What you need to know to take stunning family portraits

Photo Stories

According to a recent parenting survey, 30% of millennial parents have staged a photoshoot for social media. Family portraits have always had a special place in traditional photo albums, but these days, they’ve taken on a new significance. For the modern family, beautiful pictures aren’t reserved only for special occasions—they’re a part of everyday life.

Today’s family photographers have their hands full with fun projects ranging from pregnancy announcements to engagements to birthdays. Some families are even hiring professionals to document their vacations (it’s a growing trend). As a professional family portrait photographer, you can “wow” your clients with images they will treasure for the rest of their lives. Here’s how to plan and execute the perfect photoshoot.

Happy family by Jure Gasparic on 500px.com

Planning the wardrobe

During the planning phase, discuss clothing options with your clients. Some families will have a set idea, while others will be at a complete loss. To help them visualize their ideal result, send a mood board (you can do this easily with Milanote). You can share a color palette and style suggestions and then receive feedback from them.

Try to find one detail that each family member can incorporate into their outfits, such as a color or pattern. This will keep their look cohesive without being super-matchy.

Posing and composition tips

Outdoors
Face your subjects away from the sun. It will keep them from squinting and minimize sharp shadows from their facial features. You can use a fill light to offset the backlighting.

Indoors
Let the family bring a prop or two of their own. A book to crowd around or a favorite family activity will help them feel comfortable and give them something to do with their hands. You’ll get natural-looking candids without directing every move.

With new photography clients
Demonstrate what you’d like them to do if they are having difficulty following your instructions. Some clients have trouble visualizing, but understand more clearly when they can see what you’re trying to tell them.

Large groups
Choose an aperture of f/5.6 or narrower to ensure that everyone in the group is in focus. Be ready to give a little direction, but “read the room” to determine which people will feel most comfortable together. A mix of seated and standing family members will add interest if the scene starts to look too static.

Pet families
Fur babies often make an appearance during family photoshoots, and you’ll earn brownie points for accommodating them. Have the family bring their pet’s favorite treat as an incentive to behave and also snap candid shots of them all playing together. Those are the memories they really care about.

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Recommended family portrait equipment

You can get great family photos with a broad range of equipment, but there are some staples you’ll usually want to have on hand.

The right lens
A 50mm lens (the “nifty fifty”) is a good starting point for family portraits. Whether you’re shooting full-frame or with a crop sensor, 50mm will be close to a normal field of view. It will give you some flexibility if you shoot indoors and will help you get larger families into the frame at once.

Avoid using a wide-angle lens (35mm focal length or shorter) too close to your subjects’ faces, as there will be noticeable—and often, unflattering—distortion. However, if the location is significant to the family you’re shooting, a wide-angle used a little farther away can help bring more of their surroundings into the shot, making more meaningful images.

Tripod
A tripod will be helpful when you’re getting formal portraits of an entire family. You can compose the scene first and do basic metering, then walk away from your camera to place and pose family members.

Seating
Whether it’s a few well-placed stools in your studio or an artistic armchair in a golden field, it’s a good idea to have options for seated portraits. This can also be a picturesque set of stairs, a family couch, or an artful picnic blanket. It provides posing options and helps you fit more people into the frame.

Artificial lighting
Natural light is a beautiful thing for family portraits, but it’s not always cooperative. Make sure to have at least a speedlight on hand, just in case. You can use it as a fill light when the sun is behind your subjects, or you can bounce it off a light-colored ceiling during a dark lifestyle session.

A step stool
Shooting from below can be an unflattering angle for many people, but if you’re a short photographer, that’s exactly where you’ll end up. A collapsible step stool is easy to bring on-site and will give you that bit of extra height to capture everyone’s best side.

happy mother and baby daughter walking in winter by Maria Kovalevskaya on 500px.com

Ideas for seasonal family portrait photography

Some families will return for new portraits each season, so find ways to keep each session fresh. Every season offers something new for you to work with.

Spring
Tulips and strawberries are in full bloom. Call pick-your-own fields beforehand to inquire about the least crowded times of day and ask about agreements with photographers who want to reserve a section of the field.

Summer
Sunflower fields are ready to go in the summertime, and sandy beach portraits are equally popular. Remind your clients to apply sunscreen and bring extra tissues in case things get sweaty.

Fall
Check into local party prop businesses. Many of them will hire out straw bales for seating. Throw in a few pumpkins and some flannel blankets, and you’ve got a cozy autumn scene.

Winter
Make sure your clients are dressed warmly and remember to take special precautions with your equipment in cold weather. Partner with a locally-owned Christmas tree farm, if you don’t live in a colder climate, to get that wintery, evergreen look.

Look into offering mini-sessions to encourage clients to come back each season. You can offer a shorter time frame, a reduced number of images, and a lower price point. It will make them more likely to consider sending out a yearly holiday card, for example, or a New Year’s family update with a family portrait enclosed.

African American family playing together in the outdoor park by Twinster Photo on 500px.com

How to capture candid photos

Candid photos seem like the easiest type to capture, but since your subjects are not models, they may be stiff or uncomfortable in front of the camera. Here’s what you can do to move past those early jitters and get great candid photos.

1. Keep them talking
If you can get your clients to talk about themselves, they’ll automatically relax a bit. Ask about something low-stress, like a hobby or a favorite sports team, then let them lead the conversation.

2. Don’t micromanage
For the candid portion of the shoot, give general directions that they can easily follow. “Play by the water for a few minutes.” “Hold hands and walk down that trail.” Let them do the activity you direct in a way that feels natural to them.

3. Give them a little time
Your client may still feel hyper-aware of your presence for the first several minutes, no matter what you do. Try to leave enough time in the shoot for them to relax, and let them get involved in an activity before giving up on it. Give them time to forget you are there.

500px Community family photography

Before you go out and plan your own family portrait shoot, get some inspiration from the 500px community.

A day in the life of family portrait photographer Vanessa Madec
Vanessa Madec walks us through a two-session day of shooting and how she balances it with post-processing and her personal life.

Elena Shumilova’s viral family portraits
Opting for an artistic take on family photography rather than a string of commissions, Elena Shumilova enjoys a little extra freedom in her work.

Adrian Murray’s whimsical take on childhood
Adrian Murray’s portraits of his family, especially his children, offer an intimate glimpse into the day-to-day life of a young family.

Friends as family
Family portraits aren’t always just blood relatives. Whatever “family” means to your clients, that’s what you want to capture for them!

500px on taking images that sell
Taking family portraits that inspire is an art form, but you probably need to sell them, too. Here are nine tips you can follow to create family photos that practically sell themselves.

Now you’re ready to go out and take meaningful family portraits for your clients! Remember that these photos should convey the story of their family, so pay close attention to how your clients are feeling throughout the planning and execution of their photoshoot. With some careful attention to detail, you’ll be capturing stunning family portraits in no time.

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