Shooting Family Portraits

I’m not a professional photographer. I’m very much an amateur, but I do love taking photos. When I wrote about making fall family traditions, I suggested an annual autumn family portrait as a family tradition. It’s the season to gather everyone and take a photo for the holiday cards and gifts. I’ve been reading up on the subject to improve my skills and thought you might enjoy the results of my research.

Family, International Family Day, International, Day

Are you planning to be the photographer? Photography Concentrate has suggestions for equipment. Get a tripod for your camera. Set up a wireless remote so you can trigger the camera with a remote control. Don’t take everything with the remote, but it does give you the opportunity to have a portrait of the whole family. Use a zoom lens. When directing the group for a shot, don’t forget to leave room for you!

Focus Tips

The goal of family portraits is to get every member of the group in sharp focus, so when you print the photos for a wall or an album, they look beautiful and professional.  The larger the group the more combinations of shots should be taken. Remember always leave room for error and provide yourself with many possible  portraits. Amy & Jordan, professional photographers, wrote a great post on focus tips for group portraits.

A. They do lots of weddings and suggest one person organize the shots and another takes the photo. If you don’t have an assistant, put down your camera while you organize the shot and then step back, take a breath, look at the entire group before you bring the camera up to see if you need to make corrections and then bring the camera to your face to get the shot..

Mother, Boy, Son, Whisper, Love, Laughter, Secret, Park

B. People tend to curl on the ends of groups and make a U shape. This can make the folks on the ends out of focus as you are centering the shot on the people in the middle of the group. Tell everyone to line up their toes  and it makes a straight line.

C. Try to avoid multiple rows when possible. If the group is too big for one line, make the second row get uncomfortably close to the first row. The farther apart the lines are the harder it is to get everyone in focus.

D. Focus on the person who is front and center. Aperture, like a lot of things in photography, works in a system of thirds. So, if your aperture is f/4, then within that focal plane, wherever you focus, 1/3 of that will go forward and 2/3 will go backward. In other words, when you focus on someone in the front, you just need them to be in focus, and nothing in front of them, but you do need the people behind them to be in focus, so you’ll have a better chance of doing that if you give them the extra 2/3 of that aperture’s focal depth.

Focus on the center person in front
Photo by Amy & Jordan

E. Picking the right aperture depends on the size of the group. Amy and Jordan make many suggestions based on group size. Their Pro Tip: A lens’s sharpest aperture isn’t actually its highest number (like f/22). For most lenses, it’s around f/8 – f/11. So if you’re really worried about getting everyone in a large, multi-layered, generational group shot sharp and in focus, something in that range will definitely do the trick!

F. Check your LCD screen to be sure everyone’s eyes are open and in focus. Shoot several times and recheck LCD screen before moving on to new poses.

Photo Printique

Now that we’ve looked at focus tips we can move one to planning the family portrait. Where do you shoot the photos? Do you want a natural shot in the home or do you want a group shot outside?  What should everyone wear? Printique has a great post with tips on planning a fall family portrait.

Family, Holiday, People, Happy, Christmas, Portrait

A. Coordinate your clothing but don’t match.  You can create a color palette that coordinates by going to and exploring the color palettes there or inputting a photo and letting the Adobe site create a palette according to the colors in the photo. You can use different tones of the same color like dark blue, medium blue and lighter blue shades. Another option is complementary colors on the opposite side of the color wheel like blue and orange. If you’re planning to frame the photo for your home, consider the color palette in your house.

Family, Parents, Kids, Portraits, Outdoors, Posing

B. Choose a great location. Whether it’s the comfort of your own home, your favorite vacation location, or a local park,  you need a location with good light. If outside you need some shade so everyone doesn’t look squinty in the sun. If the background is darker or complements your clothing, your family will pop against it.

Family, People, Car, Looking, Children, Man, Woman

C. Bring a few props like a blanket for a shot on the ground or a chair for building a pose. Shoot what your family loves to do. Love to bike? Make a bike part of the pose combinations. Love books? Try a pose with family story time. Do the kids love to go fishing with dad? Make a great shot by the water with their rods.

Photo by Rob Lim
 Photo by Rob Lim, Photography Concentrate

D.  Capture real lifestyle moments in your photographs.  Photos of your family laughing, walking, cuddling up and just interacting will highlight the unique relationships within your family.

Youth, Children, Wagon, Child, Childhood, People, Kid

E. Have a furry family member? Try to add your dog or cat (if willing) in your family shots.  Whenever I look back on family photos from my childhood, I always think we didn’t take photos of us with our family dog. I still miss that dog.

Happy Family, Dog Family, Pup, Love, Happy Couple

F. Don’t shoot for just one great shot. Remember you could create a gallery of different angles, combinations, and even individuals for a family gallery. Start with everyone in the shot and then you can easily add and remove family members from your frame, cycling through a variety of different combinations.

Family Portrait Gallery

Digital Photography School has many interesting posts on taking pictures. Their 10 Tips For Taking A Family Portrait include many of those above and great ideas for indoor lighting.  Most of us do not have professional lighting equipment for taking photos. They suggest making the most of sunlight. Position your group facing or parallel to a large clean window, if it is a particularly bright day cover it with a thin veil of material, such as a net curtain or peg a white cotton sheet across to act as a diffuser for softer, more flattering light.

If you decide to use a flash indoors, use a diffuser to soften the effect and avoid bleaching skin or flattening textures.  Try different perspectives as a photographer – stand on a chair or lay on the ground.

Family, Grass, Happy Family Outdoors, Happiness

Ask your family to do things – jump, dance, play. This relaxes everyone and hopefully gives you smiles to photograph.

Happy, Joy, Family, Girl, Woman, Happiness, Young

If you photograph the kids alone, have their parents stand behind you. They then will be watching their parents and you have their attention.

Sisters, Dog, Snow, Bernadoodle, Pets, Fur, Animal

If doing a combination of just the parents, have the kids beside you and ask them to help you. Have the kids make faces at the parents – you’ll get more relaxed, smiling portraits and everyone is having fun.

People, Three, Portrait, Black, Black Women, Woman

Hope you find these tips helpful in taking family portraits. Happy Shooting!

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I was raised in Tennessee but have lived in Florida for many years. Love my small home in the Tampa Bay area and its developing garden. My decorating style is eclectic - some vintage, some cottage, all with a modern flair. Pursuing a healthier lifestyle. Spent many years in social services but am happily retired.

12 thoughts to “Shooting Family Portraits”

  1. These are terrific tips, Carol, and I hope to put some into play this week! I have one more — in the midst of your shoot or at the end (depending on the make-up of the group) have one pic or so with “make your funny or scary face.” And put the camera on sport shooting or multiple shots and keep the button down (I sometimes do this with regular portraits too because people get more relaxed or you might get a bit of laughter). You’ll get tons of shots you’ll throw away (don’t you love digital?) but you’ll also get one where everyone is laughing and it’s a fun memory pic — maybe not for the living room wall (but possibly for the Christmas card!)

  2. Great post Carol. I never even thought about half of these things before. Now I can practice on the family!

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