Matty Graham explains how to make the leap from simple snapshots to perfect portraits that capture the real character of your family…
All images by Matty Graham
Family portraiture is arguably the most rewarding genre of photography! After all, the subjects are the people closest to our hearts, and having some truly memorable portraits to hang on the wall or put in a frame on your desk will remind you of great moments for years to come.
What’s more, with willing models on hand, family photography is something you can try at any time and in any location – even the local park can prove to be an excellent photoshoot venue.
But there are a number of tricks and techniques you can learn to take your family portraits even further. Getting your approach right has the potential to elevate a simple snapshot into a crafted portrait and picking the right kit will also give you results that make you proud to be the ‘family photographer’.
Plan your photoshoot
A little planning before you step out the house will make a big difference to how smooth the shoot will pan out. While you may have a good idea of how you want the family photoshoot to go, that doesn’t mean the rest of the family will know what to expect.
With younger family members, it’s especially important to explain what you’ll be doing so they don’t get taken aback, go shy and ruin any chances of nice smiles for the camera. Turn it into a game, explain it’s a competition for the ‘best smile of the day’, with the winner getting a bar of chocolate and you’ll soon see enthusiasm levels peak.
Think also about the location you are intending to visit. Shooting indoors always leads to more lighting issues and kids feel confined and pushed into making uncomfortable poses and smiles. It’s far better to place kids in an environment where they feel more comfortable, with things to distract and entertain them. The local park, nearby woodlands or even the beach (if convenient) all serve as perfect locations to try out a family portrait shoot.
The last element of preparation is covering the details. Take a number of different sets of clothing as this will add variation to your pictures and give you ‘more value’ from the photoshoot. Plus, kids have an uncanny ability to trip over into the muddiest puddle in the park, so a change of outfit could well and truly save the day. Pack refreshments as you’ll be taking plenty of breaks in between pictures.
Time the shoot right
Portraiture is similar to landscape photography in that the best light for creative results will be found either first thing in the morning or before the light goes down again at sunset. That’s not to say you can’t capture great images in the middle of the day, you just have to be more mindful of the harsh shadows midday light creates.
An added benefit of shooting during the golden hours is that parks and woodlands are likely to be quieter and this will avoid removing any other kids from the backgrounds of the frame in post-processing.
Once you do arrive at your location, don’t jump straight into taking pictures. Send the kids off for five minutes of play as you set up the camera. This will get everybody relaxed and in the mood for posing.
Get your settings right
The best approach for natural expressions and smiles is to shoot on the hop and this leaves less time to focus on camera settings. By working in Aperture Priority mode (A or Av on the mode dial) this allows you to control the depth of field in the image while the camera works out the best shutter speed for a balanced exposure.
As you want your subject to stand out in the frame, use a large aperture, such as f/4. This f-number will blur the background, making your subject the star of the frame, while still giving you a small tolerance to keep the zone of focus sharp, just in case you haven’t got your focusing spot on.
Speaking of focusing, with portraits you should always focus on your subject’s eyes – this is the most important element in any portrait and if the eyes aren’t sharp, you may as well delete the image.
If you are shooting a fast-action image, such as the kids jumping or running towards the camera, the best approach is to change the focus mode to Continuous Focus or AI Servo on Canon cameras. In this mode, the camera will try and constantly keep the moving subject in focus.
You can further increase your chances of a sharp shot by shooting in burst mode, so you capture multiple images at a time instead of just one. Make sure the shutter speed doesn’t fall below 1/320sec for an action portrait – if it does, simply increase the ISO. Modern cameras are great at handling digital noise, so you should feel confident to push the ISO to 1000 without any significant impact on image quality.
Control the light
One of the best accessories to bring on a family photoshoot is also one of the most affordable. Pop-up reflectors cost upwards of ten pounds but can dramatically improve your lighting.
By using the gold, silver or white surfaces of a reflector, you can bounce light back into your subject’s face to fill in any unsightly shadows – especially effective if you have lined your subject up with their back to the sun.
The reflector has the added benefit of creating pleasing catchlights in your subject’s eyes. If your subject is struggling and squinting with direct light in their eyes, the middle part of the reflector can be used to diffuse and soften the light too.
Flash lighting can bring an extra edge to family photography, but if you have younger kids, they may lose patience as you set up light stands and softboxes. So, if your images do need a burst of flash (particularly useful on a cloudy day), use the flashgun off-camera, holding the unit in your left hand as far away from the camera as possible so you avoid the shadows created by using direct flash on top of the camera. Remember, you’ll need to trigger the flashgun somehow, so a cable or radio triggers will also be necessary.
Polish those pixels
Leaving your images unprocessed would be a shame after all the hard work you’ve already done to create your perfect family portraits. By shooting in RAW format, you capture more image data and this allows you to use software such as Photoshop or Lightroom to enhance your images to a greater degree than is possible with JPEGs. RAW files enable you to recover more detail from highlights and shadows – perfect if you have overexposed the sky in the background or need to reveal more detail on your subject’s face.
If you are competent with image-editing software, remember to zoom in and check for any skin blemishes or stray strands of hair across the face that can be easily removed using the Spot-Healing tool.
If you are new to image-editing, it can pay to download some Lightroom Presets from sites like www.pixel-click.com. These Presets allow you to transform the images with one click of the mouse and will leave you with a pleasing image, ready to be printed and hung in pride of place over the mantelpiece.
Wherever you go for your photoshoot, remember to take your time with the camera and make the shoot an enjoyable experience for everyone.
Interested in learning more about portraiture? Watch our video series with pro portrait photographer Hannah Couzens
About the Author
Matty Graham is a photographer and writer based in Lincolnshire. www.mattygraham.com