Screaming children, torrential downpours, Dad’s got a stain on his shirt, and…are they still screaming?!

A family portrait session has so many factors that can go wrong that it feels like a small miracle each time we capture a beautiful image. It’s worth the effort, though—a striking, happy photograph of a growing family is perfect for clients andthat can become an heirloom that’s enjoyed and passed down for generations.

The key is to acknowledge and then prepare for and minimize the risks. When shooting a family portrait session, follow these tips, and you’ll be on your way to capturing images your subjects will cherish for ages.

1. Plan Your Location Wisely

Nobody wants to stand in the hot sun—or in the freezing cold—for an hour or more. Time your portrait around the season. In summer, always plan on sunrise or sunset to avoid the heat of the day (and to capture the best light). In winter, you may need to shoot on a weekend if it’s getting dark before Mom or Dad will get off work.

Likewise, we can’t control the weather, so include a Plan B when you book, whether that’s an alternate, covered location, a backup day or simply a location that includes both outdoor and indoor or covered options for shooting (like a gazebo or broad front porch).

Of course, remember that an overcast day can often lead to the best images, with even light across faces and nobody squinting into the sun.


Note: Location selection is especially important for mini sessions, where you will be doing many shoots throughout the same day in the same location.  Find shade!

2. Bring the Right Clothing

Maybe your client was envisioning a summer beach scene, but a cold snap has set in, or it’s incredibly windy outside. Gently assure them that they’ll be happier with photos of smiling, bundled up children than they will be with red-eyed, crying and shivering children in short sleeves.

If you’re shooting for a family’s holiday portrait or another special occasion, ask if they’d prefer to keep their wardrobe on a theme or go with a more neutral look. Festive holiday attire or even ugly Christmas sweaters can be fun, but they may regret choosing a look that’s not relevant year-round.

It’s a good idea to have everyone bring a backup outfit, especially for kids. You never know when someone might spill their sippy cup of grape juice or baby might have an accident on Dad’s neat ironed Oxford shirt.

3. Prep the Kids

This is the most important tip for shoots with families. As the photographer, let the parents know to prep their kids for the shoot, beginning days in advance. Build it up to be a fun event that they look forward to, followed by a treat, like ice cream or a visit to the bowling alley.

While the anticipation factor is important, the same day buildup is even more crucial. Children should arrive with full bellies! Hungry children are unhappy children. If they still nap, make sure they get their full nap on the day of the shoot.

You can’t do enough to impart to parents the importance of bringing their kids to the session at their very best. A photo session is not the same as dropping them off at Grandma’s house!


4. Keep Kids Engaged During the Shoot

When you first meet a family for a shoot, spend five to ten minutes getting to know the kids. Run around with them. Consider bringing a small toy as a gift, or a stuffed animal you can introduce to them and let them play with. If they’re comfortable around you, they’re more likely to smile and behave during the shoot.

Bring a treat or snack for the kids (or prep the parents to do this). Photo shoots are the rare case where it’s okay to offer children a small bribe!

Finally, be ready to work fast. Often, the best pictures of children occur in the first 20 to 30 minutes of a shoot.


5. Stay On the Move

Even adults can quickly tire of having their photo taken, but the more images you capture, in the most scenes and locations, the more variety and options you’ll have to offer your clients.

Every few minutes in one location, switch up your subjects’ stances. Have Dad hold Junior, or have Sister stand with her hand on Mom’s shoulder. Then immediately mix it up by having them casually walk toward you, looking at each other, to capture a candid moment.

Don’t stay in any one location for more than 10 to 15 minutes. Plan to move around your site. The time between spots is a chance to chat and get more comfortable with your subjects, and to let the kids have a break and run around before asking them to sit still again. It’s also a chance to capture great candid moments.


Capturing the perfect family portrait is not an easy task! But with the right planning and prep, you’ll discover that capturing happy families at their very best can be incredibly rewarding.

About the Guest Contributor

Hunter McRae is an award-winning photojournalist and photography blogger for Shutterfly, based in Charleston, S.C. Hunter has been featured in The New York Times and travels all around the world for her career. For more pro tips on your family Christmas portraits, check out Hunter’s blog.