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Family portraits that may be hanging in your grandparents house probably don't look very fun, but you still enjoy them because they are photos of your loved ones. It seems that having a formal family photo taken every year or every few years comes into vogue as soon as it goes out and right now the trend is on the uprising. Shooting family photos don't have to be so static and boring, like what you have seen in old albums or on the walls of your relatives homes. Here's some tips to ensure you don't make catastrophic mistakes shooting families.
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Discuss what the family wants to accomplish. This may be the most skipped step when talking with a family about doing their shoot. Find out if they intend to use the photos for holiday cards, if they want something to hang above the couch, if their kids are about to leave from college and they want to capture the whole family under one roof for a last time. The point is, talk with the family, have a conversation, engage them about their interests and intentions. You'd be surprised how much they will enjoy this part and it will enhance your photo shoot.
Avoid matching outfits. Everyone has seen the family in white shirts and khaki shorts or pants on the beach, barefoot, or black long sleeve shirts and jeans in a park. Don't be tempted to do this. Not only is it tacky, it doesn't allow individual personalities to come through and more often than not, one person in the family is totally against doing this, their facial expressions in the photos will ruin the final product.
Pick the right time to shoot. If there are children involved that are under the age of 3 or so, inquire when their normal nap and feeding times are, that will help dictate the best time to shoot. Pay attention to sunrise and sunset schedules, especially if you're shooting on location. High noon is never a great time to shoot but depending on the time of year and the position of the sun you could be fighting deep shadows. For example, the eastern coast of Florida is far better suited to shoot sunrise photos on the beach than sunsets while the gulf coast part of Florida is better suited for sunset photos on the beach.
Watch your aperture. Shooting wide open, f/3.5 or wider on virtually any lens when there are two or more people will often lead to someone in the photo being out of focus. Most lenses have a sweet spot, typically in the f/8 to f/13 range. For location portraits shallow depth of field is often desired, with groups the focal plane tends to shift and ensuring everyone is sharp is very important.
Glasses add to personalities, and frustrations. If someone in the family wears prescription glasses it could be a total pain to shoot them as glare from your flash and the sun may show through on the photos. If they wear their glasses all the time don't ask them to remove them for the photos, keep working with them till you find just the right way to avoid the glare. A circular polarizer will help but you can lose up to two full stops of light. If they remove the glasses they will lose part of their personality that their family and friends already know.
Be aware of flash cycle times. Digital photography has enabled us to shoot millions more frames than every financially possible with film. Because of this, I will often overshoot family photographs to ensure I have a frame with every one's eyes are open, chimping (reviewing on the back of the camera) after every shot isn't always an option. Because most cameras shoot at fairly high frame rate, be aware that your flash probably can't keep up with your constant shooting unless you are running an external battery pack.
Russell Family Portraits – Greg Dawson Photography by GregDawson, on Flickr
Learn all the family members names and remember them. Nothing will ensure you don't get re-hired for the job than not learning the family members names. It shows you care, besides, no one wants to hear, “sir, can you please move over here,” they want to be called by their name.
The family is all that matters. I try my best to never show clients photos on the back of my camera, it slows the shoot down and may give a false impression of your skills, it also often leads to a question that can be hard to answer: well what do you think, you're the professional. Let me share something with you now, it does not matter what YOU think, all that matters is that the family is happy. They are the ones who hired you, they are the ones who will be sharing these photos and hanging them on their walls. They need to be happy and your opinion shouldn't matter. If they press you, find something in the photo you love and tell them.
Limit shooting in extreme weather. If you're shooting location photos with a family during colder months, limit the shoots to 20-30 minutes tops, and either warm up again in a car or drive to another location. Rosy red cheeks, blue lips and goosebumps are not desirable in family photos. The same goes for warmer clients, where fogged glasses, sweat stains and beads of sweat on the brow will ruin your photos.
Shooting family photos can be a lot of fun, and if you're shooting on a part time or full time basis it's a great way to get repeat business and capture a family continually growing through the years. My style of shooting location family photographs is as an observer, where I'll ask the family to enjoy the park or beach or location we're at and pretty much forget I'm there. We'll do some posed photos here and there but capturing those moments as they interact is where the real magic an happen.