Updated: May 3, 2020
The holiday season is the perfect time to take family portraits. Be certain to take advantage of family gatherings and capture some group shots. While not everyone likes posing for a large family photo, these portraits are an important means of recording your family history.
Family portraits are like savings accounts, it doesn't take a lot of effort and years from now you'll be glad you did it.
Here are some helpful hints - listed as do's and dont's.
- Find the right setting. Much of family portraits are logistics, but it is all part of the art. Find a venue that offers sufficient light, space for the subjects and depth of photo. Check for and avoid distractors like mirrors, windows and lighting that could foul your shot. Mirrors and windows can cause unwanted reflections (especially when flashes are used) and lights in the frame are more likely to cause shadows and blow-outs than benefit your shot.
- Estimate the number of people in the photo. Space is important as family portraits take up a lot of room - make sure your subjects aren't on top of each other, if they are too close, someone is going to be in front of someone else and it blows the shot. Prepare your seating accordingly.
- Plan/ minimize your photo depth. Depth of the photo is different from depth of field. Depth of photo is the amount of distance between the camera and the subjects. The larger the family and the wider the arrangement of subjects, the farther away you'll need to be (depending on your lens and zoom). The farther you are away from your subjects the less effective your flash and the more ceiling/floor will be in the shot.
- Arrange the lighting. Having sufficient light is key as many family shots (especially during the holidays) are indoors and the shortened days don't offer much ambient light from outside. Light is usually in short supply. In addition to an external flash, consider using wider apertures (~F3.6), lower shutter speeds 1/60-1/100 and higher ISOs (but not too high as you want to avoid noise - especially when the print will be 8x10 or larger). Tripods are warranted.
- Use a tripod (even if you aren't in the picture), this will help you minimize the variance in your meter readings and allow you to take more consistent photos. Since you will be setting up the scene before you invite your family to take their places - tripods will be critical.
- Pre-stage the scene. Figure all of these things out before inviting your subjects in. You'll have a better experience - trust me! Remove distractors; set the lighting; arrange the seating; get the tripod in place; take some sample shots to get the settings right; test the shutter remote.
- Put grandparents in the center and surround them with their progeny. Its a great formula that has been used forever... because it works. Besides, they're more likely to be showing it to all of their friends than your teenager.
- Have children stand in front, until they are too tall and then have them sit cross legged or kneel. Holding infants and young toddlers is fine. When children are held they naturally turn to face the person holding them - and not the camera. Kneeling is better than sitting as there is less squirming, rocking, bouncing etc. Years later its great to see how much the kids have grown.
- Yes to Pets. If you have a "fur child", then they are part of the family and belong in the picture. I'm an unabashed dog person, so I always want the pets in the photo even though this makes the portrait that much more challenging. Again, this is part of the family history, "Look at Daisy when she was a puppy. That's the Christmas she ate all the cookies."
- Yes to Toys. Another way to date a photo is by the toys your young ones are cherishing at the time. It may feel odd to have a blanket or a Snoopy doll in the photo, but it helps date the photo and adds to the story behind the portrait.
- Don't worry about infants and toddlers spoiling photos. Nine times out of ten they will. It's part of being an infant and part of the life experience. Years later the parents will remember; Johnny was teething, Mary had a cold.... whatever the case, it adds to the family history.
- Don't have more than 3 rows of subjects - aim for kneeling, sitting, standing arrangement. Four rows are complicated and the photo quickly gets disjointed. You'll also start to have depth of field challenges at more than 2 rows. Remember to take this into account when selecting your aperture (narrow the aperture ~F5.6).
- Don't arrange the subjects too wide. The wider the subject field the more ceiling and floor in the photo and the smaller your subjects will appear.
- Don't over zoom. If you are zooming, chances are you are raising the F-stop and reducing the efficacy of your flash. Bring the camera closer to your subjects.
- Don’t increase the ISO too much. Increased ISO will help in dimmer lights, but the increase in noise will make your photo appear grainy, especially when printed in large sizes as warranted by the number of people in the photo.
- Don't put off taking the picture for another year. Life happens and moments are lost. As photographers we document history - don't let the present steal your past.