The holiday season is fast-approaching, and for many photographers it's the time of year where friends and relatives start calling in that favor—you know the one—where they ask you to take their family photo for holiday cards. There's no backing out of it. Much like the friend with the pickup truck who has to help everyone move, you're a photographer, and you have a role to play within your small circle.
The perennial tradition of the holiday photo has been elevated recently as people are getting more ambitious and trying to outdo themselves with each year's outlandish theme and baroque concept. But you don't need a hefty costume budget or elaborate props to make a family photo special—all that's required is for all the clan to be present and for everyone to be themselves. After all, that's what relatives and friends want to remember people by.
But still, capturing natural photos is hard enough when it's just one subject, so how do you deal with several people, especially when some of those involved might be kids or pets?
I'm no portrait photographer, so I find it really challenging when friends ask me to help them in this regard. Luckily, after doing a few sessions I've learned some things and now I shoot the same families every year. And while there's no single formula for success, here are some helpful tips for capturing great family portraits.
Location, Location, Location
Before everyone starts picking outfits, you should probably settle on a location. Inside or outside? Well, that's entirely up to you and your subjects. I will say that going with an outdoor location during the day is probably easier, as you can work with natural light and don't have to worry about artificial lighting.
In Atlanta, a popular portrait locale is the Beltline, an easily accessible trail circling the city with a variety of colorful urban settings to choose from. So, that's where I met my friend's family. I knew we could get a lot of different backgrounds within a short walk of each other, and there would be the option to go indoors at Ponce City Market if the weather wasn't nice.
Having a location with a variety of backgrounds is ideal, as you'll want to give the family some different looks. Just don't make everyone stand in direct sunshine and call it a day—look for flat or diffused light. This will be more flattering and can also help family members with sensitive eyes from squinting into the sun.
Step into the shadows or use reflectors to even up the light when possible. I like to use indirect sunlight bouncing from windows or large surfaces. An overcast day is not your enemy—just have people wear colorful clothes or choose a lively background to brighten things up a bit.
Many families are tempted to match outfits or go overboard on formality—this is probably a bad call. In my experience, the more you keep it casual, the better. Everyone should just pick their favorite outfit. Not only will they feel more comfortable in clothes they're used to wearing, it will also be a truer representation of who they are as people. And that goes for the photographer as well—dress comfortably and your shoot will be that much better.
If the family is insisting on having a theme or dressing it up a little, make sure the clothing matches the setting and it all works together to make a cohesive scene.
Gear Up For The Big Day
As far as what gear to bring, it never hurts to be prepared. For my session, I brought a camera body (Fujifilm X-T1), three Fujinon lenses (18-55mm, 35mm, 60mm), a tripod (Manfrotto BeFree), a flash (Nissin DI700A), a light modifier (Westcott Rapid Octa) and a reflector. I didn't end up using the tripod, the flash or the modifier, but I did want the option in case I needed them.
When in doubt, stick to the basics. And it doesn't take much to achieve success—I could've done it with one camera and one lens. That's what I ended up doing when I had access to the medium format Fujifilm GFX 50S and the Fujinon 63mm f/2.8 lens for another portrait session.
Don't just use traditional portrait focal lengths above 85mm either. When capturing groups, it helps to go wider and capture some of the surrounding environment in your shots.
To Pose Or Not To Pose?
I'll be the first to admit—posing people is not my strong suit—I could definitely use more practice there. I usually shoot candid street photography, so I don't normally guide my subjects—heck, I hardly interact with them at all. So, it is a challenge for me to direct people.
The one tip I have for posing relates mostly to comfort. The more comfortable the family is with you, the more likely they are to be relaxed, hence the more natural they will appear. It helps when you have some rapport with them obviously, but it's also possible to build it up during the photo session.
I usually do a mix of posed shots and candids so that I can cover all my bases. For poses, I just let the family huddle up, and then make changes to my liking. If things are not working, I just move on. I also shoot plenty of photos as people are getting ready and I try not to miss candid moments.
When everyone's holding a pose, shooting in continuous mode helps, as you're more likely to capture the right time when everyone smiles, looks their best and has their eyes open.
As far as getting smiles out of everyone, humor helps, especially when it's at your own expense. Genuine smiles are better than fake ones, so don't miss any opportunity to capture an authentic moment when everyone's personality truly shines.
Have Fun, Don't Overstay Your Welcome
These family sessions should be fun shoots, and to make sure they stay fun, keep them short. Get the shots you need in less than an hour. The last thing you need is for kids to get bored or annoyed. Most kids do not hide their feelings well and it'll come through in the photos. It's not just kids though, adults get tired under these circumstances too, so it's best to work quickly and change locations often to keep things fresh.
You'll probably find that as the session goes on, about 20 minutes in is when everyone starts to feel comfortable and loose. Usually, that's when the best photos happen, so make the most of it. Don't take it for granted though, because you only have another 20-minute sweet spot before people start getting tired, bored and annoyed, so then it's time to wrap it up.
Hopefully, at the end, you'll have at least one shot that the whole family agrees on, and then you're job is done! Well, until the next holiday season, that is.