Family portrait ideas

written by:
Sharyn Hodges


Family portrait ideas

Growing up in a tight knit family, I know the importance of family dynamics and have learned to pick up on “things” really quickly. I am always humbled when I get a family photo shoot request, because a family has invited me into their lives and even though it’s just for a brief moment, the photographs will be for a life time.

Honestly, if you are not a people’s person, find it hard to untangle and “pick up” on family dynamics (some family shoots include up to 20 people!) and don’t have the passion or patience, then family photography is probably not for you.

Family photography is perhaps the most flexible and creative outlet for photographers, and no shoot will ever be the same as the next. Every family photography session is different and I walk into each session with a clean slate. I never know what I’ll get. I don’t know if the baby will cry (they usually do, believe me!), or if the big brother will pull the sister’s hair, will I get funny faces that were not intended, will the parents scowl, will the kids jump into the sea (which is not that uncommon!) –  I have seen it all and I have loved every minute of it.

What excite me most about family portraits are the natural, raw emotions that are often the core of such a shoot. The laughs are real and the facial expressions are authentic. It’s life in its best and purest form.  I’m enthusiastic about shooting with natural light and photographing people in gorgeous settings with beautiful backgrounds.

That being said, there are elements you can, and should, control. Like everything else in life, preparation is key: equipment, ideas, inspiration and all the extra bits and pieces.

Clockwise from left: Looking out to sea. In my own little world. Hand obsession! Natural poses


I cannot stress how important this first step is. It might seem like a no-brainer, but we all forget the importance of the small interactions. I “meet and greet” almost 80% of my clients over email – this is where we talk about location, family dynamics, my style, what they should wear, if they have any specific photo requestsand which unique and genuine elements they like to have reflected in the end product. This whole “data gathering process” allows me to go into my family shoot with the necessary confidence, knowing exactly what my clients’ expectations are.

Clockwise from left: Again with the hands. Removing the “negative space” with the little boy in the middle.It’s hard to believe this little guy is so small.

Location, location, location

I am honestly not biased when I say, “I live in the most beautiful corner of the world, the Garden Route and specifically Plettenberg Bay.” I am surrounded by the cleanest beaches, the deep blue sea, magical forests and magnificent mountain ranges. I am spoilt for choice!

I have my favourite locations, but my client always comes first. Sometimes they have a special beach or location that means so much to them. Generally I will shoot twice a day. Sunrise offers the most magnificent golden light andsunset, if I am really lucky, sunset will bring the most brilliantly pink fluffy clouds.

So my advice is to find a few locations that you are comfortable with. You know where the sun rises and sets (during both winter and summer), you know there will be rocks or trees or shrubs (maybe blooms in spring) that will make interesting, natural props. In other words, know your locations intimately, and if the family doesn’t have a “special location request,” match your family’s personality and interests to one of your stock locations.

From left to right: A “magic moment” photo, she was counting to 10. Adorable! More hand photos. Another “magic moment” image. Nothing posed about any of these three images.

Know your gear

I photograph with my Nikon D750. This camera is absolutely amazing, especially in low light conditions. I pack a variety of lenses, but my favourite is my Sigma 24 – 70mm (2.8) and my Nikon 50mm (1.4). I pack my tripod (just in case it might come in handy) andareflector, and I know this might seemunimportant, but I always have a micro-fibre cloth handy, as photographing next to the sea does sometimes prove a little tricky when the sea mist covers my lens.

Clockwise from left: Because kids will be kids and I love it! Talking to each other.Heads are “staggered” and the photo has a “natural flow” feel.


As mentioned before, I photograph early morning and late afternoon as this is when the light is at its “softest” and lends itself to flattering people photos. Avoid overhead lighting as this will cause shadows around the face. If your shoot can only take place during that time (in the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest), consider using a reflector to bounce some light back onto your clients’ faces.

Clockwise from top left: Moody shot. Integrating fun photos and games to involve the kiddies.This little girl was extremely camera shy, but I caught a few photos of her without her knowing.

Big group challenges and preparing yourself

Once you have established the number of people who will form part of your family shoot, and you are sure you understand the family dynamics in its finest details, you may enter the “family photoshoot arena.” Be prepared….

The biggest challenge in perfecting thelargergroup photos is makingsure that all the faces come out sharp and they are all looking at you with their eyes open (we have all seen and taken “those” photos before: John is looking over his left shoulder, Jack is looking at his feet, aunt Mary’s eyes are closed and Granny is mid-sentence. Eeeek!).

I always my Sigma 24 – 70mm ready for these group shots and my aperture could be anything from F11 – F13 – this is when you will need to adjust your ISO and shutter speed to compensate.

My little trick to make sure everyone’s eyes are open at the same time is to request them to all close their eyes at the same time, I will count to three and then they all open their eyes together (and hold the pose for 2 seconds, of course!). I will take around fiveshots in that time and choose the best one. This usually works for me, and it’s a fun exercise for the whole family, which enhances the more “natural” facial expressions, instead of the forced poses. Which leads me to my next point…

Above: The big group challenge can be taxing, but so worth the end-result if done approached in the right manner. Be patient.

Natural poses

This is trickier than it seems, but once you get the hang of “posing” people, it actually becomes quite natural for you to do. Get your family close to each other; remove all the “negative spaces”. I like to put the “elders” in the middle of the photo and slowly build the photo around them. Arrange your family’s heads in a staggering manner(not all in a line) and make sure no one is hiding, or tucked away behind a shoulder or leg! Think of it as arranging a bunch of flowers – you want some sense of “organised chaos” – you don’t want the kiddies lined up like organ pipes, but you want them to be grouped in such a way that makes sense, and looks “real”. Also, avoid taking photos below the eye level, nobody like those pesky double chins (we ALL have them!).

Once you have taken the more “formal” photographs, let your family interact with each other and take a few steps back and just observe for those magic moments.

From left to right: Giving them space. “How do you and Dad play?” There is nothing more comforting than being in Mum’s arms. In time, this photo will mean so much to the both of them.

Capturing the “magic moments”

A large chunk of my family photography time is spent capturing those “magic moments”. Now what are these “magic moments,” you might ask? It’s the ones that happen only when you are watchful, patient, creative and allowing the family to be themselves amongst themselves.

I have a “thing” for hands (don’t ask me why, I don’t even know myself!), but my reasoning is, it’s the first body part you touch whenever you meet someone new; you shake their hand. I often find myself staring at people walking hand in hand as there is just something special about it.

I often try and make light of the entire shoot and will crack a joke or two while I am photographing with my family. This just lightens the mood (for all of us) and so often I will get that natural smile, which is one of the many great rewards of doing a family shoot.

From left to right: How can you have a beach shoot and not get wet?Using the sunrise for some awesome reflections in the wet sand.The next thing I saw, she jumped on his back and they were laughing so much, I probably giggled a bit, too.

Kids will always be kids

Apart from large groups, kids can provide the greater challenge (and entertainment) for me and for the parents. Personally, I love it when the kids pull funny faces and act a little silly; this is their personality coming through and let’s be honest: we ALL did it when we were small and you know what? One of my favourite photos is of me and my cousins pulling the ugliest faces, EVER!

When you try to force a childto smile, you can immediately pick it up in the photo; it looks staged and involuntary. Sometimes it’s best to leave the kids to get to know you first by focusing on photographing the parents, as childrenare very observant and curious by nature, and they will slowly integrate themselves into the shoot as they become more familiar. Play games with them (always a hit); bring a few bottles of soap-bubbles and let them be children! I also ask what photo would they like me to take of them. They are precious little things!

Clockwise from left: Children love to run and be free and as a photographer, you just have to go with it. Mum and daughter – one of the most prized shots!This little guy got wet when a rogue wave came along and he was crying, but the photographer in you knows the parent will give him all the love he needs, I just look for the photo within the moment.Doing what they do best; another “magic moment” photo of sisterly love.

Be confident, be yourself, have fun and follow your instincts

I kid you not – before every shoot, my stomach flips and butterflies always flutter, sadly not in formation, but in all different directions!Do your clients know you’re nervous? I have no idea. Don’t show it, you generally find that they are just as nervous, if not more, than you are! Talk to your family like you would to a friend, ask them questions. How long are they still on holiday for? What did they do today? Have they done anything awesome? What is your favourite restaurant? You will be amazed how quickly you feel at ease when you all start talking. Trust your gut and follow your instincts. This will lead to confidence and lots of successful family portraits.

Remember, photography is an art form and nothing is “right” or “wrong;” we all see the world differently. Find something you like and use it as inspiration, tweak it here and there and make it your own; put your stamp on it. For me, it’s my editing style and my unhealthy obsession with hands (LOL!).

So are you ready to capture some everlasting memories?

Sharyn Hodges

South African

Sharyn Hodges likes to describe herself as “just lucky”. Home is Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, a sleepy little sea-side village where the sun rises and sets in colours one can only imagine.

She is inspired daily by nature’s ever changing canvas of textures, colours and patterns.

Her work varies from weddings and events to nature and landscapes, but her heart lies buried in the vast expanses of Plett’s beaches and the sheer splendour of the surrounding Garden Route and South Africa.

Photography is in her veins; her mission is to capture those fleeting seconds of beauty which characterises this fragile adventure we call life.

Her travel companion, Nikon D750.

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