Family Photography: From Fussy to Fun

Family photograph tip beach walking

How many of you can relate to this scenario?

Mom has been planning a family shoot for a while now. She's combed Pinterest for inspiration and has everyone's outfits coordinated to a tee.  She's talked Dad into it, and even though (let's be honest) he'd really rather not be there, he knows better than to argue. 

The kids don't have the same restraint Dad has, and they are SO not into it.  They're running wild, and find impish joy in tossing chaos into the mix as the parents try to get everyone "perfect" for the photos. With every moment the stress level rises.

Maybe the family has hired a professional photographer, or maybe they're trying to do the photos themselves with a family member. Either way, it's not looking good.

By the time the time of the shoot rolls around, the parents are exasperated, the kids are unruly, and chaos is beginning.  It may seem that there are just two choices left, and I see them all the time in my clients: threaten or bribe (actually there are three choices, the third being threaten AND bribe!). 

1. The Threatener. "Stop talking and smile at the camera, or you're going to get it!" I have photographed hundreds of family sessions, and let me tell you. . . threatening NEVER works. Don't do it! It makes the kids resentful and Dad or Mom might end up with a scowl on their face, too. I'll never understand why parents think that yelling and threatening their kids is what will give them those beautiful joyful images they're looking for. It just doesn't add up.

So, on to option number two.

2. The Briber. The worst is the parent that has a pocketful of chocolates to dole out to the kids during the shoot . . . chocolate everywhere, including the smiles (someone didn't think that one through). A close second place is the parent who brings lollipops (which results in a series of images of kids with sticks in their mouths, looking like chain smokers). I'm not kidding. This has happened to me as a photographer.

Bribery does have a time and place, I'll be honest. Call it what you will. . . good motivation, positive reinforcement, whatever. It's bribery. 

"If you're good for the photos, you'll get ice cream after the shoot!"

The key with bribery (I mean, positive motivation), is to use it to motivate cooperation, and then delay reward until you've squeezed  every drop of good behavior out of the kids, and the shoot is over. No chocolate on the  faces, no lollipop sticks in the mouths. The photo shoot is over, then the parents fork over the treats.

HOWEVER, even better than these two stand-bys, is the option to just let loose and have fun! Ditch the posed shots, the "smile at the camera and say cheese!" shots, the stiff formal look.  A good photographer knows that engaging the kids in several fun actions is so much better than telling them to "look happy."

At the beginning of the shoot, when the kids are feeling  either super rebellious, or super shy, let them get some energy out and have them run around a bit. Photograph this. Ask them to find you a flower, or a shell. Photograph this. When they bring it back,  praise them for being such an amazing helper.  Photograph the object in their hands.

Get down on the same level as the child, look them in the eyes, and ask them a question about themselves. Strive for connection. Ask them to help you with their younger sibling, perhaps by giving them a hug or handing them a flower.  Photograph this. 

For the shot with the whole family, I usually have them just walk a bit. Away from the camera, then back to the camera. The only rule? Smile at each other, not at the camera!

If there's a little one that can swing between two parents, let them swing as they walk. If someone  wants a piggy back  ride, do that. If any child is small enough to toss into the air, toss them!

After warming up, have everyone sit down (suggest placements that make sense so you can see everyone's faces). Get rid of all of the gaps, so everyone looks connected. Have the family all take turns looking at one person, and laughing at them. Have a little tickle war. Do a family hug. Anything that invites joy and togetherness. Then have them look at you. Photograph it all.

There are so many more great ideas out there, but you get the idea! Once you learn how to give active prompts, try for a couple with people looking at the camera. By now the family should be pretty warmed up, and you should be pretty good at avoiding stiff posing.

As far as manual DSLR camera settings (if you have one), set your f-stop (aperture) pretty narrow, so everyone stays in focus. There's nothing worse than having someone in the back row out of focus and blurry because you forgot this step. I would start with f4 for a family of four, up to f8 for a larger family. Make sure your shutter speed is higher than 200 (or faster if the kids are running and jumping). Use continuous shooting so you don't miss a shot, since these are active prompts. (on an iPhone, just hold down the white circle and it will do continuous shooting). 

If you would like to learn more about your settings and how to capture natural photos, you'll love my online course. I love photographing families and capturing authentic joy, and I know you'll love it too. (check it out here).




My "Looking for the Light: Photography & Life" online course will launch in 2021. Are you interested in learning more about photography? Click below to view more about the course.

Tell me more

Keep on Learning!

Join my mailing list to receive free photography education, inspiration, and resources.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.