Mastering Family Photography: What You Need to Get Started

One thing that I shoot my fair share of is family pictures. I love the family dynamic so much: the “over primpers”, the “get me out of here’s”, the “I’ll be in the picture, but I’m going to ruin every single shot”, the “smile or I’ll beat the snot out of you later’s” and the “gee, we’ve known that we were going to do this months in advance, but we just rolled out of bed so here we are in our pajama’s ” types recur no matter what the social or economic dynamic. That’s why shooting family photos is so much fun, but can be a little scary if you aren’t used to doing it.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer
Photo by Barbara Stitzer

In this first of a multi-part series, I will give you tips on taking a family shoot from nightmare to dreamland.

Before You Shoot—The Consultation

It is always a good idea to touch base with your clients and find out what their expectations are for the shoot. I usually say something like,“ So in the ultimate situation, what would you want to have above your fireplace for generations to come?” This gets them thinking about what they like…traditional, formal poses, something fun or crazy, looking at the camera or not. I actually do a little bit of everything, just in case they change their minds.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer
Photo by Barbara Stitzer

I had a woman once tell me that I must shoot all close ups because she hates to see feet, and at the end of our shoot, for whatever reason, they were all sitting together in a line. I did a shot of just the bottom of their feet, and guess what she chose to make into a five foot by five foot metal mural? You got it! The feet!

Location, Location, Location

Ask them their thoughts about location and let them know what you are thinking of, too. A lot of people like to shoot in their backyards, but I have only been in one backyard in 20 years that was worthy of a shoot there, and their yard had been a public botanical gardens that they had just purchased and built on.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer
Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Think hoses, fences, dog poop, ugly patio furniture, the fact that the likelihood of the house facing the right way at the time you want to shoot is one in four. No, a better place is a park, preferably with a lake, flowers, waterfall, bridge and a little train that goes around the park, rolling hills, trees with low, thick branches and large boulders to sit on, which was exactly what I had three miles from my home in Anthem, Arizona, where I used to live. It was great.

I had seventeen distinctly different backgrounds at my disposal on any given day. If you don’t have exactly that, it’s ok. Just look around, and use what you have. Think creatively…and let what you have to work with go to work for you.

Clothing, and Lack of…

People are funny…they know what they hate about their bodies, and then they go ahead and showcase those traits for portraits anyway. So, in your pre-shoot get together, tell them to think about the part of their bodies that they feel need the most work… and then, nicely, tell them to cover them up. Hate your arms? Don’t wear tanks, halters, or go sleeveless. Big legs? Don’t wear shorts or short skirts.

Also, make sure that you tell the women to bend over in the mirror and take a good look at their own cleavage…do they want to show that much of it? Dads and larger sons shouldn’t choose picture day to wear constrictive pants around their middles. They won’t be comfortable and their bellies will be in full regalia, ready for ridicule for generations to come. And I’m going to make a blanket statement here: No one looks good in patterns, especially horizontal stripes.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer
Photo by Barbara Stitzer

If they’re a normal size or larger, any kind of pattern makes you look bigger, and if they’re tiny, and self conscious about it, wearing a pattern will draw everyone’s attention them, and everyone will tell them how much they hate them because they’re so tiny, which will then make them feel bad. But they don’t all have to do the all black, or all white, or blue jeans with white shirts thing either. I like it a lot when people pick a cohesive, but not matchy-matchy color theme, and go with it as much or as little as they feel.

Navy and white with yellow accents, or lavendars and deep purples, or everyone wears black, white or grey, like that. I once had a family who wanted to wear baby blue and apple green, and I thought, ewww, gross, but it looked great! If there is a new baby, it’s nice if all of the adults wear a more muted color and the baby is the big star, color wise. The new mom will thank you, because she’s feeling ploopy, and all anyone wants to look at is the baby anyway!

The Family Jewels

I think that the thing that bothers women most is when their necklace isn’t centered . When we shoot, I have my clients do a LOT of moving around, but I always make sure that their necklace is in the center, and the clasp is in the back. Watch the earrings, too. If they’re leaning to the side, your client won’t like it. You also need to make sure that they don’t have hair in their mouths or on their faces. I know that this seems obvious, but, since you’re shooting a group, as opposed to shooting one person, your lens is pulled back and your view is further away, and there will be a lot going on, so you won’t be able to see things like hair as well.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer
Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Speaking of which, if you have any members of the group in the 4-10 year old range, look out for them trying to “play” with you. Somehow, little kids think that if you’re not talking directly to them, they can goof off, look away, or make giant crazy faces, and if you’re not looking for it, it will bite you later. I always say, “Hey, Johnny, I can SEE You. So show me a few crazy faces and I’ll shoot them, and then enough with the crazy faces, ok?” one or two times, and they usually stop. If they won’t stop, stop the shoot, and show him in the viewfinder. They’ll get it. It’s a good idea to take a really good look at everyone before you start.

Check for unzipped zippers, yucky stuff in their teeth, and skin showing that shouldn’t be. Note, but don’t be too concerned about things like tears, snags, small stains and holes in clothing, since that’s a very quick fix in post production.

Join the Discussion

Next week, we’ll talk about working with toddlers, the elderly, the fighters, teens and the injured in the family portrait, so gear up and get ready. If you ever have a question, just shout it out. I’ll answer you. I promise. Stay tuned!

By BarbStitzer

Barb Stitzer is an award winning Master Photographer living in Hudson, Ohio with her husband, her teen, Zoe and her tween, Tenley. She creates beauty and memories worldwide. Feel free to find her on Facebook or check out her website.


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