The Un-Awful Family Portrait

23 12 2009

‘Tis the season when family portraits abound, whether made by a professional or with a disposable camera by Grandma. No matter how good or awkward they are, family portraits are just about the most precious possessions anyone can have.

In the years I’ve been teaching photography workshops, I’ve found that there are surprising numbers of professional photographers who really dread photographing families. I’ve heard statements like, “The dad always looks uncomfortable!” or “Family portraits always look stiff and cheesy.” Well, I’ve always responded, if every family photograph you’ve taken looks uncomfortable, stiff, and cheesy, guess what the common denominator is? You!

The good news is, you have the power to fix it. Keeping in mind that portraits are records of your subjects’ responses to you, you’ll just have to figure out how to change your approach to improve your results.

I have two simple “rules” for creating meaningful, non-traditional family (or group) portraits, and here they are.

Rule 1: Everyone has to be as close to together as possible. I mean, really, really close. So close everyone’s faces are touching. Now, I know that sounds strange. Silly, even. But there’s method to the madness, and here’s an explanation.

The closer your subjects are to each other, the less you have to worry about distractions entering the frame. It matters very little if there’s a Kleenex box on the counter behind your subjects if they’re too close together for it to be visible. And with your subjects positioned tightly together, you need much less space to get them all into the frame; this is incredibly important if you’re working in limited space, which I almost always am.

Getting your subjects very close together is also very helpful to the composition of a portrait. Nothing kills composition faster than boring verticals and horizontals. When your subjects attempt to get close enough for their faces to touch, it means they have to turn their shoulders (so they’re not square to the camera) and lean in toward each other. Not only does that give a feeling of being a close family (literally and figuratively), it also helps prevent heads from being lined up and arms and legs forming those dreaded boring verticals.

When your subjects attempt to make their faces touch (and I say “attempt” because it really is the trying that counts, not actually succeeding) it also helps get them on the same plane. Why is that important? Because as an available light photographer, I frequently deal with very low light, which means wide apertures. It’s not uncommon for me to have to shoot wide open at f/2.8 to photograph a family of four or five people. The less depth of field I need, the better.

A few added benefits: because it’s so unnatural and silly to be THAT close, you can generally expect your subjects to giggle and laugh as they attempt to squeeze themselves together. It breaks the tension of being photographed and takes their attention away from what they look like, thus preventing “camera face”. And if your first instruction to your family-subject is to get as close together as possible, it means you, the photographer, don’t have to invent a “pose”. You can watch them pile together however they do, and simply adjust what doesn’t look right. Talk about a relief!

Rule 2: Everyone has to touch someone else. And I do mean everyone. Why? Because they love each other—or at least you want them to look like they do. Nothing works like a physical touch to show intimacy and affection. When a family lines up for a portrait and everyone’s hands are at their sides, it appears that they are simply individuals who happen to be in the same photograph.

Asking your subjects to touch each other allows a lot of room for interpretation, and I guarantee they’ll get a lot more creative than you’d expect. There’s the over-the-shoulder reverse hug, the poke-in-the-ribs tickle, the Dad-inflicted headlock. Whatever they come up with (within reason) will allow the nature of the family to come through. And again, all you’ll need to do is tweak what doesn’t quite work for you.

Compositionally speaking, the family grabbings are an invaluable tool because they turn vertical arms into diagonals, which are great for guiding the eye through the photograph. Watch for the shapes created by the arms; the closer you can get to forming a rough circle with them, the longer the viewer is likely to look at the image.

Last but not least, when everyone holds on to each other, it keeps your subjects in place. When working with low light and/or small kids, one of the biggest battles is keeping everyone still enough without yelling “Freeze!” This technique goes a long way toward minimizing motion while keeping the mood light and relaxed.

And I suppose I should add Rule 3: Let ’em marinate! Once the family is nice and close together and effectively grabbed, give them a few minutes to sink into it and make it their own. If someone is in an uncomfortable position, he/she will adjust it until it feels right, and the firing-squad expressions will disappear. I like to use the time to double check my metering, load a fresh roll of film, tie a shoelace, tell a story, whatever. Give them time. Let them breathe. Focus their attention on each other.

Other helpful hints from Heloise me:

– Don’t insist that Little Susie sit on so-and-so’s lap. There may be legitimate reasons why she doesn’t want to. Let her be where she wants, and then tweak it until it works.

– When you’re working with small children, let the parents know that you’ll take care of any child-wrangling or child facial-expression issues. That helps eliminate the problem of the kids looking great but the parents looking stressed.

– Don’t be overly focused on getting everyone looking at the camera. My favorite images are the ones where the family is interacting with each other, and just one person is looking up at the camera to invite the viewer in. I find that simply whispering one person’s name is enough to get their eyes without disrupting the mood.

– Set your clients’ expectations according to how you like to work. If you don’t like traditional, posed, studio portraiture, don’t show them that! Show the most out-there, limit-pushing, giggle-inducing, head-scratching stuff you can come up with. If they like it, you’ll know that you can do anything up to and including that stuff.

– Instead of thinking of it as a five-person portrait, think of it as documenting one relationship. That simple change in mindset can be incredibly helpful.

Enjoy your family sessions. It’s not enough to just survive them.

(Edited to add: my computer seems to be rebelling, so additional examples will have to wait. Check my site or back here for more portraits when my computer is feeling more generous.)

implied family portrait

The implied family portrait

Family with sleepy kid

quiet family portrait