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Tips & Tricks

5 Simple Tips For Taking More Natural Family Portraits

By Michelle Ford on January 7th 2014

Have you ever had a family portrait session, and either ran out of ideas, or didn’t know how to make the portraits look more natural? Below are 5 simple tips that will help with your family portraits.

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1. Cycle Through All Possible Combinations

I always start with the biggest grouping first.  So, I ask the entire family to sit together for the first few shots.  It’s a great way to break the ice and to get everyone accustomed to being directed for the shoot.  From there, you can easily add and remove family members from your frame, cycling through a variety of different combinations.  Here are some of my favorites:

tip 1-1. all together

Everybody In

tip 1-2 . dad and kids

Dad and Kids

tip 1-3 . mom and kids

Mom and Kids

tip 1-4 . just kids

Just the Kids

tip 1-5 . boys

All the Boys

tip 1-6 . just girls

All the Girls

If the kids are old enough to sit alone, then you can sneak in a picture of just mom and dad as well.

tip 1-7 . just mom and dad

Facebook Image

Try to remember to take an image that could be used as a Facebook banner, meaning it’s either right justified, or it’s a nice, evenly spread composition that can be cropped to fit the banner space.  Taking a photo that can be used as a profile image is also something worth remembering.

tip 1-8. fb banner worthy 2 tip 1-8. fb banner worthy tip 1-9. fb profile worthy

Extended Family

If the family you are working with brought a good number of extended family members, like aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, then there are a good number of combinations that would work great as well.  Like this picture below of all the girls in the family:

tip 1-9-1 . extended family

Once you’ve taken all of the images of possible combinations of the family members, if you have time, try to sneak in another full family shot.  The first shots of the day are usually the warm up shots.  A second attempt at the full family shot might get you a more natural and relaxed looking image.

[REWIND: Portraits Génétiques: A Fascinating Look at Family Resemblances]

2. Keep Everyone Involved And Have Them Participate With Each Shot

Enlisting the help of family members during a shoot keeps everyone engaged and invested in what’s going on.  Typically, when taking photos of children, parents are on the side trying to get their attention for the shot.  To get the kids to look in your direction, suggest having the parents stand close to you and in line with your camera.

tip 2-2. parents cheer in the rt spot

To make it fun for the kids, you can also enlist their help when taking pictures of their parents.  Having them act as a cheering squad, or getting them to make funny faces at mom and dad, sometimes get some really genuine results.

tip 2-3. use kids to cheer

Giving children a break is sometimes necessary.  Try to direct them into an area where you could still possibly sneak them into the frame when shooting the parents.

tip 2-4. keep them in the frame

3. Activities and Other Fun Ideas to Try

Giving the family games to play and things to do creates dynamic and natural images.  It also injects fun into the session.  Here’s some of my favorite activities:

The jump shot is always a fun shot.  Regardless of age, everyone can get into it.

tip 3-1 jump (2)

Position mom and dad close to each other, set your focus on them and have the kids run around them in circles.

tip 3-2  run around

Or just give the kids a variety of games to play.  Tap into your inner child, you can get some really fun images when everyone participates.

Games to Play

Give them games to play

4. Document Growth and Progress

It’s always fun to show how much the kids have grown especially for clients that come to you annually for their family portraits.  To do this, simply have everyone stand next to each other in a line.  The parents act as a point of comparison or height chart.

tip 4-1  growth and progress w parents

5. Be A Journalist

Getting the family to forget that you’re there can sometimes be challenging.  Try to get them to focus on each other, diverting the attention away from you if you can, and shoot the reactions.  You can also give them a break and shoot what happens (from a distance) as they relax and interact with each other.

be a journalist

Be a journalist

Preparing for contingencies and meltdowns

Educating clients on how to prepare for a family shoot is key.  This includes planning out naps, snacks and any toys they need to keep the little ones happy.  Most importantly, letting them know what happens when meltdowns occur, as they sometimes do.  I love going into full journalistic mode when the kids meltdown.  Not to be mean, but sometimes they end up being everyone’s favorite images.  I make sure to let the parents know this ahead of time.  Parents are always worried about eliciting cooperation from their children and I’m always quick to remind them that we operate at the pace of their children. Meltdowns are ok and they are natural.  This relieves tension from the parents and keeps the session going smoothly even when things go awry.


Document the meltdowns


The key to a successful family shoot is to give good direction, keep everyone engaged, maintain the flow of energy, manage everyone’s expectation, be open and prepared to shoot what happens and above all, have fun.

For more tips and information on more natural looking portraits, check out our Natural Light Couples Photography Workshop DVD and our Newborn Photography Workshop DVD.

What are some of your simple tips for more natural looking family portraits?

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Michelle is a Southern California Portrait and Wedding Photographer. When she’s not geeking out with a camera she’s nerding out in her IT world. All other moments in the day are spent with her two wonderful children.

See her work on The COCO Gallery
check out her blog at frexNgrin

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Dominiq Selvam

    Look at the camera.
    If a picture is taken of one man, an experienced photographer not examined the outcome. But working with a large group this number does not pass. You can not get on that frame, when all eyes are open. Many believe that making a lot of digital camera shots, one can get lucky. But in practice it does not, then have at Photoshop “transplant” eyes and other body parts. The customer will be dissatisfied if someone is not smiling in the photo. An experienced professional makes catch the eye all at once.

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  2. mugur ic

    I like this article about the family portraits. Thanks Michelle

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  3. Kayode Olorunfemi

    Nice tips, hope to remember all this during my shoot on Sunday…

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  4. Diana

    Great article! Thanks for the tips!

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  5. Lukas

    I have never shoot an older couple that I didnt know personaly, wha poses whould you prefer fo them because they cant jump, thay cant sit on a ground and even some great poses looks little bit cheese because they are little bit older.

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    • Michelle Ford

      hi lukas, for the grandparents, esp the more fragile ones i prefer that they are standing together arm in arm, hugging or sitting and i put the action around them instead. that’s a great topic to cover on the next video.

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  6. Ben L.

    Thanks Michelle! I’m not necessarily focusing on family photography but I’ve had several families contact me for portraits in the last couple of months. This is really helpful. How much time do you usually set aside for a family portrait session?

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    • Michelle Ford

      ben, i used to setup an hour to 1.5 hours. as i’ve gotten more efficient i’ve found that i really need to knock them out at 20-45 mins tops. the kiddos just can’t stay engaged for too long and to press it means pressing everyone’s patience. if you’re working with just one family unit of 6 people or less i’d say def 30-45 mins. when you have a mixed group like a grandparent set and two or more family units then you need to work fast and finish in an hour or less. btw, families with older children don’t mean more patience either.

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  7. Paul B

    Great article and video, shame about the lav mic placement!

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  8. Darren

    Thanks for sharing Michelle – some great tips there. I’d certainly look forward to more tips you might like to share about family and portrait photography….

    Darren, Australia.

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  9. Mike S

    Excellent! I love how thorough you are! You give practical and concise advice. Best of all…you show us real world examples! Kudos!

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  10. Bill Young

    Great post! Thanks for sharing Michelle.

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