Strategies for looking natural in front of the camera as a family
As you know, I am not a fan of stiff, boring poses. I would much rather let my portrait subjects be free to be themselves in front of my lens. That said, it is sometimes difficult to get people to look and feel natural while being photographed. So in this week’s blog post, I reveal how I structure a shoot and give you my list of my best family portrait poses that are guaranteed to get a relaxed smile out of any family member.
In today’s social media-centric world, I have found it increasingly difficult to get people to go beyond cheesy Instagram smiles in my portrait sessions. Children especially have been coached to smile for the camera, and the result is a look that is neither attractive nor natural. As the photographer, I want you to feel at ease, but telling you to ‘just relax’ is easier said than done. Rather, the portrait session strategies I have listed below are a way to distract the subject from the camera. After all, everyone knows that the best photo anyone will ever take of you is always when you don’t know the camera is pointed at you.
The Order of Portraits Matters
Let’s start with the order of portraits. I always go from kids to adults because the ‘talent’ (i.e, children) tends to have a short attention span and it often takes longer for adults to relax in front of the camera. I find that if you win over the kids, the adults will follow. For family sessions, I take photos in the following order:
Each child alone
If there are multiple children, then photos of all of the kids together
Group family portraits with the parents and kids
Each parent alone with each respective child
This is a hierarchical list of photos so that the top priorities for most families — the big family portrait for the Christmas card or photos of the kids alone — get taken first before any meltdowns occur. Trust me, your talent can turn on you at a moment’s notice.
Best Family Portrait Poses:
Individual Child Poses
My first job as a photographer is to establish trust. I have to build a bond with my subjects in order to get a natural smile. More often than not, when I enter a family home with little children the kids immediately think I am the babysitter and then go into panic mode because they are afraid their parents are going to leave. To counteract this I always get down on the child’s level and ask the child to introduce his or her favorite toy to me. I start off taking photos of the toy, and of course the child, and then show the photos to the child so that they know I’m neither stealing their soul nor stealing them away from their parents. Once the idea has been established that this photo shoot is going to be a fun play time, we are off to a roaring start and kids brighten up almost immediately.
As the fear has subsides, the energy usually begins. I need the kids to bust a move in front of the camera in order to displace their pent-up energy and get them to calm down a bit in front of my lens. One of my favorite early portrait session poses is to ask kids to give me their favorite superhero pose. If Superman isn’t high on a child’s interest list, then I ask the child to show me his or her dancing moves. In either case, I’m basically asking the child to run in circles and let out that energy so that the kid is more likely to relax a bit for the rest of the shoot.
Best Family Portrait Poses:
Family Group Poses
With photos of each individual child in the bank, it’s time to get the entire family to let out some energy. This is where walking poses come in handy. Having the entire family walk together down the sidewalk a few times is a great stress reliever. The family is connected, literally, with their hands to one another, and by having the family focus on one another as they walk towards my camera, my distraction ploy is complete.
To take this family walking pose to the next level, I next ask that the parents to swing the child between them. This is always a huge favorite with children, though I’m sure a bit tiring for the parents. Parents, think of this as your upper body exercise for the week. The photos are worth the work out.
When I sense a moment of calm, I will ask the family to look into the camera for a few shots. In between these ‘solid portraits,’ as I call them, I have the family do things together that keeps everyone connected. Some of my favorite family group activities include:
A family dance contest
Mini tickle fest
Playing with a toy together
If you are in a park or zoo, have the child show you a flower, leaf, animal, etc.
The idea is to not let any one activity go on for too long. The goal is to get the best moments from each activity caught on camera.
Best Family Portrait Poses:
Parent and Child One-on-One Poses
For portraits between a parent and an individual child, you have several options. I like to start by having the parent take a walk with the child, hand-in-hand. My next favorite way to squeeze out some smiles is to have the parent and child hug each other very tightly. For the adventurous and in shape, yoga poses work great, especially between parents with very little children. To see some great examples, check out the portrait sessions of Rob and Sara and Melissa and Brian. And for those parents looking for an extra upper body workout, you can never go wrong with putting the child on your shoulders or playing airplane.
Family Portrait Don’ts
While I have found the above strategies to be successful for family portraits, I have also found a few things that absolutely don’t work in front of the camera.
Balloons, while charming on Instagram, never turn out the way you plan. You would need a dead still day with no wind for balloons to look exactly the way you want them to in photos. Balloons are simply not worth the hassle or time.
Including too many props in a portrait session will simply make your photos look clutter. The goal of your portrait is to focus on your family, not their accessories.
Likewise, scheduling too many outfit changes in a family portrait session is never a good idea. Especially with young children, getting in and out of clothes will simply irritate them and you are asking for a meltdown. Stick to one outfit change, tops.
The Playground: A Do…And a Don’t
The playground is a great location for family portraits, but don’t expect to take many photos. That is to say, once kids lay eyes on the swing set, they are off and running and absolutely will not sit still for any family portraits. I use the playground as a reward for kids and end many of my portrait sessions at the local playground. It’s great to take a few shots of the kids on the swings or going down the slide, but I never anticipate taking the majority of my photos there. The location is simply too distracting for children. My advice is to not even mention the playground until the very end of the portrait session.
One tip you should know about airplane shots and photos taken on swings, while always a winner, these shots are very tricky to photograph in terms of keeping everyone in focus. Because of the distance between the swinging child and the parent it is often difficult to get both sides of the equation in focus. As a solution, I often have the parents hold the child back on the swing or hold the child close to them for a quick minute before letting go so that I can take the photo.
I hope you enjoyed the photos of the Benjamin family. I have had the pleasure of photographing their family three times and it is amazing how much Henrik has grown in this short time (check out their past shoot here). With another baby on the way, I can’t wait to see how their family will grow!
I would love to hear from you! If there are any surefire strategies you think I missed, or if you would like to schedule your own family portrait session, then reach out to me and let’s chat.
Hi! My name is Kelly Williams, and I am a wedding photojournalist and family portrait photographer. I love telling the story of someone’s love, life, and happiness in one frame.
Based in NYC until December 10, 2023; then bound for San Antonio, TX starting January 1, 2024!