7 family portrait photography tips for outdoor photoshoots

Top of the list of family portrait photography tips is go for genuine smiles. Don’t ask everyone to say cheese, because you’ll get some very odd expressions, especially from small children. Next up is good light – it can make or break a photo, so learn about light direction. Then posing, good locations and what to wear. While camera settings are important, camera gear is the least important thing, because if you get everything else right and your family is in focus, it’ll be a good family photo no matter which camera you use.

Large family photo pose

With that in mind, my 7 best family portrait photography tips for great photos outdoors include:

  1. Lighting for outdoor family photos
  2. Camera equipment for family portraits
  3. Family photography camera settings
  4. What to wear for family photos
  5. Locations for family sessions
  6. Posing families for group portraits
  7. Lifestyle family photography

1. Lighting for a family photoshoot outdoors

The easiest type of lighting to use for a family photoshoot outdoors is of course natural light, but it’s certainly not the only way to light families. It just depends on the type of shoot and if you prefer natural light or flash.

natural light family photo
Natural light family photo. The sun is backlighting them from behind and is also being reflected off a wall to light them from the front with soft light

Natural light

The disadvantage of natural lighting is that you can’t control it. You can however manipulate it with a reflector and learn to use it in flattering ways so that you can photograph at any time of day, depending on location.

While a bright sunny day looks great, it’s not ideal for portrait photography, because of the harsh shadows it creates. So you need to plan a location with open shade for photos, but be careful about the type of shade you use. Trees are great for open shade, but when photographing a family under a tree you need to make sure that all family members are completely in the shade. If not, the light on some will be brighter than others and your group photo will be unevenly exposed.

Speaking of uneven exposure, be especially careful about dappled light of a tree that’s not leafy enough as you’ll have bright spots of sunlight on your family.

Natural light quality is one of the reasons that the best time of day for family photoshoots is during the golden hour, because:

  • Direct sunlight won’t be as harsh as earlier in the day
  • The color of the light will have a lovely golden warmth to it
  • The low angle of the sun in the sky is a flattering for portrait photograph
  • You can photograph your family backlit by the sun for beautiful rim light
Using flash and natural light for family photo
For this mother and daughter family photo they’re backlit by the late afternoon sun and I had my assistant hold my off camera flash in front of them to camera right and walk at the same pace to maintain the correct distance for the flash exposure setting

Off camera flash

For small groups off camera flash is a great way to control the light.

You can use the late afternoon / early evening sun as a backlight and then light the family from the front with off camera flash. It’s not ideal if the family is going to move around a lot, but if you’ve planned a lovely spot for posed family photos, it’s a good idea.

To photograph with external flash you’ll need to be comfortable with using manual mode – it’s well worth the effort of learning.

2. Lens choice and focal length for family sessions outdoors

The great thing about photographing outdoors is that you have all the space you need, especially for large groups. So you don’t have to worry about not being able to back up enough to get everyone in shot. However, it also means that you have a huge range of lenses to choose from, which can be confusing.

candid picture at family gathering
Photographed with my 70 – 200mm zoom lens at a focal length of 200m so I was able to catch this candid moment at a family gathering

Zoom lens vs prime lens

The zoom vs prime debate can become quite heated, but I say you do you. The best lens is the one that works for what you photograph and the way you like to photograph.

For example, my favorite lenses for portrait photography are my 24 – 70mm and 70 – 200mm F2.8 fixed aperture zoom lenses. I like zoom lenses for family photography with young children, because I can give them space to interact with each other and zoom in with my lens for some great full frame shots. However, zoom lenses are heavier than prime lenses and if you’re after the ultimate in background blur, you can’t beat a prime lens with a wide aperture.

Either way, I strongly advise you invest in good quality lenses if possible. They last longer than cheap lenses and produce much better results. Rather get a less fancy camera and spend on a good lens than the other way around.

Further reading: Expensive lens or expensive camera; which is better?

Which focal length for family portraits?

35mm – a wide angle lens that’s great for large groups. Just be careful to ensure that you don’t have anyone at the edge of the frame as they’ll be distorted by the curvature of the lens. Don’t use for close ups of individual family members as their features will be distorted.

50mm – a very popular lens choice for portrait photographers, especially beginners, because it’s lightweight, cheap and versatile. Like with the 35mm lens you need to be careful about distorting subjects, but if you ensure they’re towards the center of the frame you should be fine.

85mm – there’s a great selection of 85mm lenses on the market for lovers of background blur. The 85mm lens is a great portrait focal length for close ups, three quarter length and full length photos. I wouldn’t use it for large family groups though as you’ll have to be an uncomfortable distance away to get them all into frame, which makes directing them into a family pose more challenging.

105mm – for small family groups and candid photos during a family gatherings a 105mm lens (and longer) works well. The long focal length is great for blurring the background to eliminate distractions and separate the subject from the background

200mm – if you really love a blurry background a focal length of 200mm is a dream. It will, however, put you quite a distance away from the family, which can make directing more challenging.

Further reading: What’s the best focal length for portraits?

3. Family portrait photography camera settings

Nobody wants out of focus, underexposed or blown out family photos, so of course camera settings are important. But camera settings also impact depth of field in photos for front to back sharpness of a large group or shallow depth of field for a blurred background.

Family pictures in open shade in woodland
Aperture was F4 and focal length 200m on 70 – 200mm zoom lens

Exposure settings for family portrait shoots

Exposure settings for family groups will vary depending on time of day, number of people in shot and the weather. So I can’t give you exact camera settings. But here’s how to approach getting the exposure right for family photos.

Aperture

In family photography outdoors a wider aperture works well for a shallow depth of field (for a blurred background) as long as it’s a small family group, because you can position them on the same focal plane. Use a wide aperture of at least F4, unless you want to completely blur the background, in which case you’ll need F2.8 or wider.

Bear in mind that when photographing rows of people, however, you’ll need a deeper depth of field to ensure everyone is in sharp focus, so opt for F5.6 and narrower.

Further reading: How to photograph groups to avoid blurry portrait photos

Shutter speed

A slower shutter speed is fine for adult family photoshoots where everyone is standing or sitting still. However, if they’re walking, which makes a nice relaxed photo, you’ll need a shutter speed of at least 1/200. When small children and dogs are involved, your shutter speed should be at least 1/250, because they move fast.

One last consideration when setting shutter speed, is lens focal length. Your shutter speed should be 1.5 to 2 times the focal length to ensure sharp photos with no camera shake. So using a focal length of 200mm, for example, requires either a tripod, or a shutter speed of 1/300, but preferably 1/400.

ISO

Setting a higher ISO is the easiest of the three exposure camera settings to compromise on, unless your camera produces a lot of noise at high ISOs. The most important thing when using a high ISO in family photography is to ensure the the image is correctly exposed. If you significantly underexpose the image and then brighten it in post production, the noise will be much more obvious than if you’d just used a high ISO and exposed correctly.

Focus settings for great family portraits

I use back button focus with continuous focusing and single point autofocus for family photography, in fact all portrait photography, but especially with moving subjects.

  • Focus mode – continuous focus (for Canon users that’s AI Servo)
  • Autofocus area mode – single point
  • Drive mode – continuous low

Further reading: Back button focus technique: how to use it and why it’s your BFF

Family photos clothing tips what not to wear
This was an impromptu family photo at a family birthday party so they weren’t dressed for a family photoshoot. It would be a much better family portrait if their clothing was from the same color palette

4. What to wear for family photos outdoors

The difference the right clothes makes to a family picture is huge. Really huge. I don’t mean designer clothes, just the style and colors of the clothes. If you plan a style and color palette for the family members to wear the photos will look so much more cohesive than if everyone is wearing whatever they feel like wearing. Here’s why:

  • Some colors are more demanding on the eyes (like red)
  • Patterns are very distracting (especially big, loud patterns)
  • Pictures, logos and text instantly draws the viewer’s eyes and distracts from the people in the photo
  • If everyone is dressed the same (eg. white shirts and jeans) the family photos can look dull
  • Clothing styles and colors should be appropriate for the location

So choosing the right clothing is a good starting point for beautiful family portraits. You’ll find my tips for family portraits clothing a great resource for planning outfits for a family photoshoot.

5. Outdoor family photoshoot locations

Planning your location for a family session involves more than just finding your favorite spot to photograph. You need to think through the size of the family group and if the location is suitable for everyone, especially if some members have mobility issues.

Pets are also part of the family and photographing families outdoors is ideal for including the family dogs. But they could also affect your location choice.

Here are four great locations for a family portrait session…

1. Family photography at the beach

The best time of day for a beach family photo session is during the golden hour. However, when photographing at the beach you also need to consider the tide, because a big stretch of sandy beach in low tide looks great in family pictures.

So it takes a bit of planning. You need to look at everyone’s availability and then look for a day when low tide coincides with golden hour. In my case, because I live where it rains a lot, we then have to hope that it won’t pour down on that day at that time. So I also always agree a backup date with the client.

2. Woodland family photography

A woodland family photoshoot doesn’t require as much planning, except for in winter, when rain could spoil a family session. Overcast skies are fine, in fact they’re great for photoshoots, because the soft light created by sun shining through a cloudy sky is perfect for family sessions.

However, photographing in woodland on a heavily overcast day means that it’ll be dark for your camera. So you’ll need to look for pockets of light in the woodland and photograph in open shade (in the shade facing towards an open patch of light) rather than closed shade. You’ll also have to compromise on your exposure and adjust camera settings with either a:

  • Wider aperture
  • Slower shutter speed
  • Higher ISO

On the other hand, if you use off camera flash combined with natural light for family portraits outdoors, you won’t need to worry about low light conditions. In fact, it’ll be easier to photograph in low light than in full sun, because in low light you might not need to use high speed sync, which drains the battery and affects how much light the strobe can produce.

Family of three photoshoot in countryside
Family photography in open countryside can be quite windy

3. Country family photography

The countryside is a great place for a family photo session, especially in the golden hour. Whenever you have a big expanse of sky that might be in the image golden hour is the best time of day for two reasons:

  • You won’t overexpose the sky so easily
  • The low light direction is flattering (when used as a backlight, side light or front light)
  • Evening light has a beautiful golden glow and not as harsh as earlier in the day

The main challenge of photographing in open country is the wind. A light to medium wind is fine and in fact I think quite interesting, but a heavy wind is very unflattering, because it plays havoc with long hair and clothing. If the wind is behind the family, hair blows forward and clothes billow out making them look like wild, hairy marshmallows. If the wind is blowing towards the family, their hair is scraped away from their faces and their clothes are blown against them like they’ve been vacuum packed.

4. Family photography in local parks

All families with small children know the best local parks in their area and they’re great for family photography. If you’ve never been there before it helps to visit before the photoshoot and plan where you’ll photograph. It just helps to make the photo session go smoothly when you’re prepared. Plus you don’t spend your time wandering around looking for the best spot to photograph.

Just one warning bout photographing in local parks… Some parks in big cities, like London, require a permit to photograph there and you could be hit with a hefty fine if caught photographing without one. If you’re there with your own family and not in a professional photographer capacity, however you can photograph as much as you like.

Pose idea for relaxed family portrait photography

6. Family portrait poses

Family posing isn’t just for formal family portraits or a large group. You can also pose families in a relaxed way.

Viewpoint

Don’t just photograph from a standing position. Change your position to photograph the family from different viewpoints for more interesting photos. Stand, kneel and even lie down for a different point of view. Here are a few interesting family poses to try for small groups:

Lying down pose No. 1  – ask the family to lie on their backs and form a circle with their heads at the center of the circle looking up. Photographing them from above and make sure to move around the group to capture them from different angles.

Lying down pose No. 2 – get the family to lie on their bellies, leaning on their elbows, in a straight row facing you. You can photograph them from a lying down position to get a low angle or from a sitting position.

Of course this will depend on the family and the style of the shoot. Asking elderly people to lie on the ground might not be such a great idea.

Lifestyle family photography pose

Triangles

When arranging family groups, think triangles and diagonal lines for good composition. A triangle shape is the the ideal shape for a small family group, especially if they’re arranged close together.

Further reading: 5 easy family of 4 photography poses (indoor and outdoor)

7. Lifestyle family photoshoot

The best thing about lifestyle family photoshoots is that they’re much more relaxed with minimal posing involved and lots of candid shots of the family interacting with each other. This makes a lifestyle photoshoot great for families with small children as they can run and play. So if you’re not comfortable posing families, or there are young children involved, get the family outdoors on a family walk and have fun.

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If you have any questions about my family photography tips, or if my family portrait photography ideas have helped you, let me know in the comments.

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