How to Take the Best Family Photos

Family fun beside the lake by NYC family photojournalist, Kelly Williams, for an article on how to take the best family photos

I hope you are all having a great start to your week!  Monday is over, so we only have the weekend to look forward to.  On that happy note, I wanted to share with you a few tips I have developed over the years for how to take the best family photos.

Family fun beside the lake by NYC family photojournalist, Kelly Williams, for an article on how to take the best family photos

The tips cover everything from posing and what to wear, to the right attitude and how to get your kids to smile.  Accompanying the tips are photos of my own little cousins, which I took while in Florida over the winter.  (Yes, you read that correctly — winter.  Note that we are out in the yard with no heavy coats!)  Enjoy the pics, and let’s chat soon about scheduling your own family portrait.


  1. Start off with the right focus…FUN! In the old days, family portraits were a chore for which children were trotted out in front of the camera in their Sunday-best clothes. The look was formal, and the feel was forced. Today, there is a new, relaxed feel to photography that should be felt in every aspect of the process. When you get your family on board for the photo session, emphasize that this will be an hour of having fun and being yourselves, albeit in front of the camera. No need to pretend to be the perfect family — just be you, and great photos will follow.

Family fun beside the lake by NYC family photojournalist, Kelly Williams, for an article on how to take the best family photos

  1. Know your (time) limits. Unless you are a family of professional models, most people are exhausted after two hours of trying to put their best foot forward in front of the camera. With the limited attention span of small children, this timeframe becomes even smaller to where getting a good full hour of photography completed is a worthy accomplishment. This doesn’t mean that you should rush to fit every activity, look, or pose into a one-hour time frame. You can always schedule another shoot on another day, but if young children are going to be in front of the camera, I sincerely recommend that you keep the shoot to a maximum of one hour.
  1. Ideal lighting vs. naptime. The best time of the day – lighting-wise – to take a photo is during the so-called ‘golden hour.’ That is, the hour before sunset or just after sunrise. Especially in the case of a family beach photo, golden hour is the perfect time to shoot. Children, however, have their own biological schedules. If young children are going to be in the photo, then shooting when the kids are happiest is paramount. If it is at all possible, try to condition the kids for a few days prior to the shoot by adjusting the time of their naps so that they will be at their happiest during golden hour. If not, then naptime reigns supreme and the shoot will adjust accordingly.

Family fun beside the lake by NYC family photojournalist, Kelly Williams, for an article on how to take the best family photos

  1. Family themes are great! If you are a family that is nuts for Star Wars, then by all means dress up your littlest one as Yoda, mom as Princess Leia, and dad as Luke Skywalker. Use your family portrait as the chance to express your collective creative zaniness. Just make sure to get all of your costumes, make up, hair, and accessories ready a few days prior to the shoot. Try on everything to make sure the look is what you want, and then go for it! Make sure you have informed me, your photographer, of your theme idea so that I can suggest the perfect background for the shoot. Perhaps Long Beach can double as Tatooine?
  1. Plan some activities. To get the most natural, documentary-style portraits possible, you all need to be actively engaged in an activity so that you can forget the camera is even there. In short, the family that plays together, takes good photos together. Further, the younger the children in the family, the more activities you need to have planed as back up distractions. (Boredom, as I’m sure you are aware, leads to frowning…and worse…tantrums.) A few activities I might suggest include:
  • Hiking in a park and exploring nature
  • Walking and playing on a beach, complete with sand castles
  • Playing a sport in the yard
  • Cooking a meal together
  • Baking a cake or favorite dessert
  • Having a family picnic in the park
  • Taking a private art class together
  • Washing the dog
  • Gardening
  • Playing tag
  • Board games
  • Flying a kite
  • Decorating the house together for the holidays

What do you like to do together as a family? Do you watch a lot of sports? Then how about playing a game of tag football in the yard? Are you a family of homebodies that likes to play video games? What about adding in a few cosplay props to give a nod to your favorite pastime? Talk to me about what you like to do, and I bet we can come up with a game plan.

Family fun beside the lake by NYC family photojournalist, Kelly Williams, for an article on how to take the best family photos

  1. Clothes make the family. In the 90s, there was a trend in family portraiture to have every family member wear the same exact outfit. Blech. You are a family of individuals, and your clothes should reflect this. I’m all for having every family member in the same complimentary color scheme – everyone picks a different shade of blue, for instance – but you shouldn’t look matchy matchy. Kids look great in bright colors, and there is nothing wrong with jeans and a t-shirt. Indeed, buying new clothes for the family portrait isn’t a great idea as kids who are (literally) uncomfortable in their own skin will be easily distracted and won’t want to spend much time in front of the camera. Be yourselves, and dress accordingly.

For every portrait, I give the same advice in regards to attire: try on many, many outfits and see what works best. The best colors to choose are those that flatter your hair and skin tone. Pops of saturated color are great, as are signature accessories that are unique to you. The only items to avoid are crazy patterns, patterns that are extra small, extra baggy or too tight clothing, clothing with logos, and an abundance of pale colors. Watch out for striped or checkered prints as well, since horizontal stripes make everyone look wider. Also, details matter. If you notice that an article of clothing is wrinkled, bunching up, or is missing a button, then it is guaranteed that this flaw will be magnified by the camera. Worried about what you have planned to wear? Email me some pics, or lets create a Pinterest board together of example outfits.

Family fun beside the pool by NYC family photojournalist, Kelly Williams, for an article on how to take the best family photos

  1. Think about family member groupings. You of course want a photo of the entire family together, plus individual photos of each child. But what about a photo of each child alone with the respective parent? If grandparents are to be included in the portrait, what arrangements would you like then? Have a game plan in mind for the exact list of photos you want, and make sure to tell me, your photographer, during our pre-portrait chat. The photos I shoot may look entirely photojournalistic, but I always create a shot list beforehand to ensure that you get the exact photos you want.
  1. Include every member of the family, including your ‘furbaby.’ Your pet is a precious member of your family, so why not include Fido in your portrait? Dogs, cats, lizards, you name it – the more the merrier. If you don’t want your pet included in all of the photos, then I suggest taking the pet-inclusive photos first, and then having a friend or family member wrangle the dog for the rest of the shoot. At a recent family portrait I took on Long Island, we started the shoot with photos of the entire family in the backyard, then left for the beach with the puppy napping at home. Speaking of which, make sure that pets are welcome wherever you shoot. Several beaches and parks do not allow animals. [Check out this link ( for dog-friendly locations in New York, and this link ( for the rules on bringing dogs to NYC parks and beaches.

Family fun beside the pool by NYC family photojournalist, Kelly Williams, for an article on how to take the best family photos

  1. Animals of all types are welcome. And speaking of animals, if your child has a favorite stuffed animal and can’t bear to be apart, then by all means this furbaby is welcome in the photo too. Eventually, the child may get so excited about the shoot that s/he loses interest in the stuffed animal, but if we need to start off with some lovely portraits of Pooky the Bear, then great.
  1. No forced smiles. There is a definite difference between a child that is genuinely happy and one who has been primed to say ‘cheese.’ The goal of this portrait session is to show your family having a great time. The happiness should appear naturally, not on cue. As such, make sure that you are not over-coaching your kids to smile for the camera.
  1. Lots of praise, a.k.a. verbal distraction. Instead, try a different tact to get your kids to look their best in front of the camera. Praise always works, but also come ready with ways to make them laugh. Maybe a family in-joke or a family story told from different points of view – whatever it is, the idea is to entertain and distract the subject so that s/he forgets the camera is there.


Family fun beside the pool by NYC family photojournalist, Kelly Williams, for an article on how to take the best family photos

Special considerations for maternity portraits:

Before the Shoot: How to Prepare

  1. Being comfortable is key. Confidence is key with maternity shoots, and your photographer should be working hand-in-hand with you to make sure that the mother-to-be feels beautiful since she will be the focus of the photos. To get started, you should discuss your goal for the overall mood of the shoot with your photographer. To this end, visual clues can be immensely helpful in keeping both client and photographer on the same page. For my clients, I create a Pinterest board where we can ‘pin’ the photos we both like which I then use to create a final shot list.
  1. A little bit of belly goes a long way. Let’s discuss those maternity photos we have all seen that are truly cringe-worthy. I can’t think of a way to put this delicately, but here goes: The love that produced a new family member is a glorious moment that should be celebrated, but not overtly. Any blatant sexual imagery or the use of too much nudity is simply out of line for a maternity shoot. You may think this looks great, but trust me, when in doubt, subtlety is the name of the game in maternity photos. A little bit of belly goes a long way, and the emphasis should be on the arrival of the new family member. To make sure you and your photographer are on the same page, you need to discuss with your photographer beforehand how much nudity you are comfortable with, and how much you expect for the shoot.
  1. Timing matters. The best time to schedule a maternity shoot is in the seventh month of pregnancy. This allows the mom-to-be to have the best shape to show off without being physically uncomfortable, which can happen at the very end of a pregnancy.
  1. Clothes matter too. Maternity shoots will of course include several portraits focusing on mom’s tummy. As such, I recommend stretchy clothing that shows off her shape to its fullest. Solid colors are fantastic, but avoid any prints or textures that might detract from the baby bump. Simple clothes that don’t distract from the visual emphasis on the baby bump will work to your advantage, such as jeans and a t-shirt, or a stretchy shirt or dress. You might consider going in the opposite direction with a flowy maxi dress or shirt that can be cupped to show off mom’s shape. Scheduling a shoot for the summer? Why not go all out with a fun, retro bikini? The bottom line is that mom should feel comfortable – and most importantly, body confident – in whatever she wears.

To top off your outfit, try adding a single, statement accessory that expresses your style. And dad’s attire should be similarly simple, and flatter – in terms of color and style – the clothes of mom.

Family fun beside the pool by NYC family photojournalist, Kelly Williams, for an article on how to take the best family photos

During the Shoot: Shoot Ideas

Here are some ideas for showing how excited you are about the baby’s arrival:

  • A portrait of mom and dad with the baby’s sonogram
  • Details of the baby’s room (little shoes, clothes, or toys)
  • Blocks or other items that spell out the baby’s name
  • Mom and dad reading a children’s book
  • Baby’s first chair in between mom and dad
  • Little shoes compared to mom and dad’s feet
  • Words say it all: perhaps a message on mom’s bump, or a chalkboard with a message to the new baby

Showing off the mother-to-be:

  • Belly cup to your heart’s content to put the emphasis on your bun in the oven
  • Use shadows to your full advantage
  • Have the mother-to-be in profile to put the emphasis on her shape
  • Yoga poses are great for showing off shape

If you would like to see more recent photos by NYC family photojournalist, Kelly Williams, please visit her website.

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