6 Tips for Great Family Photo Portraits During the Holidays

Photo of a family portrait

Editor’s Note: This family portrait photography how-to from professional photographer Tamara Lackey is part of a 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.

The holiday season is upon us and that means it’s the perfect time to capture portraits with loved ones! Family group photos are a great way to cherish memories and reflect back on special days.

Even better, it’s easy to take your family photo portraits to the next level with some simple photography advice. Here are my six top tips for capturing priceless photos with family and friends this holiday season.

Photo of a mother daughter portrait

#1 Treat your group as individuals to get their attention

Families always love the one image where they are all facing the camera, and everyone looks good. However, capturing this moment authentically is far more difficult than you would expect. With today’s cameras, you can shoot generously, making it easier to interact with each family member differently. These interactions can create more opportunities for spontaneous, genuine laughs and smiles. These are the photos that every family loves and tends to purchase.

One helpful tactic is to call each family member by their name in the order of how they’re posed and state something I know about them. This technique typically works for adults and will catch their attention, eliciting engaged expressions. For younger kids, I grab their attention by saying, with mock seriousness, “don’t look at me until I say your name…” which allows me to capture a burst of three amazing shots. These techniques help you gain alertness without anyone in the group zoning out or losing interest. 

Photo of a mother son portrait

#2 Embrace the cheese

It’s extremely valuable to have images where individuals in the family are interacting in an authentic way. For example, ask a mother and daughter to look into each other’s eyes without breaking eye contact. It sparks laughter and creates amazing interactive and genuine smiles because they felt awkward or weird. These photos show true reactions – and even though it seems cheesy in the moment, it’s always one of the favorite images.  

Photo of kids with dog portrait

#3 Choose the right lens

There are quite a number of lenses to choose from, but I typically love to step back further and use a longer lens for a flattering effect. I am obsessed with the NIKKOR AF-S 105 f/1.4E ED for photographing larger families or the NIKKOR Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S, both are lenses that make it easy to take a few paces back. Stepping back and shooting with these lenses creates incredible bokeh, and provides and optical quality, which takes the photo to another level. If I’m indoors and can’t use one of the longer lenses, then I’ll grab the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S that’s currently paired with my Z 7II. 

Photo of a children portrait

#4 Keep your focal plane in mind by keeping the family together

When photographing a group, keep them all on the same focal plane. A simple way to do this is to imagine a family of 5 with a sheet of glass in front of them and make sure all of their noses are on the same plane. Of course, you don’t want them all right next to each other – they should still be naturally posed, just not notably closer or farther than the rest of the family.

When you do that, you can shoot extremely shallow, with all eyes in focus. I have photographed families of seven at an aperture of f/2.8, which showed stunning results, but you need to plan ahead in order to get that depth of field – and, certainly, shoot from a farther distance away.

Photo of a puppy portrait

#5 Include a unique angle of your furry friend

It’s important to capture that special bond between a pet and their person, but I also love the idea of getting an expressive and interactive shot of just the pet. I recently photographed a series of puppies and put it together as a composite, and I’ve had great fun photographing dogs or puppies wiggling on their back. I’ll shoot these images using the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 and composed with an articulating LCD screen. It’s so much fun, and you get the coolest expressions from them.

Sometimes you might want to capture a more intimate bond. Every family member has a pet that is drawn to them, and it can be magical to capture a photo of the pet with their person. 

Photo of a girl portrait

#6 Take them to the edge

Lighting is key, especially when shooting indoors. Looking at holiday family portraits, lighting is always the first thing that grabs my attention. The simplest tip is to have your subjects stand facing a window; open up the door of the home and clear out the furniture to make for a simple natural light studio.

If you are shooting with a flash, you can achieve clean and simple lighting by pointing at a white or light ceiling. Doing this will give you a nice soft bounce. When shooting in the shade, find that line right in between where you are in full sun or full shade and bring your family close to that line. This way they won’t be squinting, yet you get the sunlit look without having to provide more light. 

About Tamara Lackey

Tamara Lackey is a renowned professional photographer, Nikon Ambassador, speaker, author and program host. Her authentic photography, from children’s portraits to humanitarian photography, is praised within her industry and published internationally. Her work is featured in a myriad of major media outlets, from popular magazines to entertainment sites to talk shows. Her recent projects include her recently published The Posing Playbook, and she is a devoted animal lover and founder of the Beautiful Together Animal Sanctuary, a non-profit that rescues at-risk animals from shelters or inhumane conditions. Follow her at tamaralackey.com, on IG: @tamaralackey, and Twitter: @TamaraLackey.

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