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A Pro Portrait Photographer’s 5 Tips for Better Family Photos

Great family portraits require planning to pick the right place at the right time

Family portrait photography can be challenging. After all, there’s a lot to balance—between picking the right location to choosing the right light, preparing parents and working with children. Thankfully expert portrait photographers are willing to share their advice. 

Crystal Tseng is a PPA certified professional photographer specializing in portraiture, photographing engagements, senior portraits, maternity, newborns and family portraits from her studio outside Baltimore, MD. We asked her to share five tips to help photographers make better family photos. 

Start with a Plan

Tseng says that as with so many photographic pursuits, a successful family photo shoot starts with pre-visualization—imagining in your mind’s eye how you want the finished photo to look, then taking the necessary steps to make that imagined image a reality. 

“Knowing what your vision will look like in the picture beforehand helps you lead the photo shoot with more confidence,” she says. “I suggest all photographers make a plan—say, different family groupings or props to evoke genuine interactions between family members. For example, blow bubbles for little kids to play with and get them to smile.” 

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“This is my secret,” Tseng adds. “Be prepared and practice the flow in your mind a couple times before you head over to the real shoot. Envision the happy smiles and laughter happening in the shoot, which will eventually lead you in the right direction to see it really happen.”

Pick the Right Place

So much of what makes a good portrait session—and a great end result—comes from the location you choose to shoot. Will you be in a home studio, or perhaps someone’s actual home? Will you be in a public park, or maybe just in the backyard? Wherever you choose to shoot, you’ll want to think a lot about the environment, how the participants will interact with it and how it will look behind them. You don’t need a wide variety of locations for the shoot to work. And above all else, avoid distractions in the background.

“Pay attention to the background,” Tseng says. “Try not to place your family right in front of a tree where the tree trunk sticks out from someone’s head. If you want to include a tree in the background, try to place your family on one side of the tree trunk. Bushes actually provide a better background.”

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“Try to make sure the spots you are taking your family have coherent and consistent quality throughout,” she continues. “This way the photos won’t look like random images. It is important to keep in mind that the intimacy and interactions among the family members are the primary elements to capture, not the landscape. One or two spots are usually good enough to create a beautiful story for the family.”

Time it Right

Equally important to where the photo shoot will happen is when. The time of day is especially important when working outside because it will dictate the quality of light. The “when” and the “where” actually go hand in hand, with one informing the other. For outdoor lighting, avoid direct sun if at all possible. 

“Plan to have your photo shoot where and when the sunlight is less harsh,” Tseng explains. “If the sunlight is harsh, always place your subject facing away from the light source. Try to have the shoot near the golden hour—the hour after sunrise or before sunset—especially if your location is a wide open area. If the photo shoot takes place during midday, shaded trails with sunlight shedding through the canopies are perfect for family photos. Avoid shooting in a completely shaded place. Pay attention to the quality of the shadows. Try to find a location where the shadows of the leaves look soft and not too contrasty, which indicates the soft lighting you seek for family portraits.”

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Indoor Lighting

If the shoot is happening indoors—either in a studio or in a home—lighting is likely to be done in one of two ways: with lights provided by the photographer (either LEDs or strobes), or with natural light coming in through a window. In either case, when there are multiple faces in the frame, deliberate positioning of light in relation to the family group (or vice versa) is crucial. 

“Soft lighting works best for family portraits in the studio,” Tseng says. “There are two ways to achieve soft light for shooting in the studio. One is to use large diffusers for your strobe or flash. The larger the diffuser you use, the softer the light you will get. When lighting with a strobe, try to feather-light your subjects, which means to slightly turn the light about 10-degrees away from them and only light the subject with the edge of the diffuser. Secondly, always fill in the shadow with a second light source or a white V-flat to reduce the contrast in the shadows. This will create a soft look for family portraits.”

“Lighting three faces together can be very tricky,” she continues. “Side lighting will not work well. Instead you’ll need to make sure the light comes from about 45-60 degrees in the front of the subjects so everyone’s face is lit. If possible, fill in the shadow with a reflector. If the room is bright enough, you can place your subjects standing with their back against the window and add a reflector to bring light back to their faces.” 

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Prepare Parents and Kids

W.C. Fields famously advised never working with animals or children. Well good luck doing that in a family portrait! Tseng suggests working with kids isn’t as challenging if you prepare the parents in advance. 

“Working with small children is still challenging,” Tseng says, “but what works best for me is to actually educate the parents beforehand about what to expect, and what they should and should not do during the photo shoot. I’ve learned over time that it tends to work the opposite way when parents constantly ask their children to look at the camera. We now prepare parents and let them know it’s normal when their children are not cooperative. We will prompt the moments to happen if they can just interact with the children as they normally do. I will capture the moments in time. When everybody is relaxed and enjoys the time, being together walking, talking and laughing, the session usually works out the best. And of course, make sure small children have had a nap and snacks before the shoot.” 

Learn more about Crystal Tseng and her work at crystaltsengphotography.com.

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