Top Tips for Great Family Photos

by ParentalChoice
in Holidays, Family, Children
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With Christmas just around the corner, it is a good time to look at some easy ways to brush up our camera skills. We asked Duncan of Duncan Jennings Photography to give us five simple tips to help us make the most of the photo opportunities that Christmas will bring.

“The key to taking great family photos is to understand what they will mean to us and how we will use the images over the years.  Photography has many styles and uses but within the family it is principally an emotional device. A great family photo is one that triggers our emotional memory rather than simply recording a likeness. Ideally it will give us access to a wider memory; the story not just the moment. They do not need to be technically strong to be powerful images; emotion is more valuable than technique.

1.  They don’t need to be smiling (or even looking) at the camera.

DJ3The thing that I dread most in a family portrait session is the command “Smile!”   There is nothing so guaranteed to destroy the authenticity of a subject’s expression.

For a photograph to be an effective emotional trigger it must convey genuine feeling. We are social animals and as such we are adept at picking up insincerity, even when we can’t identify it.  That is why you can see a beautiful picture of someone and think: “It’s lovely but it’s just not them.”

The easiest way of catching genuine expressions is to move away from the idea that your subject should be looking and ideally smiling at the camera. A photograph of your child concentrating on choosing the right present to open first or the look of expectation as they wait to tear off the wrapping paper will be far more powerful than the school portrait.

That said, you do not have to rely on candid shots. You can set up activities when and where you want to take photos using a favourite toy, book or puzzle. For sibling and parent and child portraits I often encourage the youngest child to tickle the other person.

There will be occasions when you want to take a group photo for posterity and a big tickle-fest seems inappropriate.  To overcome the inevitable plastic smiles, ask everyone to puff out their cheeks as hard as they can and release when you count to three.  This will stretch and release the tension in the muscles of the face.  There are very few people who don’t break into a natural smile immediately afterwards. Be prepared to take three or four photos at this point because there will be raspberry blowing and laughter.

2. Get down to their level

copyright of Duncan Jennings PhotographyThe secret to intimate portraits of children is to get down to their level.  This puts the viewer in the position of their peer.  For small children and some toddlers it can be sufficient just to kneel or sit down. However, often it is best to get down on your front to really get into the action or capture the full expression, particularly when your subject is crawling or sitting.

Having said that the best way to draw attention to your subjects beautiful eyes is to have them glance up at you as you take the picture standing in front of them. Equally with young babies photographs from directly above work beautifully.

3. Fill the frame

DJ2Most of you will have some understanding of composition, the guidelines that artists and mathematicians like Michelangelo and Fibonacci laid down for the creation of more visually pleasing images. Concepts such as ‘leading lines’ and the ‘rule of thirds’ that act as tour guides for our eyes. A short search on the Internet for those key words will provide as much guidance as you want.

These rules are invaluable but not infallible and intimate portraits are a good example of when to cast them aside.  It is more important to allow your subject to fill the frame than to conform to the rule of thirds.

If you camera has a zoom function or telephoto lens it is preferable to move away and zoom in rather than get close. This will afford two important advantages. You are less likely to interrupt or affect the activity that you want to capture and it will minimise distortion. We have all seen the caricature style photographs of people and animals with huge noses, small eyes and tiny ears. These are an exaggerated effect created by fisheye lenses. However, every lens will distort proportion, albeit more subtlety, as it gets close to its subject.  The solution, where possible, is move away and zoom in.

4. Check the background

I routinely see potentially lovely pictures that fail because attention has not been paid to the background. There are, of course, the obvious but easy to make mistakes that cause trees, lamp posts, table legs, etc to grow out of the subject’s head. Most of us are aware of this pitfall. However, the background check should go beyond this to encompass any strong shape or colour that will attract the eye and draw it away from the subject. Ideally all the elements in the photo should draw our attention to the subject. Distractions can be as subtle as a patch of sunlight in the wrong place or as blatant as a gurning stranger behind the subject.

It would of course be too simple to say that the background should be as neutral as possible.  This works well for intimate portraits and is easy to achieve when the subject fills the frame. However there is a strong argument that within the family archive it is better to include a few visual clues that will provide context for the photos. A beautiful intimate portrait with your child’s face filling the frame is lovely to have but how much better to have, in addition, a few photos that give the context of that portrait and so access the story rather than the moment.

DJ15. Use natural light

When used artfully, flash and fill-in flash are a boon to creativity and are responsible for some truly remarkable photographs. However, more often than not the use of flash simply bleaches colour from the foreground, darkens the background and causes red-eye. In general, unless you are doing something that specifically requires flash, like a portrait in front of the sunset, try using natural light first.  The quality of digital camera sensors now makes it possible to take good photos without flash in most normal conditions. Start by taking a few shots with the flash off. Check them for camera shake, movement blur and colour, only turn the flash on if the quality is not good enough. If you are not sure take photos with and without flash whenever possible.

Try to use daylight when you can, it is the most natural and flattering light for people.  However, beware of strong, direct sunlight, it will cause people to squint and exaggerate shadows from hats and wrinkles. Cloudy and overcast days provide the most flattering light but open shade on a sunny day is almost as good.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, play to your heart’s content. The beauty of digital cameras is that you are not paying for the wasted shots. Try different camera settings, taking pictures from different heights, lying down or standing on a chair, zoomed right in or allowing some negative space.

The more your family see you using the camera the less likely they are to play up to it or turn away.

Having advised you to take lots of photographs I must add a caveat. If you are not ruthless about pulling the wheat from the chaff you will end up with a big bucket of photos that you do not look at. As a rule I would recommend deleting, or archiving, at least 80% of the photos.


If you want me to expand on or clarify any of these points or you have specific questions feel free to contact me. This can be done through the ‘Contact’ page of my website Please quote Parental Choice.

Naturally, I am available for personal tuition! 🙂 ”


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