Every family photographer is different. As a potential customer, if you’re looking at several photographers’ websites and are thinking to yourself, “these all look pretty much the same,” you’re right! The final result can look very similar.. but the way a photographer gets to that final portrait can be vastly different.
I often work with a very specific type of client: families that need a bit of extra help when it comes to looking good in a photo. Some of that comes from knowing how to use light and how to style, but 80% of looking good in a portrait is actually POSING.
Now, posing tends to conjure up all sorts of negative thoughts and feelings in most people, and that’s because we’re used to seeing stiff poses and stuffy portraits from popular Photography Studios. That was actually one of the reasons why I personally didn’t like Studio photography at all when I started my business. But what I realized is that posing didn’t have to look old-fashioned and obvious. It could be organic and flattering, and it is actually quite essential for those of us who aren’t natural-born models.
And so, this post is all about what goes into posing a family (big and small), my approach to getting those relaxed group images, and yes - even using posing to achieve candid shots that a lot of families absolutely love as part of their session.
Working with different age groups
When it comes to posing families, the age of the children will pretty much define what the posing will look like. Older teens and tweens can listen, follow directions, and maintain a pose, while toddlers and 5-yr olds are unpredictable, active, and often rebellious. And for many reasons, those approaches are very suitable for each. Teens want to look their best. They don’t want to be embarrassed by a cheesy pose, and just like their parents, they don’t want to look bulky or have a double chin in a portrait.
Precise posing helps us put everyone in the right spot, making sure the pose is both natural and flattering for everyone. Essentially, we want to create triangles (more on that below).. as many as possible, for an interesting yet non-distracting portrait. That means nor lining people up in a row if we can help it (although that’s totally fine for a cozy group of siblings) and no stacking heads. There’s usually a need for posing stools and fitting people in so they’re close to each other.. and magically, the result looks natural and pretty at the same time.
For families with younger-aged children, the parents are always placed first to make sure they look good. Then the children essentially jump in for a minute or two with plenty of entertainment but not a lot of specific direction. In fact, even trying to give posing direction to the parents often fails as they’re simply trying to hold their wild toddler before she runs away. This is why it’s so important to prep parents ahead of time - usually at the start of the session. We go over some great guidelines for how to look great in photos and then simply do our best.. and then focus on broad direction and prompts (like “look at your child” or “give her tickles!”) to create different poses within a very short period of time.
The other very important aspect of getting that family shot with little children is actually Photoshop. Often that perfect smile doesn’t happen, at least not with two kids at the same time, and I will combine 2 or more photos to create 1. Does that sound crazy? It kind of is! But it’s also necessary 90% of the time with this age group.
And you can read a bit more about this exact process here: The Photo That Didn’t Actually Happen
Putting families together
Families are like puzzles - you fit the pieces together until they form a whole. There are rules and guidelines that all good portrait photographers follow such as varying heights and bringing people up or down as needed. You want to make sure everyone is seen. And you want to make sure everyone’s pose is flattering and appropriate for their body. This is when we’ll use posing boxes, stools, and other accessories to make sure we can prop everyone up where they need to be. And this will vary for every single family. People tend to be varying heights and sizes, children come in different ages, and the colors that everyone is wearing come into play as well.
So you can imagine how much thought and planning actually goes into creating one single portrait! Now, you can certainly get this result “accidentally” with a photogenic family that always looks great together.. but as a professional photographer that likes to promise a certain quality result, I can’t count on luck. Which is why I learn and practice posing all the time, even now!
Flattering posing for women and men
The way men and women should be posed is very different. Moms will always want to look slimmer, elegant, and feminine.. while Dads need to look powerful, squared, and relaxed. That means the way each man or woman is sitting or standing is going to be unique to their gender. There is meaning to every head-tilt, arm placement, and leg position. If you get it wrong, the man might end up looking feminine and the woman might look standoffish and mean. This is a really great skill to know when it comes to headshots too, because what you’re trying to say comes through via body language loud and clear.
Looking out for the little details
What really makes or breaks a great portrait are the little details like fingers, hair, and chin position. A tiny movement can seriously change the whole image. That is why I will go in and adjust hands and feet, and make small alterations to anything that could cause problems once we have the general placement of everyone in the shot. I will admit that it took me some time to develop an eye for these little things. During the portrait session, it’s impossible to keep track of everything. And it’s usually after, when I’m sitting down with the images, that I notice the small stuff out of place. Do this a few hundred times and you start seeing the little details during the photoshoot as well.
Creating candid shots that look good
A lot of Moms that hire me to take their family portraits specifically request candid images of their family. They don’t want stuffy old-fashioned Studio shots, they want dynamic photos that really represent their active children, but also make them look good! The biggest challenge with candid portraits is that we tend to get double-chins, unflattering smiles, and squished side arms when everything is left to chance. So guess what? We actually POSE for candids! Once again, we certainly can end up with some great candid shots if we left everything up to chance, but I’m not the type of person that feels comfortable with not being able to provide a consistent result every time.
A lot of photographers are afraid of posing. You have to tell your clients what to do (constantly, the entire shoot!). You have to go in there and move people around. And you have to build up a significant amount of knowledge and training in your head to be able to do this quickly and efficiently during a session. Simply put, it’s kind of hard! But nothing is as vital for a beautiful portrait (except maybe having pretty lighting, which is equally important).
So if you often hate photos of yourself, can’t fathom how to actually get everyone into a family shot, or simply want a family portrait that actually looks good for once, hopefully now you know the real secret behind getting that perfect group photo!