Ten Tips for Taking Great Family Photos

By Emily Kay

Fall is among us, and it’s officially the season of pumpkin picking, leaf throwing, weather changing, and as we head into the final months of the year, photo taking.

Ah, yes, the year-end family photos. They’re great for using in holiday cards, and they’re even better to serve as a moment-in-time capture to which you can look back and reflect. Our family has taken photos in the fall months ever since my kids were born—it’s become somewhat of a tradition—and I love to look back on them each year to see how we’ve grown.

As much as we all cherish a great family photo—let’s be honest—taking the photo can be downright stressful. What should everyone wear? Who will take the photo? Where should it be taken? How the heck do you get everyone to look at the camera at the same time while smiling?

Sometimes it feels like there is so much pressure, right?

As a photographer, I’ve done our own family photos and have taken photos for plenty of other families, so I’ve learned a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t. Today, I’m excited to share ten tried-and-true tips on how to make your next family photos the best ones yet.

1. Lighting really matters

Great lighting is crucial to a photograph. The difference between a good photo and a great photo often hinges on lighting. Think about it like this: a camera wouldn’t work without light as it needs light exposure to capture the subjects.

When it comes to your photos, it’s important to consider that indoor lighting can be very tricky. Bulbs can make the lighting too warm and have a yellow/orange tint, people can be harshly backlit if photographed against a light source like a window, and faces can have odd shadows without natural light. 

There’s a key rule to keep in mind when it comes to lighting. Unless you’re working with a professional photographer who knows how to position you, natural light is always the easiest to work with. In other words, head outside!

2. Timing also matters 

If you’ve taken my advice to head outside for your family photos, congratulations! You’re seventy percent closer to the perfect photo. However, I have another important lighting element to consider. Sometimes, outdoor (and even indoor) lighting can be too harsh. This is primarily due to timing and weather. 

Have you ever taken a photo where the person was in bright sunlight, and they ended up looking super washed out? Or perhaps the sunshine was beaming on them, and it created harsh shadows? Yikes! This is typically a result of the photo being taken in peak light, often around midday. 

It’s not enough to just head outside for your photo—you need to consider when you’ll get even lighting. An ideal time is either in the morning, an hour or two after the sun rises, or in the evening, an hour or two before the sun sets. If you want to hit the lighting jackpot, golden hour—about an hour before the sun sets—is where the magic lies. Golden hour has a lovely, natural glow where everything the sunlight touches is softly lit.

Be sure to note the weather before you shoot. Rain is tough to get a great photo with (unless you’re playing into it), but don’t shy away from a cloudy day! Clouds create nice, even lighting for photos. 

3. Play into Your Setting

Setting is huge; it can help amplify the focus of your family or take away from it.

A grouping of beautiful flowers or a body of water will make a great backdrop to your photos. Look for color, interest, and meaning—it’ll make the photo much better! My favorite place to photograph a family is among trees with changing leaves in the fall—it’s a simple yet bright setting that helps the subjects shine.

A key tip: look around and make sure the area is free of distractions, like trash cans or parked cars. There’s nothing worse than having a great photo and discovering something distracting in the background after your shoot—it’s best to remove the distraction beforehand. 

4. Drive Great Composition

There are a ton of techniques and rules that photographers practice while creating imagery (leveraging lines and the rule of thirds are great examples of this) that help drive great composition. 

In lieu of giving a crash course on composition, however, I think it’s most helpful to keep one key notion in mind: a viewer’s eye should be naturally drawn to the photo’s subject.Every part of the photo—from setting to lighting—should support the subject. For example, it’s often best to place everyone in the center for a family photo. Simply paying attention to how the subjects are highlighted in your photography can help you create images that stand out. 

5. Coordinate Outfits

The season you’re shooting in will dictate the outfits your subjects wear. For example, you don’t want someone in sandals or a barely-there dress when you’re shooting in fall foliage—it would look unnatural and a bit awkward. But choosing outfits for your shoot isn’t just dependent on the season; coordinating focal colors is a great way to have the whole crew look pulled together and sleek.

My biggest suggestion is to choose the setting first, so you know exactly where you’ll be shooting (and what landscape elements you’ll be working with), and to pre-plan outfits that contrast with your setting of choice. This helps your subjects avoid blending into the setting. For example, what if everyone’s wearing green and you end up photographing in front of evergreen trees? You’d all blend in way too much.

When you’re planning outfits, pick colors that have a cohesive look. A good rule of thumb is to choose between two to three focal colors like —navy and white, or navy, green, and white. Incorporating patterns on one to two shirts or dresses is a great way to mix things up while still pulling in your focal tones; just make sure patterns are in the minority. The point is to look cohesive and coordinated without being super matchy-matchy. 

6. Leverage Technology

I highly recommend taking your photos on a DSLR camera if you have one. A DSLR will give you better image quality, allow for better editing later, and you’ll have so many options with the photos in terms of printing.

However, if you take your photos on an iPhone or similar device, hope is not lost! The cameras on phones these days are truly remarkable. Keep these pointers in mind, and you shouldn’t have any issues: make sure that you set the phone on a tripod to eliminate any movement, make sure your subjects are in focus, and do not zoom in. Zooming in will immediately cause the photo to pixelate and almost always reduces the quality. You can crop the photo later if you need. 

7. Options, Options, Options!

The more, the merrier! When taking a family photo, don’t just take one and move on. Get a ton. We’re talking tens. Hundreds, even!

Why? Inevitably someone will close their eyes or make an awkward face, so it’s important to give yourself lots of options from which to choose. 

8. Capture People Naturally

The best photos are ones where everyone looks happy and feels natural. This often means allowing kids to be kids and even adults to be adults. It’s great to have a photo where everyone is looking directly at the camera, but honestly, my favorite photos are those where everyone is happy in their element. Laughing, talking, having fun—these are the photos that capture life in its essence, so don’t shy away from them! 

9. Pay Attention to Positioning

When it comes to a group photo, how you position people matters. I have two suggestions.

First, stagger heads when it comes to height. This creates more visual interest in a photograph and avoids too much repetition. At the same time, try to make sure that there are no heads on top of heads (for example, if a row of people is sitting, and others are right above them, make sure the heads aren’t on top of one another), or faces blocked. It’s important to see everyone’s full face! 

Second, it’s essential to fill in the blanks. You don’t want people awkwardly standing on the sidelines, not connecting with the group, or having unnecessary gaps between people. This creates a feeling of dissonance and can turn a warm photo into an awkward one. 

10. Have Kids? Give Treats.

When it comes to getting a great photo, I am not above bribing for smiles! Kids get very tired of posing very fast. In almost all of my photoshoots where kids are involved, my secret weapon is candy. “If you give me a big smile, you get a Skittle!” It works every time, I promise.

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