Family pictures: the ultimate guide to posing family portraits

Family Pictures: the ultimate guide to posing family portraits

Being the family portrait photographer is a tough gig – there are different relationships, dynamics and personalities to capture and often within a single frame. Polished, professional-looking family pictures that have been creatively crafted are all perfectly posed, and that’s what stops them from looking like snaps.

Arranging your family together, choosing where to photograph them, both in the home and out on location sounds a lot easier than it is – as ever the hunt is on for the best light and there are plenty of tricks to get family photos with the poses you’ve envisaged.

Here top family portrait photographer Brett Harkness shares some of the tips and tricks that keep him in demand with families across the UK.

Image © Brett Harkness

Family Portraits At home

Family Pictures – Tip 1: Use the front door

The best contained lighting you’ll get into any home will come from shooting into the building, from outside, with your subject(s) stood three feet back from their front door - move their doormat back and ask them to stand on it.

The darker the door and wallpaper, the better the effect, which closely mimics the effect used for fashion shoots, where they use huge black polyboards.

You need to turn off the lights in the house and underexpose your shot by one or two stops, to retain your skin tones and so that the background gets darker. Shoot with a 70-200mm lens and crop tightly.

Family Pictures – Tip 2: Be early

You can get some great opening shots by turning up early. It takes a considerable about of effort to get a whole family prepared for a shoot. If it’s a friend’s family, turn up half an hour early and capture some great candids of the kids still in nappies or having their hair brushed. If it’s your own family, try snapping while everyone is getting ready.

Family Pictures – Tip 3: Use the parents

When it comes to posing the kids, use the parents… A great trick is to get the child or children in a doorway, or at a window, looking out, and get the parents on the other side entertaining them, and then you can capture the genuine reactions, while having composed the image before hand.

Family Pictures – Tip 4: Incorporate the house and its ambient light

Sometimes it’s really nice to incorporate the house you’re shooting in and take a few environmental portraits. I recently took a shot of a grandmother, sitting in her armchair, lit by the window and the fire.

Incorporating ambient light sources from the home can work well, as long as your main light source is either flash or daylight. In the winter I’ll keep lamps and Christmas tree lights on, in the background of home shoots and throw them out of focus, so they just look like twinkles.

Family Pictures – Tip 5: Identify your centre point

When it comes to posing the whole family together, find a centre point and arrange everyone around it. This could be a meaningful piece of furniture, like ‘Dad’s chair’, or the matriarch of the family, usually the mother. Make sure you shoot with an aperture that’s appropriate and gets everybody in focus.

Family Pictures – Tip 6: Don’t be rigid

When it comes to posing a family at home, don’t be too rigid, otherwise you may as well be shooting them against a white background, in a studio. For example it’s not uncommon for me to use the parents as a holding devise for their children who won’t keep still otherwise.

If the parent is wearing a dark colour and the child leans against them, the fact that it’s a person in the background, not a backdrop, won’t be visible in the photo.

Sometimes, having older family members thrown out of focus in the background of child portraits works really well too.

Family Pictures – Tip 7: Use tricks

When shooting whole families together you’ll find it’s incredibly difficult to get the children to look at you, rather than their parents/siblings/something more interesting. Try getting everyone to look at something – a spider, aeroplane outside, anything.

It’s important that your family photos have everyone looking in the same direction, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be in your direction.

Family Pictures – Tip 8: Become a bit of a psychologist

Part of being a family photographer is being a bit of a psychologist. I only ever do one family shoot per day, so I take away the time pressure element of the shoot – it takes time to get kids on your side.

Always tackle braver, more confident children first, giving shier ones the chance to see how you work and relax in your presence before you start posing them on their own and as part of group shots.

Family Pictures – Tip 9: Get in the garden

Don’t get too formal with your poses and arrangements with the kids – it’s important to allow kids to be kids. Get them outside, in the garden, where you can capture them having fun and getting a bit dirty – but do it last!

Family Pictures – Tip 10: Strip it back

When you are shooting children, it’s important to get them by themselves – their parent’s are paying you to take pictures that they can’t get.

Don’t force them to smile; allow them to do so when they are ready, or not at all – some of my best shots have been children looking deadpan into the lens – sometimes you really capture the essence of a person this way.

Family Pictures – Tip 11: Show their true age

I find parents love shots which show their kids acting their true age, not how grown up they think they are. Encourage your kids to pull faces – make a game out of the shoot. Series’ of pictures showing children pulling faces and laughing work incredibly well and can be timeless reminders of what they were like at that age. Use a 50mm lens for this.

Family Pictures – Tip 12: On the couch

If photographing your baby, a good trick is to push the couch up against a window, open the curtains and turn the lights off. Put the baby on a dark throw or towel, on its back, and underexpose your shot by two or three stops. Lighting the baby using just the window light, with the dark background looks great and mimics the effect of lighting with a giant softbox.

Family Pictures – Tip 13: Use the bathtub

Assuming it’s white, the bathtub makes a great place to photograph your small children, as it acts like a huge reflector, while containing the children at the same time.

Family Pictures – Tip 14: Documentary

The home can be a great place for some documentary shots of your family. I recently shot the process of parents getting their kids ready for bed, using a fixed 50mm lens, and produced a very personal set of pictures that my clients loved.

Family Pictures – Tip 15: Change

Make sure you look to change clothes at least once. This change of “look” will give another dimension to the shoot. Then if you want to make several prints from this session, the different outfits will make it look like they were taken on multiple shoots.

Image © Brett Harkness

Family Portraits On Location

Family Pictures – Tip 1: Find the best light

It’s all about the light, so when on location think lighting first, background second. Put your hand in front of your face and twirl – see how the light changes the appearance of your hand and the best light makes it look less wrinkled – this is the direction in which you want to shoot your families’ faces.

Family Pictures – Tip 2: Keep it fun

Take your family on a walk and stop when you see something interesting that’ll make a good background. Remember to keep it fun for them – “Listen to the pixies inside, can you hear them?” is better than “Stand still in front of that garage door”.

Family Pictures – Tip 3: Colour and texture

Look for interesting textures and colours that will complement individual family members’ hair, clothes etc.

I recently photographed a little boy against the brake light of my Audi – he liked it because he liked the car, and I posed him there as the red matched the red of the toy plane he was carrying. Sometimes you have to think outside the box a little when on location.

Family Pictures – Tip 4: Take a seat

Sit kids who are big enough on the back of benches, with their feet on the seat. This will keep them in position for you. Make sure they are facing good light.

Family Pictures – Tip 5: Posing tool

It goes without saying that you should be using a reflector when shooting out on location. When working with kids, it can become a useful posing tool too – mine is known to become a magic carpet, an island and a boat – this gets kids interested and more importantly gets them to sit on it and keep still…

Family Pictures – Tip 6: Walk the line

Outdoor poses don’t have to be regimented. Getting the whole family in a creative shot can be tough, but don’t be tempted to line everybody up in front of a wall.

Try asking the family to link arms and walk down a path together, so you can stand back and get some great long shots.

Family Pictures – Tip 7: Think diamonds

Always think triangle and diamond shapes when arranging families – they look much more appealing than other shapes. Sometimes you need to get a bit creative to make these shapes – and don’t be afraid to get kids on their dad’s shoulders, etc.

Family Pictures – Tip 8: Find your level

Sometimes kids just won’t keep still, so shots of the whole family together can be difficult. A good trick in this situation is to bring everyone down to the child’s level.

I recently shot a family portrait with everyone crouched around their youngest and it worked really well for that family.

Family Pictures – Tip 9: Give teenagers space

When you are photographing teenagers it pays to give them some space and let them to do their own thing – allow them to feel cool and separated from other siblings. Find a separate area on location just for them – a specific wall or door, anything like that – and get them to strike a pose with that space.

Family Pictures – Tip 10: Separate siblings

A great trick is to get pictures of the kids together but where they are separated by your composition. Look for areas where you can give each child their own space, but include them in the same picture.

I recently shot a brother and sister against a skip, which had a giant ‘V’ shape and two green triangles either side for the kids to stand against.

Family Pictures – Tip 11: Green green grass

Most photographers will take kids into a field or park to do some poses. On a sunny day this is great to do, but be aware of the green cast that can reflect into the child’s face from the grass. Use a reflector to sit the children on to get rid of this unwanted colour.

Family Pictures – Tip 12: Accessorise

If you are shooting out on location then take accessories with you. Hats, umbrellas, favourite toys, bike or ball will all add to amount of poses you can create, as well as helping to keep the child’s attention for just a little bit longer.

Family Pictures – Tip 13: Pose for the light

Try and get the sun directly on the back of subjects’ heads. This may seem a typical thing to do but is a lot harder than you may think. Having harsh across the face direct light is not flattering and will leave your family photos looking amateurish.

Family Pictures – Tip 14: Mix it up

Change up your lens choice to give a different feeling to the set of images. Sometimes a great wideangle shot will work well alongside my 50mm f/1.2 lens, which gives very shallow depth of field. Not for the faint-hearted, but beautiful when executed well.

Family Pictures – Tip 15: Use puddles

Shots of the kids, or indeed the whole family, are a great way to end a shoot. Joyful, fun pictures like this always look great; just remember to find out which direction the best light is coming from before you suggest it.

Image © Brett Harkness

Workshops with Brett

As well as being one of the most sought-after contemporary photographers today, Brett Harkness is among the UK’s premier photography trainers. In addition to running 1 to 1 sessions, Brett has a range of brilliant training courses coming up.

Explore the courses for yourself at www.brettharknessphotography.com/training, where you can also buy Brett’s new Real Life Wedding Training DVD, which is a brilliant resource for anyone shooting weddings.


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  1. I recently had to straighten a whole wedding shoot, as the 'photographer' had not ensured level horizons in his/her viewfinder. This wonky shooting may be trendy now, but will increasingly look odd as time goes by. Think for the next generation but one!

    Comment made by: Fotarch
    16.01.12 17:12:44

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