You’ve gathered the family, found the perfect location, and convinced a friend to be your personal photographer for the day. Now what? Past attempts at a family portrait have produced photographs that felt unbalanced, and this year will be the same unless something is done differently. Hiring a professional photographer is out of the question, so what strategies do you need to know about to create your perfect family portrait? Four elements are key to a successful photo: location, lighting, arrangement, and angle.
The location of your photoshoot will depend on the number of people included in the picture: the more people, the bigger the location needed. For a small family portrait (2 adults and 1-3 children) an indoor location, such as your living room, would be suitable; however, if your family portrait will include grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, too, you may want to consider an outside location. (These are guidelines, not rules you can have your small family portrait outside if you want or, if you have a room big enough to comfortably seat everyone and to give the photographer space to capture the shot, you can have your large family portrait inside.)
If you choose to have the picture taken inside, you will want to avoid several situations. First, do not stand in front of a window, because the light coming in will wash out the picture and the flash from the camera will reflect off of the glass. Second, do not stand in front of any holiday-specific decorations, unless you are planning to use the photo for that occasion. Third, do choose as neutral of a background as possible. Bright, bold colors and busy designs distract the eye; the focus of your photograph is on the people, not the background.
Similar guidelines apply to finding the perfect outdoor spot for your family portrait. You don’t want the background and scenery taking away from the people in the picture. Your local park or the recreational area will have plenty of options: around a gazebo or fountain, by some trees or flowers, or in front of a fence or open field. Avoid locations where light may reflect, such as lakes or windows of buildings.
Once you have the location selected, you will need to address the lighting. For an indoor location, try to utilize as much natural light as possible. Open all the curtains in the room and take the picture during the brightest part of the day; if the room is still too dark, lamps can be used if positioned properly. Overhead lights work best because they create a more natural glow. (Lighting from below causes shadows and gives a photograph an eerie feel.) If you do not have any ceiling-mounted lights, position two lamps, one on each side of the group, about halfway between the group and the photographer. Tilt the shades so that the light reflects off of the ceiling and down onto the group.
Outdoor lighting can be trickier. You do not want the sun directly behind the group (it will be too bright for the camera) nor do you want it in front of the group (everyone will be squinting). Position the sun at a 45 to 90-degree angle to the group, thus eliminating both problems caused by having the sun directly in front or behind. Another situation to be aware of is any shadows cast by trees or buildings that sun my cause. When choosing a location and arranging the people, make sure that all members to be photographed and the photographer are in the sun or in the shade; this will keep the brightness of the photograph consistent and even.
When arranging people for a portrait, two steps should be followed: place smaller people in front and bigger people in the back, and arrange people in a circular or oval pattern. When children and smaller adults are placed in the back of a picture, they get lost; likewise, when larger adults are in front, they dominate a photograph. For example, in a small family portrait, usually, the adult male will be seated in the back of the photograph, followed by the adult female, then any children or young adults. In a large family portrait, usually, the adult men will stand in the back row, the adult women will sit in front of the men, and the children and young adults will kneel in front of the women.
Achieving a circular or oval pattern can be difficult, especially in larger groups. First, two important don’ts should be followed: don’t stand people shoulder to shoulder or one person right in front of the other, and don’t take a picture top-heavy by standing two people behind one person (forming an upside-down triangle). To create a pleasant and balanced curve in the photograph, position people so that the top of a person’s head is between the eyes and chin of the person next to him or her. Sometimes you may need to utilize small platforms or step stools to adjust heights and keep the curve smooth.
Finally, the angle refers to where and how the camera is placed. First, the camera should be, at a minimum, at eye level with the tallest person in the photograph. By keeping the camera slightly above people, everyone’s eyes will look more open and chins will be raised, reducing the effect of double chins. Second, position the camera at the correct distance. If the photograph will be a full-bodied shot, then additional space needs to be added around the whole picture. (The additional space above and below the people should be equal and to the left and the right should be equal.) If the photograph will be a close-up shot, then additional space needs to be left above and to the sides of the people, and an appropriate cut-off point established at the bottom of the picture. The best place to crop a picture is between the elbow and the middle of the upper arm.
By following these guidelines, you will be on your way to creating a family portrait that will last a lifetime. Understanding these guidelines regarding location, lighting, arrangement, and angle will start you in the right direction. But perhaps the most important suggestion is to bring along two or three roles of film and experiment sometimes the greatest photographs come when you’re not even trying.