All in the family

Now is the time of year that many people start to think about taking family portraits. They want photos to send as Christmas cards or with seasonal newsletters to their family and friends during the holidays. Some might have their picture taken by a professional photographer while others may them with their own cameras. If you’re planning to go the do-it-yourself route, there are a few tips to make the picture taking process go smoother and the photos look better.

Use a tripod. You could set your camera on a table, chair or counter but you’ll be restricted the height of what you set it on and you can’t always move the furniture to where you need it to be. A tripod allows place your camera anywhere you want it to be.

Set up your camera and determine your exposure and settings well ahead of time. The last thing you want is to be fiddling with your camera while your family fidgets as you get your act together. Most people don’t like to wait, especially if there are small children involved.

Since you’re going to be in the photo with the rest of your family, more than likely you’ll use your camera on self-timer. You can get a cable release or an infrared or radio remote trigger to trip the shutter but those are an added expense for something you’d only use once or twice a year. The self-timer is your best, most cost-effective bet. Plan a space for yourself. Once you press the shutter button you’ll have about 10 seconds to get into place. If you’re scrambling to place yourself in the picture, the camera may fire before you’re ready.

There is a natural tendency for people to line up their subjects in a line shoulder to shoulder in front of a wall. Unfortunately it makes them look like they’re lined up for an execution. Have them take several steps away from any wall to avoid that facing-a-firing-squad look.

Posing a group photo is a delicate balance. You want to avoid having all of their heads at the same level that a lined-up pose would give at the same time you’d don’t want your subjects too far apart either. Try placing some of the subjects in front and others behind as well as having some sit. If there is one person who’s particularly taller than the rest have him/her be the one that’s sitting. Compositionally you want the viewer’s eye to move easily from face to face in the photo.

If you can, avoid using on-camera flash. It can give that deer-in-the-headlights look to your subjects. Using the flash off camera is preferable but unless you’re experienced at using studio-style lighting I recommend that you leave that for the experts. Natural window light provides nice soft illumination. If there isn’t enough light inside, try taking the photo outdoors. Avoid bright sunlight, it can create harsh shadows and cause your subjects to squint. Find some open shade under a tree or in the shadow of a building to provide some even lighting.

Watch out for busy distracting backgrounds. The last thing you want is a tree or telephone pole growing out of someone’s head.

Dress similarly but not exactly alike so that you’ll have a cohesive, family look without losing each subject’s individuality. Try to wear a classic style that won’t be passé in a few years time. It may seem like a cute idea at the times but in a few years having everyone wear the same Christmas sweater may look clichéd or even ridiculous.

Don’t be afraid to take a lot of pictures. It’s difficult at times to get everyone smiling and not blinking at the same time. The more shots you take the better chances you’ll have just the right shots.

We’ve all seen photo galleries on the Internet of bad family photos. Most are badly conceived, planned and executed with bad clothes, bad lighting and/or bad composition. With a little thought and patience you could have a picture that your family will cherish forever.

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