Photographing families can be a challenging, but at the same time rewarding, photography assignment.
Decide with the family what sort of portrait they want: a formal portrait with everyone looking to the camera; or an informal shot showing the family enjoying an activity together, seemingly unaware of the camera. If you have the time, it’s worth trying out both types, although the approach and setup are very different.
Depending on how the family want to portray themselves, decide on the clothes each family member should wear, and the location of the shot. Clothes can range from formal dresses, shirts and ties, and jackets to laid-back comfortable tops and jeans or shorts.
It’s all too common for some family members to want one style of clothing and for another group to want precisely the opposite. As the photographer you will be expected to take the lead. Of course you could always suggest that they try both approaches, smart and casual. If there isn’t time, suggest a happy medium with blouses, open shirts, and groomed hair. Whatever you agree with the family, try to go for a fairly uniform look, as this helps to reinforce the family as a unit. A mixture of grunge and shirt-and-tie is only likely to emphasise separateness. Try to make sure everyone agrees and is happy, and understands that compromises have to be made for the sake of the photo—it’s not always easy!
Select a location appropriate for the style and size of the group. It’s likely to be in the family home, yard, or a public space. If you’re shooting outdoors, find an area of shade with a simple, attractive background. Don’t shoot in bright sunlight as people will end up squinting and dark shadows will form across their faces. Slightly overcast may not seem a great time to shoot, but it will create a much better final portrait.
Shooting indoors works well as long as the group isn’t too large. Choose an uncluttered space appropriate for the size of the group and try to arrange them so that natural light from windows lights the group evenly. Be cautious about placing groups directly in front of bright windows, as it will be hard to avoid overexposing the background. Also avoid using on-camera flash as it can produce very harsh unattractive light. However, if you can control the power output of the flash, you could try a lower setting that provides enough light to freeze any movement without creating a washed out look.
Discuss how the family want to arrange themselves. Common themes are grandparents in the middle seated, children standing at the back, grandchildren sitting on the floor at the front. The permutations are endless; what’s important is that eye-levels should be relatively even or have a natural line.
Using a tripod and a remote shutter release for more formal portraits is recommended. This allows you to approach the group and interact with them more freely, and gives you a better view of the group when you’re photographing.
Work quickly and confidently. With a sufficiently wide angle lens or setting ensure everyone is in the frame, use an aperture of around ƒ/8 to keep everyone in focus but enough to blur the background, and a shutter speed of 1/60 second. With the camera set to continuous shooting mode, ask everyone to look at the camera, smile, and take a quick burst of four or five images. Keep shooting as people are relaxing. Having a number of images to choose from gives you a greater chance of success, and you can always combine the best faces later with editing software.
With an informal portrait, agree on an activity for the family to engage in. It could be a picnic, doing a jigsaw puzzle, playing football; anything they feel comfortable with. Clothes are less of an issue with informal portraits, but keep an eye out for colours that clash. Find a suitable location for the activity, again avoiding any areas with distracting backgrounds or very bright sunlight that might cause people to squint. If you’re shooting outdoors look for some shade. Get the family started on the activity and tell them to ignore you.
Using a telephoto lens for this type of portrait allows you to keep your distance from the family so they’re less aware of you, and with a wide aperture it’s easy to isolate the group. Remember you’ll need a faster shutter speed if you’re shooting with a telephoto lens—1/250 second for a 200mm lens. Shoot from different angles and positions until you feel you have a good selection of images.
In The Ilex Introduction to Photography, Haje Jan Kamps guides you through the process of turning your everyday snapshots into great pictures that you can be proud of. It doesn’t matter if you shoot with a smartphone or a top-of-the-range dSLR, this book has everything in it that you need to know!