up. You need to help them adopt a more natural pose by bending some parts of the body . For starters, the following works:
- Let her shift her weight to one leg and instruct her to half turn her hip away from the camera
- Let her put a hand in her pocket . I usually recommend leaving your thumb outside, otherwise you would like to push your hand all the way down into your pocket. It looks just as unnatural again.
- Let them hook a finger in the belt or a belt loop
- When you are seated, you should lean forward slightly and shift your weight to one side
- If you lean somewhere , it always looks better when one foot is crossed in front of the other. The toes should touch the floor.
- A man can raise one knee while sitting and put the other foot flat on the floor. He should turn slightly so that you do not look him directly in the step
Do you understand what I mean? The best way to teach these poses is to do them yourself. Look at the person, pose yourself as you would like, and let them imitate it exactly as you would.
# 8 How to hide problem areas
In the end it is like this: If the mother thinks she is too fat, then she will not like the family photos. No matter how good the light and facial expressions are (see # 2 and # 8), be aware of the “mistakes” others see in themselves. Your task, even with a family portrait, is to hide it as much as possible.
Here are some great tips for covering problem areas:
If someone is more powerful , do not shoot them with a wide-angle lens.
Photograph a double chin from an angle just above eye level. The look up stretches and minimizes the chin and neck area.
A stool on the nose can (usually) only be seen from one side. Look closely at the face to find out which direction you should take the picture.
If you are photographing a large size couple , leave the man (who is usually taller) standing wide-legged. That makes it a bit smaller and at least closes the gap somewhat.
Let stout people (or anyone unhappy with their weight) lie in the grass while their children lie down on them. It always works well. It hides the belly, stretches the chin and reduces the size difference since only the faces are picked up.
# 9 Expression is EVERYTHING in the family portrait!
Even if the light is crucial, the expression of the people in the family portrait ultimately makes all the difference! You can mess up the lights and the poses – but if you make them laugh, you win! So how do you do that?
Sometimes being a photographer also means being a comedian or clown. Finding the right words or making people smile is mostly a matter of practice. It’s easy for children – but adults can be a real challenge.
During the family portrait session, try to get a feel for how you can tease her a little or make jokes at her own expense. A sensitive issue. Real sensitivity is required here. If you are not sure, then leave it alone and focus on the children (next chapter). It is not uncommon for the joy of the little ones to spill over to the big ones. I wish you success!
The children are the key
# 10 Let the kids be kids
I have often noticed that parents say to their children before a family portrait session: “You have to be good and smile” . Exactly wrong. This creates pressure on the children and is completely unnecessary. So I ask the parents to tell their children instead:
“We go to the park and take some pictures. It’ll be
That’s all! No expectations other than fun. Then prepare yourself. Bring props yourself or let the mother bring along a favorite toy or book.
# 11 Family portrait accessories and tools
Accessories are often used in family portraits. Most of the time I have a hand puppet and soap bubbles in my camera bag next to my equipment . If the children don’t want to sit and smile, don’t make them do it. Let them rage and just be kids for a while. Important: take pictures of it. 🙂 Play with them, let them have fun. After that, they tend to join in and stay seated for a few minutes later. Speaking of soap bubbles, have you already read our instructions on how to photograph frozen soap bubbles in winter ?
# 12 Make yourself a monkey
If small children or babies are to be on the family portrait, you need to get their attention. A helper can do a lot for you. Just tell the family to bring a grandma or friend to support them.
Funnily enough, I have seen it many times that the children don’t need a lot of instructions – the parents do. The children often look and smile at the camera. And what do the parents do? You look at the children. 🙂 Another “uuuups” moment! I always say to the parents: “No matter what happens, look at me, NOT at your children”.
This statement becomes even more relevant when I start monkeying myself. Try it yourself. For me these faxes always work to get the full attention of the children:
- Make strange sounds
- Sing (I’m really bad, but she doesn’t care)
- Grimaces and fish faces are a guarantee of laughter
- Play look behind the camera
- Run wildly back and forth with a doll
Children are the ones who understand life properly – we adults ruin it. Let them be kids, let them have fun. Then you just have to be ready to capture the right moment.
# 13 have fun!
My last family portrait Tip: Don’t take things too seriously. Do some crazy or funny family portraits at the end of the family shoot (or in the middle when the energy levels drop). Invite them to a group hug and make them squeeze as hard as they can. Most of them start laughing. And as they go apart again: you take another perfect family photo.
Piles of people in the grass are always funny. Or ask them to jump in the air or grimace (you can make one, of course). This relaxes the situation and creates a good mood.
Summary family portraits
1. Use a tripod
2. Use the manual exposure mode
3. Use your focus lock or the manual focus
4. Sort the group according to size
5. Let the children be kids and fool around with them
6. Bend what can be bent – so help you pose
7. Put people in the scene well
8. Light is crucial – make all eyes shine
9. Expression is everything!
10. Have fun and be relaxed