Friday, January 4, 2013

The DIYer's Guide to Family Photos

It was just a week before Christmas and it still had not happened!  I still had not sent out any type of Christmas card.  As a matter of fact, it had been three years since our family and friends received any type of card from us that contained an updated photo of our family.  We had no time to book a sitting at a box store photography studio and we could not afford to pay a professional to come to us.  So, we decided to take our own family portrait.

If you are like me then you are nothing remotely close to being a professional photographer, but you do not have to be.  If you own even a modest point-and-shoot digital camera then you can take a great family portrait.  My husband and I put our heads together and came up with a few tips that will help us take better photographs of our family.  In other words, here is the do-it-yourselfer's guide to great family portraits.


The most important factor for a quality photo is the type and quality of light.  Since we do not own studio lighting, the best thing us DIY’ers can do is to photograph outside.  Choose to shoot either just after sunrise or just before sundown.  On the day we took our photographs, the sun was due to set at 5:30PM, so we arrived on location at 5 o’clock and shot for a half an hour.  This time of day provided just the right amount of gorgeous warm light.  It was not too strong or too bright, which creates deep shadows and overexposed skin, but neither was the light too soft or diffused which makes faces look flat.  Indeed, shooting outdoors just before dusk or right after dawn will provide the best lighting to beautify your photos.

Also, make sure that you position your family so that the light is in front of them off at an angle.  In other words, place the sun behind the camera behind your left or right shoulder.  This will ensure that the shadows cast across the faces appear natural and complement ones features without exaggerating them.

Enthusiast's tip:  Use a fill flash for your outdoor portrait.  A fill flash is available when you force your camera’s flash to fire even though it is not needed.  In other words, expose your photo without the flash but then force the flash on.  On a digital SLR you do this by pushing a button right beside the flash to make it pop-up.  On point-and-shoots you might have to dig through menus a little.  When the camera senses that the flash is on, though it is not needed, the camera (by default) will make it a fill flash.  This will soften shadows across the faces without over-exposing them.

Ten minutes before sunset, there was a little three minute
window where the sun came out from behind the clouds. 
This caused the effect of very warm skin tones.


If you are taking your own pictures, a tripod will REALLY help you in a couple of ways.  The obvious reason, of course, is to allow yourself to be in the picture.  Set the camera on a tripod and then place your camera on an automatic timer.  Most cameras have a dedicated button which will allow you to switch between shutter modes.  Set it for 8 or 10 seconds.  If you have a newer camera then look in the menus for an option to set the camera to automatically take multiple pictures at once.  Our Canon has an option which allowed us to take 10 pictures in a row, automatically, after the eight-second self-timer went off.  In our adventure, my husband framed us all in the picture and then he pushed the button and quickly joined the rest of the family.  We smiled for several seconds with various expressions while the camera shot away.

The second reason to use a tripod is even more important.  A tripod allows the camera to stay perfectly still resulting in sharper photos.  Trust me, in these lighting conditions and with the necessary camera settings a tri-pod is a MUST.  So, even if you have an extra person around to “push the button” still have them use a tripod.  Your goal is to have a photo that has absolutely no motion blur and that looks perfectly sharp.  That leads us to the next tip...

Enthusiast's tip:  If you own even an entry level DSLR, then your camera probably has a little infrared port that allows the use of a wireless remote to release the shutter.  Think of a tv remote control but for your camera.  A name brand remote for your camera will cost at least $30, but a third party remote can be bought for under $10!  Search Amazon and have fun.


Many things went wrong with this photo, but the worst problem may be a
little less obvious.  Notice how blurry my son's face looks compared to
that of my husband's.  Always zoom in and make
sure that everyone's eyes are razor sharp.
A good rule of thumb is to focus your camera on the subject’s eyes.  If people’s eyes are in focus then the rest of their face will also be in focus.  Most modern cameras automatically detect faces and make sure that they are all sharp, but you must test this.  Take a quick photo and then preview the image on your camera’s screen.  Zoom in close and pan around to look at each person's eyes.  If they are not in perfect focus, then make the needed adjustments.

While eyes need to be sharp, portraits look best when the background is not.  Portraits are generally more beautiful when the background is blurred (bokeh) and the focus is placed on your subject.  To create this “shallow depth-of-field”, ensure that the weight of what's in the background is further away.  Also, be sure to use the zoom on your camera.  By stepping back further and then zooming in close, objects in the background will appear more blurred which is good!  Zooming also has another important benefit.  The wider angle views distort noses and facial features (think fish-eye).  A good rule is to zoom in anywhere between 50mm and 120mm.

Enthusiast's tip:  If you own a digital SLR, then do yourself a favor and invest in a 50mm lens.  You can get an inexpensive 1.8 Aperture 50mm lens for both your Canon or Nikon for a little over $100.  The 1.8 aperture allows a very shallow depth of field (blurred backgrounds!) while allowing better photos in low lighting.  For your family group photo, you will probably want to use an aperture somewhere between f5.6 and f8 in order to make sure that everyone’s eyes remain in focus while maximizing a shallow depth of field.  By the way, the optics in even an inexpensive 50mm lens will usually give your photos greater sharpness and detail than the kit lens that came with your camera.


We have covered an overview of how to get great lighting and sharp photos, but what good is a pretty picture with ugly faces?  If you allow it, your DIY photo session can become a stressful nightmare for you and your family.  So here's a tip - pretend you are at a party.  Think of yourself as the “fun parent” at a church picnic or a child’s birthday party.    Mother your children before you arrive on location to set the expectation of good behavior, but then relax and have fun with your family as you photograph.  Nothing will kill a family mood worse than hearing repeated reprimands of “sit up straight” or “calm down,” so leave mommy at home.  When saying “cheese” gets old, tell everybody to say “sneeze,” or “knees.”  Do anything to make people laugh.  Your children will have more natural smiles if they are laughing instead of just posing for a picture (and so will your husband).

In our thirty-minute photo session we took approximately twenty pictures each of about five different poses.  Each time we switched things up, the kids became a little “less self-controlled”.  So, we saved the most fun poses for last.  The “party” just got better and better.

Enthusiast's tip:  Search internet images for “family portraits” and find some poses that you like.  You never know what will inspire you!  Maybe you will want to use a prop that defines your family or use a couple of chairs.  The possibilities are endless.  The great thing is, you do not have to settle for a “standard” pose.  Make your family’s photos as unique as they are.

Once the sun slipped beneath the horizon we went home with more than two hundred pictures stored on the memory card.  We deleted the really bad photos (out of focus, very poorly exposed, etc) and ignored others with stuck-out tongues, closed eyes or bunny ears.  In the end, we settled upon about a half dozen photographs that we loved.  The best part is, it cost us absolutely nothing AND we finally got a family picture out for Christmas.

Have you taken your own family portraits?  What are your tips?

New to Redfly?  Many more great ideas to come!

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