Tips for Relaxed and Authentic Family Portraits

tress can happen when families get together for portraits — kids complain, parents worry about what they’re wearing. When your subjects are uncomfortable in front of the camera, the images can fall flat. But you’re the photographer and, the good news is, all this beauty and chaos has been given to you! With a little prep and vision, you can set the scene for authentic family portraits.

Here are some tips to get to know your families, have fun, and create incredible images

Key Moments

From the time they book a photo session, families want an experience. Give it to them. A little prep will get you there. Have them fill out a very simple questionnaire including who will be there, names and ages of kids, and what would make this a special experience for them. Give them a short guide on what to expect, or simply reassure them that anything they do is great. 

Your portfolio will help them understand what you might create. Pay attention and share images that align with what you want to make. Research images you want to make: looking at the groupings, lighting, and time of day. This will help you start.

When you meet families, connect with the kids — guess their age, tell a joke. Ask them to show you around their home; it’s a great way to scout locations and allow kids time to adjust to your presence. 

Reassure the parents. Tell them all the beautiful things you notice. Let them know they look amazing — they do! I always tell parents that kids don’t need to smile or have fun. Anything children do is great. All emotions are welcome. When kids cry or turn away, or someone just isn’t into it, I reassure parents to take their time and offer whatever the child needs. You are encouraging closeness, and authentic emotions are part of that. Often that acceptance is exactly what kids need to stay in the picture.

Photo by Liz Fish

Choosing a Location

Home is the most relaxing place for families. Not all families love how their home looks, but assure them you can make it all work. I’ve photographed around boxes and construction zones. The benefits of being home are great. Families will change their clothes, take a break and relax, play their favorite music. Kids will play in spaces that are most comfortable to them, and you can photograph it all. 

Homes can be visually busy, so find settings that create the scene and don’t distract from your people.   Find doorways or archways, backgrounds to frame your group. Back or side lighting by a window is great, with everyone on the floor. Beds are wonderful for playful photos. Challenge yourself to use any furniture in an unusual way. Encourage them to perch on the edge of a chair or the arm of a sofa. Find a beautiful rug or wood floor and photograph them on the floor from above.

Outdoor locations are lovely and offer variety. Prepare families for where you will meet them — how long of a walk, what the terrain might be, any considerations. Find backgrounds that are minimal and soft. Find layers in the distance. If you’re meeting somewhere, allow plenty of time. When you find soft grass, don’t miss the opportunity to have the family lie down and play. Photographing families from above, or from a distance next to a tree, is an opportunity for an authentic family portrait. 

Photo by Liz Fish

How to Keep Kids Engaged

Keeping kids engaged with a photo session can be a wonder or a challenge, depending on your approach.  Photograph the whole family together first. The kids will likely be most interested in you when you first arrive. If you lose someone or kids need a break, smaller family groupings can come next. I often ignore whoever is over it, rather than make them the focus of attention. It usually brings them back faster than chasing them.

Talk to the kids about collaboration. How can you work together and make some art? This is something kids know all about! Offer them small jobs to do. Play simple games. Play music they enjoy. Offer to photograph their favorite things. It will make all the difference.

Newborn sessions are about setting an environment. make sure the parent(s) and newborn are all set first — on a bed, against a window, on the floor, near a couch. Bring children in once the parents and newborn are settled and your camera is set. I offer alone time with older kids and parents as well. It’s vital for older kids to feel important and valued.

Kids love cameras, and they are usually curious. Encourage them to inspect your camera, or push a button for you. Bringing a camera they can use will keep them engaged. Offer an inexpensive digital camera, an old point-and-shoot, or an instant camera for them to play with. Wooden toy cameras are fun for toddlers. Encourage kids to find one of their toy cameras and help you.

Photo by Liz Fish

Prompts for Authentic Family Portraits

Start small. To help parents stay close to their kids, I offer small, specific movements — take a breath, smell your kid’s hair, step toward each other, shake out your hands. Authentic joy and laughter translates on camera, and kids love to laugh. Encourage laughter. Blurt the silliest word you can think of — kid-friendly potty humor works great, even with adults who may be struggling.

Setting up and playing is always a great idea. Layer in the kids after parents are settled. Frame your shot before you give the kids any direction. For small kids, recruit them to be a helper and offer them the chance to jump in, give a gentle kiss, hug, or wrestle the parents. Ask them to close their eyes and show you what dreaming looks like.

The simple act of observing families can make a difference. Get close and look for details. Move around your scene. Experiment with the family in shadow or through an object. Go outside and photograph them through a window. In-between moments can yield beautiful results. Be ready when they walk from one scene to another. If a child is cranky, cries, or isn’t having it, just go with it. If you reassure the parents to do whatever they need and continue to observe, you’ll find magical moments.

Photo by Liz Fish

Cameras and Lenses for Family Portraits

The camera is yours to choose. But, overall, don’t be precious about gear when photographing families. Use cameras that allow for play and that you don’t mind kids being curious about. I love small cameras!

Mirrorless cameras are small and light, and easy to carry. You can’t hate a 24-70mm lens for families, often somewhere around 40mm will be ideal. My 50mm lens opens up to f/1.8: it’s not a fancy lens, but it’s small and I love creating family portraits with it.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with cameras. I started using a Fuji X-series camera with a 23mm F2 lens and I love it. When visiting people at home, I’ll bring my vintage Polaroid to slow things down and try something new. You may find yourself fumbling for a few minutes, but don’t stress. Explain what’s going on. It’s reassuring to families to see you as a human who makes mistakes too.

More Ideas for Authentic Family Portraits

  • Small ways to connect go a long way! Bring a favorite blanket outside. It provides a natural landing place for everyone to stay close. 
  • Bring an Instax camera to share with kids. Instax cameras are easy to use, and it allows kids the fun of seeing their image right away. Kids can use it to photograph you or their families. It’s your choice to keep the images and scan them, or it’s a gesture of thanks to give kids an immediate image to keep. 
  • I’ll often bring flowers, especially to a home location. It’s sweet to arrive with something. Flowers make a beautiful portrait. I’ll give kids cut flowers they can play with, or offer flowers to parents to hold.

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