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Making a List, Checking It Twice: Great Family Portraits

Sony ILCE5000 NEX Series Camera w/ 16-50mm Lens

Mastering the family portrait

Every year, I try to take really great group shots of my family - and for many years, most of the pictures I took weren't ones I wanted to hang onto for posterity. Fortunately, I've finally figured out some tricks for making the yearly family portrait work.

So in this blog post, I'm going to share my checklist for taking memorable and keepable family portraits for the holidays. Most of these tips are true of any family gathering, by the way, so please don't feel like you can't use them if you're not about to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa!

  1. Plan your location in advance. This lets you avoid problems with light shooting into your camera's lens, shadowed faces due to backlighting, direct sun making the subjects squint, etc.  If there's a spot that's of key significance, and it's more important to have your family group in that location then to have perfect lighting, you can use a fill-flash setting on your camera to brighten up shadowed faces.

    Do avoid an indoor flash-lit shot if possible —  the built-in flash on most cameras cannot light a group adequately for an attractive photo. If that's all you've got, supplement with natural light and room lighting to ease the harshness of the flash.

    I'd also counsel you to avoid shots where people are leaning back in chairs or sofas. I know from painful experience that my relatives do not like how their thighs get enormously magnified in the foreground of the picture, and leaning back on a sofa to look up at the camera seems to add a couple extra chins to people, too. You can avoid this problem by having them stand, or getting them to sit in wooden chairs and lean forward. If all of your subjects are seated this way, you may want to consider lowering the camera to their head height while seated. And with that in mind, let's move on to item 2...

  2. Figure out where you'll put the camera, and set it up before you get people in position. First of all, taking test shots beforehand helps you get a sense of how much space your family has available. It lets you avoid problems like cropped heads, or Aunt Edna missing half of her shoulder, or everyone's feet being chopped off. It also lets you figure out the right focal length (or zoom), appropriate focus, and any other settings that need to be adjusted to make the picture turn out right.

    And finally, it means you don't waste the smiles and energy of an assembled crowd while you spend ten minutes tinkering with the camera. This is especially important when there are children in the picture. 

  3. Flatter your subjects by grouping them right. Though you have to strike a balance between the subjects' comfort level and the photo's visual appeal, there are things you should certainly adjust if they're throwing the look of the group off. For instance, if three short uncles have chosen to stand behind two tall teenage girls, pull the uncles out of there, and group them all side by side instead. If your group is standing, have parents or siblings hold young children, so they're not relegated to the knees-and-feet area of the photo. If Aunt Flossie is wearing a bright pink print that battles Uncle Milty's red plaid, separate 'em.

    And if you're shooting a prearranged family photo for use in a holiday card or as a more formal group shot, it's a good idea to ask folks to simply wear solids or very simple patterns. (Some families even suggest coordinated clothing, such as everyone in white shirts and khaki pants. That's your call, based on your family's style.) Of course, an energized group may not need arranging, because the vibe they have going will often trump a more ordered, aesthetic arrangement. Speaking of which ...

  4. Get a good vibe going! Having a bunch of silent people nervously eying a blinking red light and tensing as they wait for the flash to go off is a surefire way to get one of those deer-in-the-headlight group shots, with fixed smiles, glassy eyes, and (inevitably) someone blinking. You don't want that, so get your crowd talking. Don't rely on old stand-bys, like "Say cheese," if there are family in-jokes you can shout out instead. If they don't mind being a little goofy, take a few test photos as they're lining up that have them doing the twist or giving each other rabbit ears - anything that will get them to loosen up and smile naturally. And once you get going, along with more standard posed shots, take some fun shots, with props, or silly poses. I have a beloved family photo in which about ten people are grinning and sucking their fingers, in imitation of my (then two-year-old) brother. He alone isn't sucking his fingers, because he's peering up at all of them in wonderment. It's great.

  5. Click like crazy. If your camera has a setting that lets it take more than one photo at a time in self-timer mode - or better still, if you have a remote for your camera - use it. Memory is reusable and you should snap as many photos as possible before your family gets fed-up. If you have neither of the tools above, then make sure your spot in the group makes it easy for you to slip out of the crowd and run back to push the shutter button on the camera again. The more photos you have, the more likely that one is going to be usable. By the way, the more people there are, the more crucial quantity becomes, so I like to have at least three to five photos per person in the group.

Finally, I heartily recommend that you use a tripod. It guarantees stability and consistent framing from shot to shot. I have an old and very, very inexpensive one, and it's still a thousand times better than stacking up books on a wobbly side table to get the camera to the right height. Not that I've ever done any such a thing - not me!

Happy shooting.

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