Photographing children and families can be challenging for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that unless you are in a studio, it is nearly impossible to count on having a perfect location. Having a strong understanding of how you can best deal with less-than-ideal locations will help you create strong images no matter where you are.

1. Blow Out the Background

If you are in a family home with few options for backgrounds that are not distracting, look for a window, place your subject in front of the window, and spot-meter for your subject’s face. Even if the light outside isn’t bright enough to completely blow the background with a little dodging in post-production, you can usually achieve the same effect. Sliding glass doors work well for this type of image, but a storm door, or moving a chair over to a standard window will work as well. Blowing the background can also work outdoor situations as well. Position your subject so that the sun is behind them and the brightest areas will disappear. When blowing out the background, look for reflective surfaces like neutrally colored walls or concrete. If these aren’t available, consider using a reflector.

By blowing out the background I was able to eliminate an ugly, crowded street scene.
By blowing out the background I was able to eliminate an ugly, crowded street scene in this image


2. Use the Best Light – even if it’s Only a sliver

As with everything in photography, light is key. Even in the ugliest of locations, there is likely to be at least one patch of good light. Find it and your images will be transformed. When working with children, it may be hard to position them just right in the area you find. If this is the case, there are a couple of things you can do to get them where you want them to be. One idea is to place them in the good light and play an interactive game like Simon Says. If that doesn’t work, ask the child (or family) to do an activity that will bring them into the area of good light, like going for a walk or even having a race. You won’t have a lot of time to snap away once they are in the right spot, so be sure to be ready for them and shoot on burst mode to maximize your chances of getting great images.

[REWIND:  6 Tips To Capture Creative Family Portraits]

By filling the frame with the child's face and looking for great catch-lights I was able to make an interesting portrait in a very messy room.
By filling the frame with the child’s face and looking for great catch-lights, I was able to make an interesting portrait in a very messy room.

3. Get Close

One sure-fire way to deal with a bad location is to get in close. Fill the frame with your subject’s face (or faces). Try to look for lighting that will create beautiful catch-lights or work hard at getting a natural expression to ensure your subject looks his best. Since you are filling your frame with your subject, it is important he looks great!

By using a 70-200 mm lens at 200mm and waiting until the child came into a spot with good light, I was able to obliterate the messy, ugly background.

4. Blur the Background

One way to get rid of ugly or distracting elements in the background is to make them as blurry as possible. Not only will this technique help you photograph in a challenging location, but it will also create beautiful separation between your subject and the background. There are various ways to achieve this effect no matter what kind of equipment you have. Shooting wide open helps so set your aperture as low as you can.

When photographing a family, place them all on the same focal plane to ensure that they all remain in focus. Even if your lens does not open wide, you can still achieve a nice, blurry background by placing your subject as far from the background as possible while you stand as close to your subject as possible. Another way to create a blurry background is to use a long lens. The longer the lens, the greater the compression will be, and this creates a nice blur.

For many photographers, a 70-200mm lens is the lens of choice for blurring the background. An 85mm lens also works well. As a bonus, the compression at these focal lengths is usually flattering. If you don’t have either of these, don’t worry –  just keep in mind that a longer focal length will equal more compression, so a 50mm lens is a better choice for photographing families somewhere with a challenging background than a 35mm lens would be.

By including the sun in this photo, another element of interest is added to the photo drawing attention away from the crowded playground.

5. Change Your Perspective

If photographing a family in a challenging situation, consider using varied angles. Even if your background is terrible, you can still make a nice image by having your family lie down on grass or the floor.  Looking up will usually place your subject in even lighting and create nice catch-lights in their eyes. Also try shooting from a bird’s-eye view or low to the ground for interesting perspectives that will help you deal with a challenging location.

When dealing with a challenging location like a playground, change your perspective and look up to eliminate background clutter.

6. Put it In Shadow

An alternative to blowing out the background is putting the background in shadow. One effective way to do this is to look for, or create, a small light source. If shooting in a home, close the curtains nearly all the way so that just a bit of light is shining through. This will put the background in shadow and the background can be burned in post-processing to obscure it even further. When outdoors, look for patches of light in front of dark backgrounds. Think of non-traditional locations to find this type of lighting, such as basements or alleyways.

Although this room was very messy, by placing the child near a window and opening the curtains just slightly the mess is hidden in shadow.

7. Make it Interesting

Another approach is to make the challenging location part of the story in your photograph. If you are in an urban setting, look for a wall with colorful graffiti. If outdoors on a crowded street, consider including the sun the frame as a point of interest to draw attention away from a busy street. If there are cars everywhere, incorporate them into the photo by having your family pose around the car. Alternatively, make sure your subjects are doing something interesting to ensure the sole focus is on them. Also, be sure to use the rules of composition to draw the viewer’s eye to the most interesting part of the photo – the family – but using the rule of thirds or one of the golden ratios.


This child was playing the alley behind his yard. By getting in close and focusing on a detail, a timeless image was made under very challenging circumstances.

8. Think Small

Even the most run-down locations may have some weeds that can look like a nice lush background if photographed from the right angle. A crowded, run-down event hall may have one beautiful window or interesting door that you can use to your advantage. When thinking about solutions to photographing families in challenging locations, think strategically about how you can exclude eyesores from your frame either in-camera, by cropping later, or with a little editing.  Check out the Lightroom Image Processing Mastery Workshop to up your post-processing skills.

Although this mother and daughter were in an ugly lot, by placing them in front of some weeds and a tree it appears as though they are in a lovely, natural setting.

While it would be nice to always have the luxury of choosing an ideal location for your family shoots, the reality is that this is not always the case.  By thinking outside of the box and keeping your end-goal in mind, you can create beautiful photos of children and families in nearly any location.