How to Photograph Family Portraits

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One of the toughest things to do and do well is to photograph a family. That is because you will have the possibility of dealing with many different personalities and ages that can run from very young to very old and it is almost impossible to satisfy everyone in a situation like that. Never mind the trouble in getting everyone of them to be looking at you at the same time, making sure no one blinked and that everyone is smiling in the shot. In short, it can sometimes be a near impossibility so you have your work cut out for you.

Along with that keep in mind that the lighting needs will be more demanding and you have to have a much larger area in which to photograph a group of people as opposed to shooting one or two people. Groups of people can tax everything from your ability to the equipment you use up to the limit.

The good news is that with a little practice and foresight you can not only come out being the hero but you can actually learn to enjoy the larger group sessions and we are here to help you get to that point in your ability level.

Dealing with Multiple Personalities

Since you want to try and make everyone as at ease as you can I generally do some preliminary fact finding when I am setting up and confirming the session. Find out what types of beverages they like to drink and what type of music that listen to. Yes, it sounds like you are trying to be their best buddies but the rewards are great.

By having the favorite beverages on hand everyone feels more relaxed and at home. In fact I have gotten many rebooking sessions from clients that said that they liked the “family” feeling I gave them and that they felt as if I cared about treating them well. And the music, well I always have music going during a session. It removes some tension and gives people something to concentrate on besides you and the camera that you are busily placing in front of them and clicking away.

This is where a little bit of research before they arrive can pay big dividends. If they have a youngster, ask them to bring along a favorite toy so that he or she will be more at home and they can concentrate on that rather than on the time between shots. They will be happier and you will get a better shot so everyone is likely to be more relaxed and satisfied. Besides all of that, music just makes me feel better about shooting. It makes the time pass faster and even to some extent makes me concentrate more on what I m doing so I consequently do a better job.

Remember above all that you need to head into one of these sessions knowing that something is going to inevitably give you problems. I am not saying that to make you fear the whole process but I have found that if you get everything ready for the session and you know something may go wrong, you are better prepared to deal with it mentally speaking. You also will be ready if there is a major issue and a lot happier when nothing major happens.

Setting up the Shot

You need to keep in mind the size that you need when you are setting up for a session where there is to be a family setting That might also mean that you will need more or brighter lights to make it happen and to be effective. Remember that the larger the group of people or the brighter that you want the image to be, the more light you will need on the subject so that means you might end up adding extra umbrellas or more powerful lamps to make sure that you get the job done. There is really no such thing as too much light available. Start with the maximum that you can find and work backwards from that by either lowering the wattage, cutting back on the numbers of lights or moving them farther away to achieve what you are after.

As long as you are not going so hot that you are burning out the details in the actual image, you should be good. That is unless you are going for a low light mood shot which can be very effective in single portraits but not usually so much in a family or larger group shoot.

The other things that you need to keep in mind when you are setting a session with a larger group of people. You need to remember that there will be lots more shadows and so you have to take the time to actually look at the details in every frame preferably before committing the shot but definitely before you send everyone home. While some things can be fixed in Photoshop, some simply can not and it is better to find out before the subjects head home.

Another issue that you are likely to encounter in a family or large group photos is that there will be a large variety of bright and dark areas in clothing so you need to average out the best exposure for the majority of the clothing. Also some of the subject might be darker of lighter skinned which can also present some issues. If you have one girl with a really dark tan next to a recluse that is nearly as white as a ghost you will have a devil of a time getting that to balance out. Some times this can be straightened out by simply trying to move the subjects so that they get darker (or lighter) as they go along the line. This usually works but not always.

There are always variables with portraits but when you add in a bunch of folks, you are looking at a lot of things that can potentially change the context and composition of the shoot. You just need to know your gear (always a great idea) and be able to roll with the flow so that you can adapt to whatever happens to get tossed your way (also a good idea). Like the Boy Scouts motto says, “Be Prepared”. It is a good mantra for photography because if you are set for whatever happens then it is much more likely that you will capture not just a shot but THE shot.

Some Special Things to Think About

While the above is certainly food for thought, you can not sit and languish over what may or may not happen during your portrait session with a larger group of people. In the end you do what you can to get the best shot and it’s going to be what ever it’s going to be and no amount of heartburn from worrying about it is likely to change that.

Focus is going to be critical. You will likely be working on fairly short focal areas so be sure that you pay attention to the focus. One person being out of focus can ruin an otherwise phenomenal shot. I have said is before and I will say it one more time, BRACKET YOUR SHOTS. This will not only give you exposure latitude but it will give you several shots of fairly well the same pose so that you increase your chances that little Jimmy isn’t picking his nose, or grandma wasn’t yawning or dad won’t blinking just when the shutter went off. Also, by bracketing your focus will change a little and that can be a good thing if you plan it right. So let’s look at things from a common sense perspective so we can figure out what to do, shall we?

Group Portrait Photography Outdoors

It is a truly an art form in the aspect that you are taking nothing and molding it in to something. Sure anyone can grab a camera and snap a photo of a family or group of people. It would seem that the first hurdle you might face is making sure that everyone gets there at the same time on the same day. Seems simple but if everyone is not in the same house you will want to double check this with the person making the setting reservation. Let’s face it; having everyone present makes it easier to have a portrait like this done!

If you happen to be shooting this out doors, like a reunion or a wedding, you will want to look over the area and be sure that you steer clear of any very colorful backgrounds or anything that is going to be really busy looking. There will be enough going on with all of the people in the photo; you certainly don’t want the background to be fighting you for control of the photo. You don’t need to have anything distracting the viewer from the subject.

You want to be extra sure as you look at the background that it is aesthetically cool with what you are shooting. Grass or shrubbery work well as does things with smaller patterns. If you can find something that will drag the viewers gaze in to the center of the shot that is great because anything that seems to direct the people to the main part of the photo makes the photo better.

Another really good prop for a group of people are stairs. You can put a few people on different levels so that they are easier to manage. You might have to play a little more with the depth of field in order to make sure that everyone is as tightly in focus as they can be, but the net result can be very good and very dramatic. This is especially true if the staircases that you choose to use are more interesting than a plain old staircase. The more personality the staircase has, the better the photo is going to look.

Clothing and Other Things

There has been a lot of debate on whether or not the people in the portraits are better to dress in similar styles and colors or to be totally independent of one another. In short is it better to coordinate the outfits or just let nature take its course?

You, as the master of ceremonies for the photo shoot should do what you can to discourage the people attending the photo shoot from wearing similar or identical outfits. It might work and in fact if there are some youngsters there it will likely look grand on them. However when you get to the adults it’s going to look silly and you will be sorry that you had them arrive dressed alike. The one opposite thought here would be if the family was after some kind of special theme where it actually made sense to dress alike. Like perhaps they are doing it in support of a sports team or something like that. In that case it would be cute.

The once other thing here is that if everyone were to use a different shade of a color, said blue or red or green. It will add a certain depth and interest to the shot that would not be achieved if the shade of colors were close to the same. Depending on the subject’s humor level and the time of year, I have had some success with people dressing in different types of costumes for shoots like this. This is especially rue in the fall as we near Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas but I have seen it work well as you get into the Valentines Day holiday as well. Use your imagination here and see what you can come up with.

Remember to Keep Everyone Relaxed

Uptight subjects will give you photos that are uptight looking and not very good. A good example I can give you is a lady that was slightly over 30 and wanted to do a sexy shoot for her husband. It was all her idea and she was all up for it and good to go. That was at least until she got there and had her clothes off and realized that a strange man was looking at her very much in detail through a camera lens.

She got very uptight and shy. So rather than totally blow here session and have to charge her anyway I told her to get dressed and we would start with some plain portraits. I took my time and we worked down and slowly she lost one piece of clothing after another as we shot and she got so immersed and relaxed, she was so into the actual semantics of the session that she was totally nude and posing like a pro and didn’t even realize it.

If I just continued shooting the photos would have been unusable. But since I did not she warmed up to it and things went great. Since then she has sent a lot of her friends over to me for those types of sessions and she even brought her husband in to get a session of him for her. That was a trip in and of its self but let’s suffice to say that the man in that relationship has more than a little trouble with that type of shoot. In fact at the beginning he actually made his wife look like an exhibitionist, but that is another story.

The thing with a group is that if you can win over just one person, the rest of the group will usually settle down and fall into line and be at ease. In every group there is also usually at least one person that is a joker and likes to have fun. If you find him or her you will have it made. The trick is to make the whole group appear to be spontaneous and look candid even of they truly are far from it. If you have fun while you pose them there is much more likelihood that you will achieve this end result. The absolute worst thing that you can have is a bunch of people looking like they hate what they are being forced to do. If it starts to look like that is the direction the session is headed, take a break or shift locations or do something that will ease the mood.

Another way to get them relaxed is to start asking questions and letting them talk. People love to talk and thy love to speak on their favorite subject which is usually them. If you keep[p the conversations light and airy and everyone stays inside of their respective comfort zones then you have won the battle and the photos should simply exude fun, self confidence and you will end up with a happy shot and not one that looks as if they were in pain. I’m sure that if you think back to when you were growing up you can remember seeing some of those stiff and unimaginative portraits. That is what you are going to strive to avoid in your shooting. Here are some things that will make things work better for you and keep things good looking and results in better shots.

While your session is being shot, do what you can to make sure that the people in the portrait are actually actively touching one another. Yes there is likely to be one r two of the people that might resist this option. Kids and older folks generally are not too fond of the touching scenario. But let them know how important it is for the shot to work. It will show that they are a family or group of people that care for one another and that rely on each other. It doesn’t have to be anything crazy or anything, just touching. The more they do the better the shot will be and the more they will cherish it in years to come. Believe me on that one.

If you have two people in the group that you are shooting, having them sit back to back and leaning on one another will send a hugely significant subliminal message. It says that they are there for one another and that they are there to help and support one another. The truth might be different than that but that is what the photo is going to say.

Of course it stands to reason that when shooting groups it is better to put the taller folks in the back row. You simply need to be sure that when you do this that the people’s faces are not being covered by the head in front of them. If they are a simple move one way or the other can usually fix that for you.

As you look over the formation think geometric. Arranging them into a pyramid or a diamond shape will add a lot of interest to the shot. Just remember that the poor guy or gal that is kneeling is going to be uncomfortable and sore fairly quickly so try not to make it last too long. Kneeling is usually not a very comfortable position and I personally avoid having anyone in that position unless there is no other choice.

Make sure that they get into a modified huddle. Leaning and towards the group does several things for you as the photographer. It makes the depth of field a little better so the focusing should be a lot easier on you. Another thing is that if they are in a tight group, you have more latitude on moving side to side for some varying shots giving you different poses. In short, it will allow you to get in for a closer shot so that you will lose less in the editing

Another great favorite is to get the older folks involved with hanging on to and holding up the younger ones in the bunch. Don’t be afraid to break from the mold here. Have the child on daddy’s shoulders. Have mom and dad swinging the youngster. Make it as interactive as you can to add the element of fun and give it the personal touch.

If you are doing a large gathering, like a reunion for example, rather than just lumping everyone together as one unorganized group; try having the individual family groups get together and then start arranging them into one large batch. You will be amazed at jus how many people you can get into one shot and still have it make sense this way. Plus as the years pass, it is easier to identify people in the photos this way so everyone can remember who was who.

Action shots can also be a great thing to add to the session if there is room and time and the weather is permitting. It will be almost impossible to catch everyone in a smile and in the perfect pose but the resulting photos might also be great and ones that will get lots of sales to the family members because they are so unusual. It is more like taking high resolution snap shots rather than portrait shooting but trusts me, it can work very well.

The Golden Rule

Remember that the more people that you have sitting in on a session, the more shots you are going to have to use to get a good exposure. There is almost always going to be one person doing something stupid in a shot. Your best advice here since your screen is likely to be too small to be a good guideline is to shoot as many and as fast as you humanly can. This will increase the likelihood that you will get a decent useable shot where everyone is smiling and not blinking.

Most people hate to rapid fire shoot in a portrait session but in my experience, especially with a larger batch of people as modeling subjects, it is the only took that you have that is going to give you the edge and hopefully get you the great shot that they paid for.

The bottom line is that the law of averages states that if you shoot one shot, you have one chance at getting a good portrait. If you shoot a hundred then your chances go up 100 times and you will up your chances of success. Remember that you will be shooting on a digital media so it doesn’t cost you any more to shoot one hundred shots than it does to shoot one but your rewards are going to be a lot greater and your client will be a lot happier and you will get recommendations from them to other people and have referral business. Think outside of the box and don’t be afraid to bend a photographic rule or two.

But unless you throw caution to the wind and give it a try, you’ll never know what is going to work and you might just surprise yourself and hit the jackpot.

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