6 Photo Tips for Better Family Portraits

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(Editor’s Note: This family portrait photography how-to from professional photographer Audrey Woulard is part of a new monthly series on Digital Photo where top pros from Nikon USA’s Ambassadors program share their simple tips, tricks, and advice on how to be a better photographer.)

Spring is here, the weather is warming up and that means people are getting outside and thinking about capturing family portraits. May and June are especially busy with many looking for the best shots for proms, senior photos, family vacations and more.  

As any photographer will tell you, a great family photo is never as simple as “say cheese” and then click. The most important thing is to allow yourself to be a flexible photographer. Often parents get stressed when photographing their children, but if you can allow yourself to adapt, it will put everyone at ease and make for an enjoyable experience.

Here are some helpful tips, which include a combination of poses, techniques and proper equipment to help you capture your best shot!

1. Sharpness Counts

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I get asked a lot about how to capture sharp images. From selectable focus points to automatic Eye-Detect AF, today’s cameras make it easy for you to get a subject’s eyes in focus, but always make sure you set your camera right. When you’re focusing on a single subject, try and make sure their eyes are even, and never tilted. I really like the selectable focus points so I can easily move the point between the subject’s eyes to determine straight lines.  

When photographing families or multiple subjects, I like to get everyone on the same focal plane. Often, clients want that blurred background and that means I have to shoot pretty wide open, which is a challenge due to the shallower depth of field, so it is important to plan ahead. Try to get everyone on one plane and focus where people are touching (for example, shoulders) so everyone is locked into focus. No one should be too far in the front or too far in the back. If a child is jumping around, I move myself back to adjust them on the plane. With that being said, don’t be afraid to break up the monotony. Ask one subject to turn their back slightly or another to angle their body so it’s facing someone else – don’t become stagnant, mix it up to make the photo more interesting.

The lens also plays a big part in capturing sharp images. My favorite lens is an 85mm prime and I religiously shoot with a wide aperture like f/1.8. This focal length and aperture combination makes your subject sharp and creates that defocused area clients love. Just make sure to account for the shallow depth of field. 

2. Capture Spontaneity

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When photographing families, let them be spontaneous so they will be more open and natural with their expressions. Let subjects move freely, instead of directing their every move. For example, if I have two parents sitting next to each other, I will direct the kids to run toward them. I will tell one child to go to mom and one to go to dad. The chaos of the scene makes for genuine smiles that families are used to seeing in their everyday lives. With this method, I do not need to say, “everyone smile” because they already are.  

3. Get a Smile by Matching Your Subject’s Energy

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As a photographer, you should read the room. Your humor should match whoever you’re photographing. For example, if I’m photographing someone shy, I’m not going to be loud and boisterous. However, in other cases, humor is best. For example, when photographing someone energetic, I’ll tell them I’m taking 300 more photos to get them to laugh. Matching the energy of a subject is the best way to break down walls and deliver smiles.  As parents, we tend to want our kids to perform, but when photographing them, we have to take that mindset out of it and let them be who they are.

4. When to Use Natural Light

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When photographing outdoors, the simpler the light, the better. Look for natural reflectors – sidewalks, cars, reflections from a house – things that are around you that can reflect light off your subject, which will create images with more definition and minimize unflattering shadows. The more equipment you bring, the more that can go wrong. While I prefer to go all-natural, I always pack a strobe just in case I need it!

5. Every Lens Has a Personality

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Consider your personality and shooting style when selecting a lens. Embrace who you are and what you are trying to capture by using the proper lens. Shyer people might want a 70-200mm lens for some distance, but I love primes. I can be boisterous, so I like the 85mm lenses, which give me adequate separation from the subject I’m photographing. I think of lenses like shoes. You like stilettos; I might wear flip-flops, but we both make it across the street all the same – we can both get great images even if we use different lenses.

6. Create Something Colorful

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For editing, I like to keep everything simple. I like to have nice, strong shadows and nice highlights. My clients love big contrasts and vivid, colorful images – anything with a bright color pop keeps them coming back. I also use upbeat tones to match their personalities!

About Audrey Woulard

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Chicago-based Audrey Woulard is an internationally known portrait photographer renowned for her portraits of young people. She left the corporate world very early in life and embarked on a career in portrait photography. Her long career has allowed her to be commissioned to shoot or teach her craft in places such as Australia, London, Amsterdam and Barcelona. Audrey has also photographed high profile commercial clients, with her work featured in publications globally. Audrey also has an education platform to help photographers capture great portraits. Please visit AW Teaches to learn more.

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