5 Tips to Take Better Family Photos

As a photographer I’m often asked, “How do I take better photos of my family?” In the past I’ve sat down with friends to explain the physics of photography. I’ve struggled through the settings on their cameras; written notes; drawn diagrams; and gone over the relationship between ISO200, f5.6, and 1/250 again, and again, and again. Ultimately I don’t think I’ve helped anyone this way, so I’ve decided to try another approach on teaching folks how to take better family photos.

Taking better photos of your family is not about what ISO/aperture/shutterspeed combination produces the best photographs, or what zoom lens you’ll need, or how much sunlight is too much sunlight. It’s about taking the best photos of your family you can with the equipment you have right now. These tips won’t make you a professional, but they will help you take photos you’ll be more proud to show off.

Step 1: Simplify

family photos

‘Simple’ is the mantra of this post. Take a look at this photo from Halloween 1999. It’s reasonably exposed and in focus (I think), but the TV, the candle sticks, the fireplace, and everything else around me is visual clutter which distracts from the subject: me in my creepy costume. The fireplace is a nice focal point for a room and I love sitting by it on days like these, but it doesn’t work as a backdrop in this photo.

Declutter your photos. Choose a setting without too many pieces of furniture, fewer architectural details, and a place that is generally more uniform. The fewer elements there are in the area to distract from your focal point the better. This goes for props as well. Your Pinterest might full of them, but in the time it takes you to set up the perfect scene you’ll miss out on the moment you had intended to photograph.

Here is an example of a more simple photo.

family photos

My mum grabbed this moment with my brother, dad, and me at the cottage. The cottage wall isn’t distracting. The eye has a more clear focal point. And don’t we look adorable?

Step 2: Say Cheese! Maybe…

first day of school photo

A forced smile looks… well, forced, but a bride and groom looking into each other’s eyes is always magical. This is why I ask couples to look at each other rather than at my camera. Not everyone responds to, “Say cheese!” with a Cover Girl smile (myself included). And especially when it comes to children, trying to force a smile can be a nightmare and ultimately ruin a moment.

Your tip is to embrace the moment you are photographing. If your kids are totally engaged in what they’re doing don’t distract them. Don’t spend your time asking them to smile. Candid photos are always the best. If you photograph your kids being kids you’re bound to capture something great. But as soon as you force the whole family and the dog to sit down for a photo, and smile, you lose the natural beauty of the moment.

Take, for example, the photo below.

family photography

My mother saw the dog and me snuggling, grabbed the camera, and took a photo. She didn’t call my brother and father to get in the photo, she didn’t take my soother away (because that would have caused a scene), and she didn’t try to wake up the dog and make her look at the camera. I love this photo.

Step 3: Delete

toddler photography

My parents have an antique desk full of photographs from my childhood. When I say “full” I should clarify that I mean “literally bursting with photographs”. Most of these photos will never see the light of day. They’re just taking up space.

With digital photography there is no need to hold onto photos. The first thing I do when I download a session onto my computer is delete the photos no one will ever want to see again. The photo of the mother of the groom yawning, or the best man looking (but definitely not) drunk. Keep what you love; throw away what you don’t. Unless you intend to embarrass your kids with photos like this (in which case I recommend a huge external hard drive), delete it right away. Otherwise it’s just taking up space you could fill with smiles!

I don’t have examples of photos we’ve thrown away (obviously), but here are a few great moments which follow the tips above.

parent photos

family photography tips


Let’s get a little technical for a moment… Light is absolutely essential in producing great photographs. If you don’t have enough of it then your photo will be dark and grainy. If you have too much of it then you’ll have harsh shadows and lots of squinting.

I’m not by any means suggesting that you go out and buy a set of photo lights. Because that wouldn’t be simple. But there is one easy thing to consider when taking photos. The best lighting is bright but diffused. This means outside on an overcast day or in the shade. If you’re setting up your little ones to document a special moment like their first day of school, go outside and have them stand in the shade. Pay attention to the shadows on their face. For example, if you place them under a tree there might be highlights where the sun is peaking through the leaves. Under a verandah might be better.

I also recommend that, under most circumstances, you avoid using your flash. You will not need it outside in sunlight, and if you can avoid it inside you should. Flash tends to wash out skin and makes people look shiny.

Tip 5: Get In Your Photos

I love selfies with kids. I’m also constantly dumbfounded by selfies with kids. How is it that a 2 year old understands what a camera is, where to look, and how to pose like a sassy adult? I don’t understand, but it’s adorable.

You’ll notice from a lot of my childhood photographs that my mother seems absent. She wasn’t. She was behind the camera in all of the photos. And this is the case with a lot of mothers today. Although today, with video, you can hear her voice, many mothers forget to actually get IN photos with their family. But there is nothing wrong with taking a quick selfie with your hubby and kids as you drive across the country on your fun and exhausting family vacation.

old school family photography

family photos

better family photos

Take Better Family Photos

These tips are meant to help you take better photos of your family in every-day life using only the tools you already have. They are not meant to make you a professional or discount the value of a family portrait session. I know how important it is to you to capture all of the little moments of your kiddos as they grow. Remember to simplify your images by removing clutter and choosing a location with a reasonably uniform background. Let your family be in the moment, and don’t distract them to smile at the camera. Delete photos that you have no interest in keeping. Choose a well-lit and diffused location for special moments. And remember to be in some photos with your family, and not just take them. This will help you take spectacular photos of every day family life.

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