How to Photograph Your Own Family Group Portraits

Outdoor Family Portrait

Since it is that time of year when many families get together for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Hanukkah or whatever, I thought I would share some tips for getting good group photos. We are contacted every year by people who want to get a group picture of their entire family, but since this may be the only time they are all in one place at the same time, there is usually a very short window of opportunity that we can schedule to do this for them. Often, they decide not to do it because “it is just going to be too much trouble”.

Please, don’t let that stop you from getting some sort of family group photo. The older I get, the more I cherish those photos, because they include members of the family who are no longer with us and they help us with remembering the great times we had together. These photos are also great for documenting the changes in our younger family members as they grow. With that in mind, if it is too much trouble to get everyone together for a professional portrait, I encourage you to make your own. Here are some tips that might help you.

Plan ahead. The more thought you give to this ahead of time, the easier it will be when you actually start the process. Another suggestion is that you go outside. There is usually more room to work and place people and it will solve many of your lighting issues that come with photos taken indoors. Having said that, let’s talk about lighting.

Lighting

Many of the problems with family portraits done outdoors are caused by poor lighting situations. The best choice, is to photograph people on an overcast day or in the shade. This will provide a nice, even light. However, if you use a tree for shade, be aware of the problems you will get with the light filtering through the branches or leaves. It will often case a mottled look to people’s faces and it just looks bad.

If it is not an overcast or mostly cloudy day, try facing your subjects toward the sun, but with the sun at about a 45 degree angle to one side. This will help your family to not squint their eyes, but still provide a decent look. If the sun is straight overhead, this will not be as much of an issue, but then you run the risk of shadows on faces that cause dark eye sockets. Again, not pretty. Which brings us to our next point.

Use a flash! If you have a pop-up flash or a built in flash on your camera, you can use that. If you have a bigger flash that attaches to the camera, that works even better. Most people do not use a flash outdoors, but it really helps a lot with people’s faces. It will add some light to the faces and help ease or remove some of the shadow issues you may run into. With one or two subjects, you can use a reflector to do that, but with a group, a flash is the way to go.

Clothing

The best clothing for portraits is something of medium tone, or not too light or too dark. Whites tend to wash out and have no detail and blacks can get muddy looking, unless your exposure is accurate. Greens, browns, etc, tend to work well and will generally look nice with the outdoor environment. If you feel the need to go with everyone dressed in white (a trend which is has been done to death, in my opinion) or something more dramatic, you are setting yourself up for problems, unless the person taking the photo has some experience. For the most part, you will probably just want to make sure everyone looks nice and has their hair combed, faces washed, etc.

Posing

Remember that you are generally trying to fill a rectangle when you arrange the family. Many people want to just stand everyone side by side for the picture. While this is okay, you will be better served by trying to make use of the vertical space in the frame as well. If there are several “rows” of family, you will be able to get closer and see each face better. Plus, it just looks nicer. Here are some things to try:

  • Have some family members stand. Usually the taller ones, but it depends on the difference in height. Sometimes it keeps head heights closer together for some of the taller members to be seated and let the others stand behind them.
  • Place grandparents or parents in seats of honor in the middle of the group. You can also group the rest of the family by individual family units. This takes a little more time to get right, but it add something to the structure of the overall group.
  • You can generally create two standing rows by “windowing” the faces of family members. By that, I mean, make sure the person in the back, standing row has his face between the heads of the people in front of him or her. Check this from directly in front of the camera lens or by looking through the lens. Just a few inches off from the camera lens can make a big difference in your perspective.
  • Bring a few chairs, benches, etc. Or, use a boulder or small wall to seat people on. Be creative. This will allow some to sit down while others stand behind them.
  • Let smaller children sit on laps or be held by other standing family members. Make sure they do not block or create a shadow on the face of the person holding them.
  • Make a third row by having older children kneel in front or sit on the ground. In warmer seasons, they will have grass. In Fall, you may want to use leaves or a folded up towel, for them to sit on, that is hidden from the camera view.
  • Don’t make faces in straight lines unless it is necessary. Use step stools or boxes to adjust the height of some members in the standing rows.
  • Place smaller children last. Decide where they are going to go in the group, but wait to put them in their place. You will only have a short time that they will be happy for the photo and you want to maximize that time. Let them play around while you are setting up everyone else.

Taking the Picture

When it comes time to take the picture there are several things you can do to make it look nicer. Here are some ideas for that:

  • Put the camera on a tripod. This will make it easier to keep the framing of the group consistent and not cut off anyone’s head in the shot.
  • Leave room on the sides of the frame when composing the photo in the camera. If you plan on printing 8×10 prints, then you will have to crop off about 10%-15% from each side. Allow for this when composing.
  • Use the self-timer or a remote shutter release. If you have a remote shutter release, then you can trip the shutter on the camera while staying inside the group. This will save you trips back and forth to the camera. If you don’t, then you will need to use your camera’s self-timer to take the photo. Most cameras these days have one. You should familiarize yourself with this feature before the day of the photo. You will likely be harried enough just getting everyone together. Having to figure this out will only make you crazier and run the risk for more problems. I recommend that you give yourself a 10 second delay from the time you push the shutter to get into the photo.
  • Have everyone to sit up or stand up straight. This not only makes their posture better, but it also helps with wrinkles in clothing and just looks better overall. Do this right before you press the shutter button and see if anyone looks too tense or uptight after this. If so, have them relax their stance a little.
  • Check your focus! Make sure you are focused on someone in one of the first two rows. Preferably, the second row out of  three or four rows or the first row of a two row composition. Focusing on the back row will often leave the front row out of focus.
  • Take several shots of the each pose. The odds of getting everyone looking at the camera with their eyes open and a good expression on their face in one shot, are not very good. The more shots you take, the better your chances. The more people in the group, the more shots you should take.

There are a lot of other factors we could cover here, but these should help you make a pretty good family portrait for your next get together. If you still don’t feel comfortable with all of this, feel free to contact us to schedule a session. We will be glad to come and work with you and your family.