How To Take Your Own Family Portraits

Posing family photos

Ever go to one of those big box stores to get “professional” photos done for Christmas? And, after waiting for what seems like an eternity with your squirmy toddler and grouchy grandpa, everything seems to go downhill from there?

Mom blinked. Junior won’t smile. And, if you have a family member like my daughter, there are howls of, “Oww! My eyes! The light is too bright!” You’re lucky if you leave there with a Christmas card-worthy shot but think, “Oh well. It’ll do. It was cheap.”

So what are your options? Professional photographers get great shots but sometimes cost is a factor. So why not try it yourself at home?

I know a lot of people who like the idea of trying for professional photos in their own homes but don’t try it because they don’t have the professional gear, like lighting and backdrops. The good news is that there are ways to fake it without spending a ton of money.

A few questions and answers to walk you through how to take professional-quality photos without breaking the budget:

  • How should my subjects dress? Solid colors are a good idea because they provide a nice frame for (but don’t distract from) the subject’s face. In general, it’s good to stay away from stark black or white because it can cause trouble with your lighting or with the contrast of the photo. I’ve found that more neutral or earth tones are the best. Oh, and no words or logos on the shirts!
  • What about glasses/makeup/jewlery? Glasses are a real toughie because it’s hard to avoid glare in the lenses. If it’s possible, have your subject remove the lenses from the glasses before you start. If that’s not practical, you’ll just have to play with the angle of the face, tilt of the chin, etc, to minimize glare. Try to wear makeup sparingly and stay away from bold jewlery as it just tends to distract from the subject’s face.
  • What should I use for my backdrop? Fabric is best because it absorbs light. This means that there won’t be any glare coming off of your backdrop. Bedsheets work wonderfully as a backdrop. A lot of people like to use white or black but I am a lover of all things neutral. Neutral colours complement every skin tone.  For the pictures of my kids, I used a beige blanket. When you set up your subjects in front of the backdrop, try to leave a little space in between. This will help ensure that your subject is in crisp focus while the background is blurred.
  • What about lighting? Professional photographers and studios use flood lighting and reflectors to illuminate their subjects’ faces and minimize shadows. With a little ingenuity, you can fake the look that they achieve.
  • First, find a room in your home with a good supply of natural light (a large picture window or similar). Set up your backdrop so that it’s perpendicular to the window. This will nicely light one side of your subject’s face. Then, in order to bounce the light back and illuminate the other side of your subject’s face, you’ll need to make a reflector. The easiest way to do this is to set up a large piece of white foamcore or bristol board opposite the window, on the other side of your subject. If you don’t have something like this, crumple up some aluminum foil, then stretch it out again and adhere it to something you can place across from the window. Mid-to-late afternoon tends to provide the gentlest light.
  • For indoor shots like these, I recommend also using your flash. Without the flash, all the light is coming from the side, which cause the faces to lose detail or be underexposed (darker) in the shot. The flash will help “fill out” the lighting and also helps to make the colour look more accurate. Plus, it’s a lot harder to keep your subject in focus without the flash (the camera is more susceptible to camera shake).  Using a tripod will eliminate this problem, of course, but I’m more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of a girl and like to move around and change the angle while I’m taking photos.

Silly Family Poses

This photo, aside from being just plain goofy, was taken without a flash. The goobers were moving around and, because I didn’t have enough light, the resulting photo was blurry with shadows in all the wrong places. (Be honest, though, that would have been a pretty awesome Christmas photo otherwise, wouldn’t it?)

  • I’ve got everything all set up. Now what? Once you’ve got your backdrop and lighting all set up, it’s time to play around with your camera! I use a Canon Digital Rebel XTi, which is an SLR camera. For all of these shots, though, I used it on automatic. Easy-peasy! I didn’t have to worry about any of the technical stuff and just focused on taking the pictures. I arranged my kids in front of my backdrop and just played around with how far away from them I was with my camera. Move around a bit, frequently look back at the photos you’ve just taken, and soon you’ll find the sweet spot. Try arranging your subjects in several different poses. Keep it light and fun. Before you know it, you’ll have that perfect shot. And the best part is that it costs only pennies!

 

Here are several of my test shots and some of the things I learned from them:

Photo Pose Bad Lighting

This shot is the beginning of something good. The kids are facing too close to the window, causing their faces to be a little washed out. Also, there’s too much shadow going on behind them. Close, but not quite.

Strangled Photo Pose

I altered the angle I was shooting from just a touch, and moved in a little closer. The resulting shot is much better, but the light is still a little too uneven for my liking. (Plus, while the strangle-hold look is endearing, my daughter does look a tad uncomfortable…)

Bad photo posing

I decided that a new pose altogether would be the best course of action. While this picture is wrong in more ways than I can count, the lighting and angle are great.

Personality filled photo pose

A few minor adjustments and, voila! It may not be the 100% perfect Hallmark-card photo I was initially aiming for, but it’s real, shows off my kids’ personalities and is something I can send off to family and friends without cringing. Score!

What do you think?

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Comments

  1. 6

    Great tips, I’m going to attempt at taking this years Christmas family photo myself (fingers crossed) I had a question, is there a particular backdrop stand I should buy, or how should I hang my backdrop? I’m using a canon t3i

  2. 7

    To Lindsey: Yay! I’m so happy that you were able to take some of these tips and make them work for you. You did a great job those pictures of your beautiful girl. Bravo!

    I, too, love this site. There are a wealth of tips for everyone here!

  3. 8

    I so love your photography posts! They’ve helped me improve as a photographer and I’m starting to realize I don’t have to have a $900 camera to take good pictures! Thanks so much! This post inspired me to take these photos of my daughter: http://kindredthought.blogspot.com/2008/10/all-she-needs-are-ballet-shoes.html

  4. 9

    These are great tips and gorgeous kids ;-) Thanks for this!

  5. 10

    I love tips on taking family portraits – it always seems so hard to get it right! Thanks! :-)

  6. 11

    Gorgeous!