So, you're planning to take a family portrait. Whether the photo will include three or 23 members, a little advance planning will ensure that the portrait is one you'll hang proudly in your hallway or over your mantle for years to come.
Every person in the photo needs to be lit properly and positioned towards the camera, but a portrait that will make you proud also needs to be well-composed. This, of course, is easier said than done if you're working with a squirmy toddler, scowling teenager and a great-aunt who's uncomfortable in front of the camera. It helps to scout your background, gather any necessary props and prepare your family members about what to expect during the shoot.
Start your successful photo shoot with an extra fully charged battery for your digital camera and a memory card with lots of available space. Then, read on to learn how to make sure your next family photo preserves your family memories with love and warmth.
Having everyone dress in similar outfits helps to visually unify the group and makes exposure and retouching easier. We've all seen those photos of laid-back families dressed casually in jeans and white shirts, barefoot on the beach. The look works for some families, but if your brood needs to allow for a bit more individuality, don't despair. Simply ask for everyone to choose an outfit in a neutral palette or in similar tones, in either dark or bright colors. Stay away from brightly patterned or trendy clothing that might provide a distraction to the viewer or date the photo too quickly.
Look for ways to capture common interests. Does your family love baseball or hiking? Have them wear T-shirts representing their favorite teams, or dress casually in hiking clothes and pose by a stream. Everyone will be happy and comfortable -- and the smiles will be genuine.
Tempted to make a special shopping trip to find something new for your son or daughter to wear? Don't. You'll want to them to look relaxed and natural, and brand-new clothing can look stiff and uncomfortable on film.
Shoot outdoors in early morning or late afternoon
Natural light is most flattering early in the morning or late in the afternoon. So, if your family is a flock of early birds, try gathering everyone at the beach or down by the river around 9 a.m. Late afternoon also works great for adding warmth to your photos, so try scheduling a shoot around 5 p.m., when everyone is dressed and ready for dinner.
Midday sun can be harsh and unflattering. But if that's the only time you can shoot, find a shady spot out of direct sunlight, or shoot on a cloudy day. You'll get softer shadows, smoother skin tone, and greater detail.
Be aware of the background
Look for a simple, natural background that adds soft color and gentle lines to your composition, but doesn't detract from your subjects. Even if you're miles away from blue horizons at the beach, the great outdoors offers many other beautiful options: a green lawn, a lazy river, a football stadium, an amusement park, an old barn, or a stone wall. Look for color, simplicity and a spot where your family will feel right at home.
Keep an eye on what's going on behind your subjects, too, so Grandpa doesn't appear to have things growing out of his head. Eliminating a distraction can be as simple as adjusting your camera position.
Remember to set your camera with a shallow depth of field to slightly blur the background, keeping the focus on your family.
Bring out those natural smiles
A smart photographer comes to a photo shoot prepared to entertain and bring out the best in his subjects. Simply saying "smile" often means the mouth is in the right position, but the eyes don't have the right twinkle. Try asking family members to close their eyes, then open them on a count of three to avoid having one person in the shot blinking when the toddlers are smiling sweetly.
Don't be afraid to joke around and have fun. It never hurts to ask your subjects for one serious shot and one silly one. Once the formal shot is complete, ask everyone to stay in place and relax for a few minutes. Or plan ahead for an inside joke: One family with teenagers found rose-colored glasses for their parents to wear, while the mischievous younger members sported dark wayfarers and posed with an attitude.
Sometimes, the best shots will show up in the outtakes, when everyone is relaxed and being themselves, and not worrying about putting on their best smile!
Look for creative ways to pose the people in your group. Try to keep everyone's eyes from being at the same height and create a sense of depth by placing some family members in front of or behind others. Be creative -- have the smallest person in the family stand on a stack of books behind the tallest; try putting one person in a chair. Or you could place the tallest person in the middle to form a triangle effect. The trick is to create visual interest and avoid the appearance of a line-up. Remember the rule of thirds and place points of interest in the imaginary lines along the top third and the bottom third of the frame.
Whatever position you choose, ask everyone to come closer together or put their arms around one another or touch whenever possible. As a photographer, you can make a photo feel more intimate simply by zooming in tighter on your subject's faces.
Add personality and pizzazz to your photos by changing your perspective: Get below your subjects and shoot up at them, or climb up on a ladder and shoot down. Remember, composition makes the difference between an ordinary photo and an extraordinary one.
Have a ton of precious old movies, photos and VHS tapes sitting in boxes gathering dust? It's time to go digital and preserve those memories for future generations.
- Bavister, Steve; Frost, Lee; Lawton, Rod; Czarnecki. The New Photography Manual. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. 2007.
- General-imaging.com. "10 Simple Tips for Taking the Perfect Shot." (Accessed Dec. 20, 2010)http://www.general-imaging.com/us/photo-tips.aspx?id=509
- PopPhoto.com. "How-to: Take Great Family Photos." (Accessed Dec. 20, 2010)http://www.popphoto.com/content/how-take-great-family-photos?pnid=61013.
- Revell, Jeff. Nikon D5000: From Snapshots to Great Shots. California: Peachpit Press. 2010.