How to Photograph Families

Last night I did my LAST family photo session of the fall.  Can you hear the sigh of relief?

Families are HARD, but really rewarding if you get it right! I was planning on writing my own post about families, and my approach to them, but then I found a blog post written by Ainsle of Wild Spirit Photography that did it a thousand times better than I ever could.. PLUS it includes a video of her principles in action!  {The only part where she and I disagree is that I don’t do sneak peek blog posts anymore, but everything else I agree with wholeheartedly.}

Ainsle gave permission for people to copy and paste, so I’m going to repost here, but feel free to click over and read it on the Wild Spirit blog and leave them a comment letting them know how amazing they are for sharing this information!

An instructional post for photographers {reposted with permission from the Wild Spirit Blog]

I am doing a pay it forward post, to help new photographers overcome some challenges when photographing families. This is a thank you for all the amazing ladies and gentlemen for coming to our workshops, buying our DVD”s and generally supporting us with all that we do.

We belong to a wonderful community and I want to say thanks.

A lot of photographers struggle with these family sessions, and we are all a visual lot. So I thought I’d share with you in text and in video , what i have learnt over the years.

This is a LONG blog post, please feel free to copy and paste, save and print to read at your leisure .

If you enjoy this post, please mention us to your photographer friends and photography forums.

Once again thank you for the amazing support the photographic community shows me each day.

Click below for a one hour – 4 session video ( scroll down, bottom right to the link , this will allow you to download the video, I recommend you doing this as watching it online will be tedious) . This video has footage of me shooting my clients and the images that came from the shoots.



Initial enquiry

I am going to talk to you about photographing a range of families all with their own challenges.
My approach to family shoots from the initial email or conversation in booking a family shoot right up until the family leave in their car, is I want them to be fully aware of my expectations of the shoot and I also want them to be 100% prepared.
In the initial email we will have discussed pricing. After the pricing hurdle we will then go onto choosing the location

Location choices

My client preparation starts just after that initial email inquiry, I find out how old their children are, and what style of shoot they would like. In order for them to know this (many are unsure) I will ask them to look at my website so I know what their expectations are regarding their portraits. This also helps me know they are aware of my ‘style” and like it!
Very rarely will I do family shoots in studio unless they include a newborn baby or very small child.

I always find more real emotion is achieved from children, and adults, when on location.

The chosen location would have been discussed with the parents, to find out what will suit them best as a family, but also what suits the ages of their children that might be slightly guided by me.

If they have very young children say 4 months old and 18months, I’m not going to be taking them to a beach shoot. It is too hard to stop very little ones eating sand, or wanting to run to the waves.
At that age it may possibly be in studio. I have a bedroom set up in studio so that young age group will probably be best in studio where I can contain them and also lay them down (if they are not sitting!).

What to wear

Once pricing is out of the way and I’ve chosen the location then my next step with them is to send them a what to wear guide.

I have a very comprehensive what to wear guide that I’ve spent a lot of time on It has lost of different images showing how families can blend well together but not have to be matchy matchy . White shirts and denim pants are easy, but too common, there are other ways to dress well for portraits, and sometimes we just need to be guided how!
I’m going to talk a little bit about clothing and why I think it’s important in family portrait .

I think that everyone feels better about themselves when they’ve taken a bit of effort to dress up or to put in an effort in the way that their dressed as a family, and I think it shows in their photos.

I like people to comfortable in what their wearing but I also like the portrait to be appealing . I think it’s important to get the family relatively coordinated and to keep logos to an absolute minimum,
I don’t like a lot of busy patterns unless it’s a little girl in a gorgeous floral dress and everyone else is in muted tones (that works beautifully ) like I mentioned in the previous DVD I do coach a lot on what to wear for my family sessions.

I do think that when you look back on your images and you love what your family is wearing , knowing that you took some time to think about what everyone was wearing, then that image itself becomes more of a memory for you and something that you feel quite proud of, and you enjoy looking at.

If you encourage the family dress themselves in any which way, they might turn up in clothing that is not so great ( for photos) When they look back at the images perhaps a year later, they may wish they had not of put little Jane in her princess jasmine top , or wished I had not of worn that etc..

I like them to feel like they’ve made an effort with their clothing and that they really brought it all together. Most of the time my clients just get it so spot on, I am really proud of my clients and the way they dress themselves and their families!

It really not that hard ( nor expensive) It is just a matter of taking half an hour out of your day and setting a few items of clothing out for everybody that’s involved in the shoot, and trying to work out what goes with what.

I don’t particular enjoy taking photos of people in clothing that’s not appealing or remotely thought out. For me it’s worth my while to get them to be slightly coordinated with one another and dressing in a more stylish way than what they may have originally thought was suitable for a portrait shoot.
So I do instruct them on what to wear and what will suit their locations

What time to do the shoot?

I tend to shoot late in the afternoon as most portrait photographers do when shooting out doors, mainly because the light is always great. I’m not having to worry about glary faces or sun in the eyes, however if I’m shooting somewhere with lots of cover then I don’t mind what time of day.

Since about 6 months ago I’ve been primarily shooting Monday to Friday. I don’t usually work weekends unless I’m convinced by my client that it is the absolute only time they can get there.
I usually aim for some kind of compromise and encourage their husband to get off early one afternoon so we can do the family shoot then.

I do hold my ground on that a little (I have been known to weaken). The baby might need a later sleep, dad might have to take a few hours off work, mum might have to miss a gym appointment, but if you want me as your photographer, you will need to be guided by my choice of time to shoot, and this will always be based purely on light.

Get some info

I find out, in email or phone, a little about them as a family and about the ages of their children. I am going into the shoot knowing a fair bit about the family and about what they like.
I don’t spend a very long time consulting them before the shoot, but I do find out all the important relative information I need. This allows me to map the shoot out in my brain.

Mapping a session, an example

An example –

I’ve got all the above information, and I’ve set the booking for a family with a 3 year boy old, plus a 5 year old girl and 11 year old twins boys .

They are going to be meeting me 4pm in the afternoon, in a field (because they want some playing shots of their children and they want that type of look for the shoot, chosen off my website).
I will automatically start thinking, my priority is the 3yr old boy, as he will be my unknown for the shoot. 11 year olds are fairly predictable in my opinion and 5 year olds are as well.

So what’s going through my mind when I’m mapping that particular session will be how I am going to entertain or keep the 3 year old child’s interest without distracting her?

When I first start shooting families I started bringing every prop and distraction known to man, whistles, and pez dispensers (no joke!) balloons, anything to get their attention.
I quickly learned that they were actually distracters to the shoot, so now I tend to bring one thing (maybe 2 things) that I know will get a 3 year olds attention in a second and I will only pull that out when I’m really stuck!

I actually don’t bring a lot of “stuff” out for them to play with or to give them, like I said some photographers use things on top of their camera’s, which is fine, however I just find that kids want to grab it, then they get angry that you won’t let them grab it, then the mood tends to go downhill when the parents have to control the child and you end up taking it off your camera and putting it in your bag anyway.

So these days I just go with a mindset, that with a 3 year old (actually with anybody under 3 and over 1 so say 1 to 3) , is going to be unpredictable, and will always be the first person I shoot in a family portrait sitting.

For anyone in that age group my plan of attack is that I’m going to go to that family shoot and then first photo that I will be taking will be a photo of the That young child.
When to start shooting

First up within 3-5 mins of them landing at my shoot location, will be their family portrait, and I never like to go on with my shoot until I’m comfortable that I’ve got that shot in my bag!
When I land at the photo-shoot, ( I’m actually a really quick photographer and a lot of people do tell me that), I think it’s important to actually get on with it!

You have this time frame which is just so limited, especially with little children where you are a novelty, your location is a novelty, and there still a little clingy to mum and dad going on. They are looking at you, and looking around unsure how you fit in to their family.

They are wondering whether you’re going to be bossy whether or not you’re going to be nice so there sussing you out a little in the beginning and I love to use that particular time to get their family portrait taken.

I use the time when I first arrive ( In the first 5 mins !) while they are happy to be a little still and sit down with mum and dad , while they are still a little taken back with the situation to take that first important photograph!

For this to happen, I will actually be at the shoot location about 20 minutes before the shoot and I’ll be setting up.

Obviously I do take things like couches, suitcases maybe something for people to sit on rest on or lean on (see section on props)
I will set up something for people to be structurally sat or positioned on. Because I’ll know how many people I have to deal with I’ll bring whatever I need according to who I am shooting.
I will see the family arriving, wave to them let them know where we are,as they walk towards me, I will probably only give them 3 mins before I’ll put them in that chair/stool/box/picnic rug, and start taking photos!

I need to make the most of that small bracket of time with the three year old is still curious about me and the situation. I can still get great eye contact so I’ll be taking that family photo pretty much first up.

When I take family portraits there are lots of different styles. My style is a little more structured than some, I also do a lot of fun shots, but I do know that most of my clients that come to me want something where all of the family is together and all of the family is looking at the camera (I don’t know if any of you have actually ever had professional portraits done, it’s interesting what you actually want from your own shots!)

Occasionally, I take some really arty shots and I love them, and I’m usually surprised that the family doesn’t.
I would wonder why they wouldn’t like that shot (I thought it was amazing!).

I got a little understanding on this when I had my own family portraits done. When it came to my own family photos all I wanted was everybody looking at the camera and everyone looking relatively happy , so I know that that’s something that most of the clients who book me want too!

In my mind, that one happy shot is something that I do try to get for every family session

If I have an assistant with me on the shoot then their job is during that first family portrait is to make a bit of noise in the background behind my camera, I do have a clacka or a shaker that will be used to get the young child’s attention.

Everybody will be told when I’m putting them in the chair, (all the older people) to look at me and not break the direction, to not look down at the child, to not worry about what the 3 year old Is doing, to not worry about what the person next to them is doing, that I want them to keep eye contact with my camera to keep their faces relaxed but I want them to be looking forward and looking at me!. Sometimes you’ll find that the child is looking at you but the parents and everyone else are looking everywhere but!

I am a lazy editor which I have probably said a million times in my previous DVDs, so head swapping and things like that are a pain in my butt. I hate to do them, so if I can away with not having to do head swaps and all those time consuming edits in Photoshop I’m going to! I will really try my hardest to get everyone looking at the camera and attempting to get them all looking relatively relaxed and relatively happy!

So now everybody has been instructed that they have to keep their faces forward, to keep looking at the camera, not to look at the young child. They are all brand new, just out of the car, all placed in a certain position, my assistant is rattling behind me, or if I’m working alone I’m rattling to get the 3 year old to look at me (I’ve just brought it out and it’s a brand new noise.)

Usually in that first 5 minutes I get my family shot. This shot everybody’s looking, everyone looking happy and everybody’s looking at the camera.

Once I have that photo then I can completely relax and know that the rest of the session will just unfold as it is and I’ll get whatever images come from it and I’m really happy because I know they have come to me for a family portrait and that I have that image.

My flow

My flow on shoots will be something like this, family portrait, and youngest child individual images, whether the child is 1 or 7 it’s the youngest child who goes first. After the family portraits I will spend a little time doing individual images of them. That may only be 5 minutes each.

It will only be a quick few shots where I will get the child to look into my camera and like I said I am still new to them the only time that’s past has been about 5 or 10 minutes while taking the family shot so I’m still quite new to them.

I’m going to get their attention in some way to make them look at my camera and I’m going to take the face shots of them and some animated shots of them. I will spend a little time on the youngest child because I know once I’ve gotten the youngest child individual portrait, and the families portrait photos accomplished, that the other ones can be worked on later once the little one has fallen apart (once they have decided they have had enough of the shoot, which usually happens around 25 to 30 minutes into the shoot).

Once I’ve got some good individual shots of the youngest child I will work really quickly to get sibling shots. So my next goal is to get some great sibling shots of all the children together, and I will do that in a relatively fun but quick manner. I have the youngest child in a nice spot, and I am simply going to add on to that by adding the other children. All of the kids are still looking at me as if they are not quite sure how bossy I’m going to be and what the repercussions will be if they don’t do what this lady says, so I have this aura of not necessarily unfriendliness but I don’t make the session too fun until I have these particular shots over with.

Once I have these shots done – (check list in my head – the family portrait (with everyone looking), the youngest sibling (eyes at me beautiful individual portrait) and the sibling shots)
I then shoot the older children alone and get their individual shots. The older children’s portraits are going to be easy for me, as older children tend to be under some sort of massive bribe on photo-shoots so they tend to hold together pretty well

Once I have the shots of all the children looking at me, I can relax and let the shoot fall apart a little.

I know I can take the parents shots together and they’ll do as their told, because they are old ?

I then do some more fun shots with the siblings running and playing and wrestling, all those things which you usually love to get in your photo gallery as well – BUT if I let them play and rough house and go crazy and play with one another first, before I get the family portrait, I can never get that full control back, so there is a definite flow to the way I take photographs on a family shoot.
I very rarely differ from that.

Changing it up

I would occasionally shoot in a different way, if the family does not want any structured family portraits, but I haven’t actually really come across anybody like that.

Some people do want more fun, and photojournalistic images. If that is the case I will still try to keep some sort of structure going towards the beginning of the shoot and then let it fall more apart towards the end. The end of the shoot is chaos (and awesome) jumping in puddles and running through bushes , rolling around on the grass which is fantastic, BUT I need to know that I’ve got the important shots that mum really wants by booking a professional portrait photographer for her family.

I need to know within myself that I’ve got those done. Hopefully you’ll see by watching the videos we are hosting, how I go about doing all that, and how you can keep a relatively stern professional air in the very beginning and then become much more fun towards the end and just know that that flow works for me.

The experience

I’m going to talk a little about clients experience on photo-shoots which for me equal word of mouth. This is a HUGE part of my business, client referral

I get this by client’s expectations having been met, and also their joy emulating from their expectations of the shoot being met, this is all very important to me.

I actually want them to hop back in their car from the photo-shoot saying how easy that was, how they can’t believe how fun it was, or that they cannot wait to see the images.

I want that to happen all the time! EVERY single shoot! I never want my clients to be getting back into the car feeling stressed, feeling harassed, and feeling like the session failed, (in any way).
I will do everything I need to do during my shoot to make them feel like it’s easy, that it’s all under control (even if I’m paddling under water like crazy ) I’m going to be keeping a very happy barbie camper face on during my whole shoot with them.

I’m also going to do other things to increase the customer’s satisfaction with me.

Customer satisfaction is a massive part of my business we do lots of things to look after our clients and when my clients are unhappy I will bend over backwards for them regardless.
The things that I found make my business work really well for family photography, ( I do a lot of family portraits ) is to have a blog post almost that evening, this also helps with word of mouth and then helps increase my bookings.

If the family are extremely excited about the shoot by the time they get home, they are dying to see the images and they just cannot wait and they just want to show everybody what they just did and how awesome their family is. The blog posts are amazing!

I find that as soon as I put up my blog post it gets followed by a couple of hundred hits from people on their Facebook, from people on their email list, from their parents and grandparents and nearly always will lead me to another booking for a family shoot from one of their friends!

So early blog posting is really important to me, as is getting their edited gallery to them on time.

I know a lot of photographers take their time getting their galleries to their clients, and I just think it’s a really poor business decision to do.

We’ve had a variety of different experiences with professional photos taken ourselves so I know what it’s like to be on the other end, and I know that how much you can start to detach yourself from the images over a period as short as a week.

In the beginning, in that first week, you are flying high, thinking that that blog post was amazing and you cannot wait to see every single one of the images, you are wondering how you are going to choose. 2 weeks on, still excited, and starting to think a little about money… 3 weeks on starting wonder when we’re going to see them, should I contact them, should I send an email to prompt them, starting to think maybe some other bills are more of a concern, maybe not getting all of the images, perhaps just the family pictures from the family portrait.. Then on and on ….4 weeks, 5 weeks…
Then it starts to become, that other things are way more important than spending our money on a family portrait. So to me they get their gallery in a week of their session (it stays live for 48 hours – an online gallery)

The mother

Something else I want to talk about today is the mother. The mother of the family portrait will determine whether or not she buys the portrait and it will all be based on how she looks in the portrait.
So regardless of how wonderful the lighting is, how amazing the posing is, the fact that you go a 3 year old and 2 year olds to look dreamy and smiley at you and everybody looking and looking gorgeous, if the mother thinks that she looks fat she will not buy the photo.

A big part of our family portraits would be any images in a family shoot where the mother is in them, she will be edited.
We do liquefy our mothers a little and we will unblemished our mothers as well

I’ve found over the years that we have been taking family photos that it can be the difference between the mother enjoying the whole shoot of her or hating everything from that shoot just the fact that she doesn’t like herself in the photos and she’s confronted by what she sees.

I always tell the women I will make them look 5 to 10 years younger and 5 to 10 kilos lighter.

I joke about that when I’m doing the shoot and I think it makes them relax a little bit and not worry so much about their arms and their chins and the things that we women worry about (especially when they’ve had children) in photos.

They know that I’m going to take care of them and edit them a little in the photos, I’m not going to make them look like someone their not but I will definitely make them look like an improved version of themselves.

To me I will always be looking after the mother in the photo and posing her in a way that’s flattering and then editing her slightly in the family images that I display in their gallery.

The gallery size

The galleries that I put online will have approx. 30 images, sometimes if it’s a large family they’ll have up to 45 colour images (the images will also be displayed in black and white).
Because I sell digital images I don’t want them turning any of my colour images black and white themselves so they all come with a black and white version as well.

I don’t take a lot of images during the session, my average on a 5 or 6 person family shoot is about 250 to 300 images.

I just think that once you’ve got the shot you’ve got the shot! Plus it’s less to edit or sort through as well which I tend to like!

As I said work quickly and I’ve been doing this a while now so I know when it’s working and when it’s not.

I heard recently that someone took 2000 images on a family shoot and I was just completely gob smacked

I don’t know how you could go through them all to choose!

What I do is I will bring the images home and check them through quickly and I will choose a couple of my favourite from the session, lightly edit them just in arc and pop them on the blog to encourage blog traffic but also to get them excited about their shoot and wanting to see more.

Then I will on Monday or Tuesday the following week which is my editing days usually I will go through their session and choose 2 or 3 of the best images from each segment that I did to edit.
So if I have the mum and dad together, if I had them posed in a romantic way I’ll probably display 3 maybe 4 images of that particular scenario and then the individual child I’ll do 3 or 4 images of each individual child, 3 or 4 images of the siblings together, maybe 4 or 5 of the family portrait.

I usually do 2 difference scenarios for the family portrait so that they can’t choose between the 2 (I want them to like both of them) and have to buy both of them, so they get that sort of choice.


I’m just going to talk a little about props and what I bring to the shoot and why

I think that people are always more comfortable when their sitting, leaning or propping on something, anything and it doesn’t really matter.

Even if I can throw a blanket on the ground and they can lean and lay. When they feel like they’ve got something to do, people are happier.

If I’m standing people in a field and they are just standing, I get this awkward vibe from people no matter how much you tell people to relax or to cuddle in.

However if I have them sitting or draping on a couch, or if I can prop them on a couple of suit cases in the middle of the pathway in a forest and they’ve got somewhere to maybe put their foot up or to lean back against

I know that I’m going to get more family style portraits that I’m looking for. That they will all look just that little more relaxed. Still structured but looking like they are enjoying themselves, their body language will be more relaxed and their faces will be to.

If they have babies then I will tend to use something like a suitcase or box, something I can sit the baby on (if the baby is sitting) or maybe a basket that I can put the baby in if it’s not quite sitting.
Other than that I don’t tend to bring a lot of props for children.

I think we choose our locations because of the beauty of where were shooting (I spend a lot of time scouting for locations) so when I choose the location it’s usually because I love where it is and that in itself is an awesome prop!

If I love the location for the family shoot, what more of a prop do you need if you have a gorgeous little girl dressed beautifully ( as guided) in a location that I absolutely love (because of the light) that background to me that’s enough.

For the family portrait to sing adding other distracting things like umbrellas and roller-skates and bubble machines just makes it a little bit much and I also have this fear that it may date
When I do family portraits, I want to try and create something that’s quite timeless, something that they can look back on in 10 years’ time and still enjoy

watch the DVD online here ( warning it is slow! downloading is a better option )

a free demo video from Wild Spirit photography on how to photography families from mark bernoth on Vimeo.

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Severine says:

This is an invaluable source of information, thanks. I learned so much, can’t wait to try it (i am just an amateur photographer,but will try on a couple of friend” families).

ariana says:

It is very long LOL. I also want to point out that I don’t deserve any of the credit, Ainsle from Wild Spirit was so generous to take the time to write it!

And yay Kristen, SO glad to hear about the OB frames!!!! :)

Kristen says:

This is a novel Ariana! But thank you so much. I am LOVING family sessions lately, it’s great to find a niche, and I am going to take the time to read this thoroughly later today. I did read the part on props and I totally agree. They’re necessary in the beginning when you’re just starting out, but you soon learn to not need them as much. Can’t wait to read this and watch your LR video. {BTW, I just got the OB frame pack and it already paid for itself :) }

Opal says:

Thank you so much for this post! I have always been a “lurker” on your blog, and I love all of the things you are willing to share/teach. I am still fairly new in the photography business, and I recently did a family shoot that included a 6 year old, 4 year old, 2 year old, and 4 month old. I would have loved to have read this post a month ago for the tips! I will definitely utilize your tips for future family sessions. I look forward to all of your posts and thank you for being an inspiration!