As the holidays approach, you may be considering a family portrait for your annual card or to hang above your fireplace. If you’re lucky, you can afford a pricey professional, or you have a talented friend who offers to do your pictures for free. But if your friends don’t know an f-stop from an ND filter, and if you don’t feel like shelling out the big bucks to hire a professional, here are some tips that you can use when taking your own pictures (with a tripod and timer), or if you and a friend “trade” and act as photographer for each other.
Tip One: Location!
Pretty, uncluttered places make the BEST backgrounds. Instead of setting the family up in front of their couch and TV and messy counter, select a clean background of closed curtains or a plain section of wall. Sometimes there may be a place inside the home that is meaningful to the family or beautiful for photos. If you have the time and energy, visit a local garden or park for better locations. Changing leaves, colorful flowers and bushes, a waterfall or bridge at a local park, an interesting urban building — these are all choices that will add visual interest and make the photo much more interesting than one taken inside a home.
If you’re trading photo shoots with friends, you could both dress up and meet at the park. Then take pictures first of the family whose children have the shortest attention spans. Switch quickly so that the kids don’t get bored. You probably have about 15 minutes before they get sick of it, so be sure to get family shots of each group in that time-frame FIRST. After that, you can start on individual or artistic shots.
Remember to check the background for “aliens” – avoid trash cans, passers-by in the background, and parked cars. Sometimes moving yourself a few inches or having your subjects move a foot will improve the background, so scan the area carefully and choose where to have them stand. Also ensure to avoid having tree branches or power lines “grow” from someone’s head. Remember that the 3D view in front of you will collapse into a 2D picture, and many things behind your subjects will look as if they are merged with them – so choose the background wisely.
If you are photographing the family in front of their Christmas tree, ensure that the surrounding area is neat and tidy, because chances are some of it will end up in the finished photo. Removing dog toys and stray shoes will make a much cleaner photo. And even though I’m a HUGE fan of Photoshop’s new Content-Aware Fill, I’m an even bigger fan of not needing it in the first place.
Tip Two: The Right Light
Avoid harsh light that casts dark shadows into eye-sockets and below the nose. Try to find diffused light — basically, have your subjects stand in a shaded spot and allow some fill light to come in and make their eyes sparkle. One good example is a shaded patio in a backyard; it can be sunny outside, but under the patio the light is even and gentler. Start by having the person stand in the shaded area and face you, and check their face for shadows and catch-lights. If there are no catch-lights (sparkles) in the eyes, have them move 45 degrees and check again; keep moving them slightly until you see even light on the face and catch-lights on the eyes. Sometimes just a quick positional change makes all the difference; a junk shot and a money shot can be as little as 45 degrees apart!
Once you find the nice light, arrange the person or family, making sure that the light looks good on everyone’s face, and start shooting! Outdoors, it’s a good idea to use some flash, even in broad daylight, because this tends to eliminate under-eye shadows and add extra catch-lights. However, you don’t want the flash to be ugly and harsh, creating white-out hot-spots of glare or giving red-eye. That’s why an off-board flash is great: You can point it straight up, or at an angle, or bounce it off a wall or ceiling to add some fill without shadows and red-eye. If you don’t have an offboard flash, just use your regular flash, but dial it down a bit (to -1EV or -2EV) and try that in addition to “full” output. Sometimes less is more with flash. You want a gentle light, not a blast of it.
Be careful with flash if there is a wall or solid object directly behind your group, because flash pointed straight forward WILL create ugly “outline” shadows behind their heads. It’s much better to bounce the flash against a wall or ceiling, or diffuse it to make it gentler. If you find that flash is necessary, and all you have is a facing-forward flash, then try another pose or location. Shadow outlines behind heads is not a good look for a family photo, and it’s better to find another location where that won’t happen.
Tip Three: Include All Arms and Legs
Photos can look weird if people’s arms and legs are chopped off at the elbow or knee. Take at least one or two pictures with “breathing room” all around the family — top, bottom, sides. This allows for room to crop later, if they want to blow it up to an 8×10 or larger, and it ensures that you capture a natural look. Of course I love artistic zoomed-in shots, but families ALWAYS want at least one pic where everyone’s full body is included.
Tip Four: Shoot Fast
Kids are wiggly and notoriously difficult to shoot, and the first few minutes of a family portrait are the golden minutes — if you don’t capture the kid looking then, you NEVER WILL. So work hard to get it right in the first 5 minutes! Bring along something funny to wear on your head, like bunny ears from Easter, or some kind of ridiculous deely bopper Reindeer antlers – it doesn’t matter what, as long as it’s silly and colorful. Keep it hidden until the family is set up and you’re ready to start shooting. Then whip it out, put it on, and call out to the kids to look at you! Do they like your ears? Are you the real Easter bunny? Are there eggs on your head? Or something like that. Also remind the parents to keep looking at you! Even if their kid is saying cute things! — and shoot like a maniac, getting about 20-30 shots at a time. If you set up the pose and then do something funny, chances are that you will get at least one shot of the kid(s) looking at you and smiling. And as long as the parents have been directed to keep looking and smiling until you say otherwise, you’ll get a great family shot.
If you’re using flash, shoot fast BUT remember to let the flash recharge between shots (it takes a few seconds), otherwise your photos will be unacceptably dark and underexposed, often to the point that they are not salvageable in Photoshop because they will look too grainy when lightened — and they will have very strange color casts when lightened - this is a complete pain to adjust, and can be completely avoided just by letting the flash charge fully before shooting.
Tip Five: Try Different Poses
Once you get the “family standing together with all arms and legs included in the shot” pictures, whew! Now you can relax and have some fun. Remember that great light that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago? Find it, have a person stand in it so that you see catch-lights in their eyes, and do close-ups of their face. Try doing sibling shots, kids jumping in leaves, kids playing with toys, etc. One of my favorite shots is the entire family walking, holding hands. I also love candids of the kids just playing and exploring.
It’s also fun to get shots where people are not actually looking at the camera, but rather are interacting with each other. These often end up being favorites.
If you’re doing a family picture using a tripod, here’s my advice: Set up one or two of the adults in the group and use them as a starting point so you can set up your tripod and get the camera ready. Use a relatively small aperture (larger f number) to ensure that everyone’ face will be in focus. Set the focus point on someone’s face, get the rest of the group in place, look through the viewfinder to ensure that everyone is visible and accounted for with all arms and legs, and refocus. Then set your timer, run over, and smile. Take at least a few shots and make SURE that they’re in focus before you let everyone leave the pose. Sometimes you get a great pose but the focus isn’t right, so you’ll need to try again.
And here’s a bonus: Tip #6 – Enjoy the Clutter After All, and Bad Light Is Still Good Light
Sometimes there is not time to clean the house or find a pretty background. Sometimes it’s all you can do just to get the right people together for a split second. And if that happens, don’t worry — just capture them with whatever background is there, and love it for what it is. Sometimes capturing the ones you love is so important that lighting and angles cease to matter. For example, these are some of my VERY FAVORITE pictures of my family from past holidays; the clutter and the candid expressions make the photos priceless.
I wish you all a very happy holiday season, and I hope you get a gorgeous family photo! Please share in the gallery if you get the chance.
From your Pixels & Co. photography blogger…Jennifer Valencia
Jennifer Valencia, saying hi!