How to Take your Family Portraits

Family Portraits.  We take them all the time to capture those we love and the memories and moments in time.  Sometimes we even jump in front of the camera just in time to be in the photographs too.  With families getting together for summer vacation, I have been asked to give some advice on how to take your family portraits.  There are many variables to consider.  The number one thing I have to stress is to have fun!  Sometimes things just will not go to plan.  Some of my most favourite family portraits are those unexpected moments that just happened to get captured on camera.  In the image below my kids were not dressed especially for the occasion, nor were they matching.  I was testing out a new lighting set up and they wanted to be included in the process.  In the end this was my favourite shot from the session. 
How  To  Take  Your
F A M I L Y   P O R T R A I T S

You can surely take an impromptu family portrait and love the results.  However you could also prep for a more stylized family portrait and take them yourself.  Look over this list of points to keep in mind before taking your portraits is key to satisfaction.  But do not forget about your equipment.  Make sure your camera batteries are charged and with you, that your memory cards have available space (and not just becoming storage to unbacked up photos) and double check your camera settings.  If you shoot in lower quality for selling items on eBay, make sure to change it back to RAW or a higher res for your portraits to save from crying later.

I do not suggest having everyone wear the exact same outfit.  Just as I would not suggest those that travel to Hawaii to buy all matching ‘Aloha’ shirts and have their photo taken.  The key is coordination and simplicity.  Choose a colour palette and and let everyone dress accordingly.  For balance check ahead of time what everyone has and what they are thinking of wearing.  Otherwise you may have someone’s uncle showing up in blue jeans instead of the suggested khakis simply because he did not have any in his wardrobe.  It will become a case of the ‘one of these things is not like the other‘.  Especially if you are taking a family portrait on vacation you cannot plan on everyone having something that will match.  Plan ahead of time so that you do not run into this problem.

My last family portrait was taken at Christmas time by our home here in Bath, England.  I let my family know ahead of time what the colour palette was and sort of kept tabs on my mum and sister about what they would be bringing.  When it came to plan out the outfits I let everyone ‘punch’ the colour of red in a different way.  I wore a red cardigan, my sister wore red shoes and red accessories, my mum wore a red hat, my eldest son wore a red tie, and my youngest had red stripe detail in his dark plaid shirt.  My husband did not have anything with red but matched the palette.  Since we all punched red into the photo in different ways it did not matter that Ryan stayed neutral because it became a cohesive balance. 

A good rule of thumb for what time of day to shoot is the ‘Golden Hour’, which is the first and last hour of sunlight during the day since the lighting is softer.  You can check online for sun calculators to determine what time you should be outside to do your photograph.  I suggest working together and trying to get it done as efficiently as possible to avoid family members getting restless.  I always tell my boys that if they work really hard to help us get the shot then we can move on quicker to something more fun.  A little bribery never hurts. 

This may be an integral part of your shot if you are on vacation in a place you would like to remember, like on Lanikai beach in Hawaii.  It may be good to location scout first to make sure the place works and that it is a safe location.  Simple is best and try  not to have too much going on in the background.  I have used brick walls, hedges, and even an open field to set the scene.  Depending on your camera, the lens, and your settings you may want just the focus on the the group with a soft blurry bokeh background.  I suggest keeping away from other people or anything that may clutter the shot and take away the focus.  Let the outdoors be your photo studio and keep it simple so that it works with you for the shot. 

Tripod, Timer and a Remote.  
The family portraits I have shown where I am in the photograph have been taken with my camera on a tripod (or another surface) and with a timer.  Easier would be a remote.  It is how I take my self portraits for Self Portrait Saturday.  I definitely recommend looking into all three if you do not have or know how to work them yet. The photo above where I am reading with my kids was taken with the timer.

Elements.  Sometimes the best made plans can be tested by the circumstances like the weather.  You could have a beautiful set up on the beach, perfectly orchestrated morning to get everyone looking just perfect and  have the wind mess everyone’s hair up.  Two of the family portraits we have done in England have been while it is raining.  Of course the rain did not happen until the camera was set up on the tripod and we were ready to start.  At this point you have two options.  You can reschedule or you can attempt to do the best that you can given the circumstances.

Tips: Keep it fun.  As soon as someone starts getting stressed out or upset it is going to show in the face or body language.  If you are dealing with the wind turn your bodies so that the wind works for you, not against you. If you are dealing with the rain my best advice is to know what shot you want to get and get it. If you are not comfortable with the lighting and cannot get a good test shot, don’t force it.  Go back out when the weather is better.

Lighting.  Not enough and your portraits will not turn out.  Too much and you will get harsh shadows on their face. Be aware of the lighting situation.  When we lived in Hawaii if I wanted to shoot in the morning I would have to shoot early because by 1000 it would be too bright.  In England where we have cloudy skies often it becomes one of my favorite lighting situations as it acts like a natural light diffuser.  If you are shooting outside it is good to have your subjects in the shade with the sun light in front of them.  I used this method above while shooting family portraits on a bright sunny day in Arizona.  I also love shooting with the sun behind my subjects for backlighting.

Tips:  If you are still practicing with backlighting try shooting your subjects with trees behind them and shoot so that the sun shines through the trees.  Keeping your subject far enough away from the backdrop with a low aperture, can result in a nice bokeh affect of the sunlight through the trees.  If you are still learning about shooting in manual and ISO settings check out the ‘Sunny 16 rule': for shooting in sunlight. 

Kids & Animals.  They infamous quote is you should never work with children or animals.  However of course those will be the two categories we want to focus on in our photographs.  Keep the little ones in mind when going planning each stage of your family portrait.  If you know the kids will be tired during a certain hour, obviously do not plan to shoot at that time.  It is better to work around the little ones and their schedule.  Make sure the kids present are neither tired nor hungry when it is time to pose.  Bring treats and have something for them to look forward to after the photographs have been taken. 

Props.  They can be fun. Especially with the right group of people a few key props can pull a theme together.  Kids especially will love things they can wear or play with and will be drawn to the excitement.  However make sure you get your standard portraits first. Always aim to get the shot you want in the beginning and then from there have fun.  It could be the shots you do not plan that may surprise you and turn out the best in the end.

Attitudes.  Sometimes it is not the right time to take photos.  If anyone is uncomfortable in front of the camera it will read in the eyes.  If someone is upset it will not only show in their face but will affect the other people in the photograph.  I have taken family photos as a portrait photographer where the husband was in a really nasty mood.  It not only affected the child but made the wife very anxious.  It did not matter what I did to get the mom and the child to smile, the husband was grumpy in ever single shot.  For this very reason on family vacations with my husband’s family I have second guessed my decision to take family portraits.  The camera does not lie and there are some things you just cannot fix in photoshop. Bottom line, do not force a photo shoot if the situation is already stressful.


SPONSORED: How to Quickly Catalog, Cull, and Edit Photos using Lightroom

My featured sponsor for the month, Lisa, is a photographer and has so many great posts on the subject on her blog  One of her posts:  How to Quickly Catalog, Cull, and Edit Photos using Lightroom is a perfect follow up to after you have taken your family portraits.  If you are only using photoshop and have not heard or have not used Lightroom yet, I highly suggest taking a read.  While photoshop is really geared towards graphic design artists, Lightroom is really geared towards photographers.  Let Lisa know how you found her and you can ask her photography questions over Twitter:
*All photography (minus the sponsored photo) belongs to Bonnie Rose of Bonnie Rose Photography © 2007 – 2013 All Rights Reserved |

  • Bonnie Rose

    I just hope my family will comply! But as we haven’t taken any family portraits in ages, I think it’s about the time that we have some again!

    By the way, I’m not sure what’s up, but the Disqus form only seems to be loading when I’m at my laptop… on my phone, the old blogger system still turns up, but that doesn’t happen for me on other blogs. Do you have any idea what’s up with that?

  • Bonnie Rose

    Hmm…I’m really not sure? Was it just happening today? I know I always get your comments.

  • Bonnie Rose

    I’ve think it’s been like that ever since you installed Disqus… I didn’t even know you did until two days ago! So I’ve been commenting on the old Blogger Comment form. Suppose it doesn’t really matter, but maybe it will figure itself out eventually.

  • Bonnie Rose

    Hmm. I havent been able to find any answers online about it yet. Let me know if in a week nothing has changed. Or also if you comment, and its the old one, let me know so I can check.

  • Bonnie Rose

    Great tips! Family portraits in my family I’m pretty sure always included some kind of bribery–there were seven of us kids to get smiling at the camera! And I still remember one time where it just wasn’t working out at all for us to get our picture taken as a family–so my parents just gave up attempting–the little ones were crying and had no intention of stopping!

  • Bonnie Rose

    Yeah once the tears start…that becomes the theme of the shoot. 😉

  • Bonnie Rose

    awe thanks so much! that’s so nice of you! it’s all tripod : )

  • Bonnie Rose

    That baby is adorable! You are so talented x

  • Bonnie Rose

    Thank you, I hope I can learn a lot more about photography in the next year too. x

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