Six Tips to Create Amazing Outdoor Family Portraits

There’s no end to the joy of a beautiful family portrait hanging in your home. Getting up every morning and enjoying an adequate sized family portrait hanging on your wall has a wonderful power to remind us what is most important to us each and every day.  Here are six important tips to help you create dramatic and beautiful outdoor family portraits.

1) Don’t do the police lineup: Don’t have the whole group standing in a straight line. You may be thinking that you want to get all of them on the same focus plane so everyone is in focus but more often than not it is a boring, lifeless image.  So to make the portrait more interesting you want to create nice symmetry and different patterns. It helps to think of positioning group of individuals in groups of three. Then visually sew together these groups when guiding their posing and where to sit. Have one sitting, one kneeling, and another standing, this creates variety and personality for the portrait.

The reason so many feel it is important to do the single line portrait is to help your subjects be on the same focal plane. The thinking is this helps everyone’s face to be sharp and in focus. You have many ways to work around the focus depth of field issue. If you use a wide-angle lens you are going to get greater depth of field. When you get greater depth of field more people are going to be in focus. So the person behind me could be a little soft, but that softness is going to be very much acceptable.

Since the portraits are outdoors, there should be a much greater volume of light than if you were doing an indoors portrait without the help of photography strobes. This volume of light should give you some flexibility to work at narrower aperture settings. Try an f5.6 to get superb depth of field.

But remember, clients like soft images while photographers like sharp images. Likewise, photographers hate softness in their images, but clients hate sharp images. They don’t want to see every blemish and wrinkle. Keep this in mind when creating your portraits and pursuing your vision.

You can also control the amount of depth of field in the photograph by where you are standing when making the exposure. If the subject is really close to your camera everything else in the background is going to be blurry. But in a group shot your camera can not be so close to your subject simply because of the number of people in the photograph. So you have to step back. When you do this your background is going to fall closer to the plane of sharpness. This is why a wide-angle lens is a useful tool for this scenario.

If you don’t have a wide-angle lens that is fine too. Just take a few steps back and if you have four or five people in your frame you are going to be a good distance between yourself and the group, here again your background is not going to get so blurry and out of focus. Now if you take 15 or 20 steps back and then you zoom in because you want to blur the background that is when you are going to have issues. You are going to blur all the other people behind you. If that is the look you are going for, then you can do that. Don’t do an entire session like that. Always try to add variety to your shoot. If you are doing the group shot, take a few solo shots as well of each individual to create greater variety as well.

2) Prime lenses are your friend: One of my favorite lens is a 50mm and 85mm lenses. Professional photographers love prime lenses, they’re not super expensive and their quality is amazing. Another benefit is their weight. Prime lenses are lighter than zoom. so that allows you to gamble with your minimum shutter speeds while minimizing the risk of camera shake and blur to your images. Heavier lenses will exaggerate the movement of the camera during the exposure creating less sharp images.

3) Don’t rush: Do not panic when doing group photography. Half the battle is pretty much putting your camera aside and just looking. Take the time to see, even for just a few minutes, to compose the photograph through your eyes not your viewfinder. Even if you have to stand there and stare at the risk of looking like a clown go ahead and do that. TO me it is very important that you take your time. There’s no reason to rush any photograph. Even if you are photographing a flower or some other object that is not even going to move. You have to take your time. Especially when you are composing a photograph because ultimately that is what is going to give your photography life and make it pop.

4) Don’t pose them all in the same direction: One of the hidden keys to a wonderful, natural looking portrait is to make sure each of your subjects are not standing or sitting in such a way as their knees and toes are pointed directly at the camera. This is a common mistake most new photographers make. All-in-the-same-direction posing exaggerates body types and adds weight to the appearance of your subject. Try having them point their toes at some object that is 45 degrees from your camera and then have them point their chin to the camera. This pose narrows the distance between the shoulders, thus creating a leaner moor flattering appearance to your subject. With a group, use this tip and mix it up. It creates a more natural looking, less stiff group portrait.

5) Don’t touch your subjects! Resist the temptation to physically touch your clients by grabbing them to guide them to the pose you want. Don’t touch them at all! Your subject’s comfort and confidence are vital to successful portraiture. Invading the personal space is death to your subject’s confidence in the finished image. Plus, it’s just plain rude and communicates a lack of professionalism.

6) Clothing makes the portrait: Work with your subjects to make sure they make the best selections for clothing prior to the photography day. Plain, solid colors almost always are best. The point of a great portrait is to see, appreciate and cherish the faces in the photograph. So we don’t want anything in the photograph that distracts the eye from going right to the beautiful expressions of their loved ones. This means no designs, excessive jewelry, absolutely no stripes. Collared shirts will always be amazing on men. Long sleeves are critical on everyone. You don’t have to color coordinate everyone, that is very 2005, but it can be fun to pick an accent color for everyone to wear. It could be scarf, a hat, a tie or a pendant. Have your client bring a couple of outfits but only after you know they have heard and considered your advice. If the bring striped outfits, send them back to the closet!

Fine family portraiture is an art that takes years of practice but following these tips will help your portraits amaze and delight everyone!

Chris Cummins is a wedding photographer in Kansas City.  For more from Chris please visit

An Outdoor Family Portrait created by a Kansas City photographer

4 Responses to Six Tips to Create Amazing Outdoor Family Portraits

  1. Really well written article Chris! Sums up the best of a number of books on Family Portraits in one blog post!

  2. Nina Tidwell says:

    Thank you for the great information! I have been photographing our local surfers for nearly 3 years and have recently begun to do family, couples and baby sessions. Thank you again!

  3. Kim says:

    Really nice suggestions Chris!…and so helpful too!

    I liked the suggestions to the clients on what to wear and what not to wear! I would add a reminder for them to remove any old nail polish or temporary tattoos that the children may have on before the session. These days the young families are so busy, that this can be an over site. Plus it saves us time in the post editing 🙂

  4. Sam Gibson says:

    Rachael, I love your tip about using a 50mm and 85mm prime lens for a family portrait. It makes sense that using a lighter lens will allow you to use the minimal shutter speeds. My wife wants to take a family picture soon. If we do, we’ll want to make sure we use a professional. After reading this, I realize that I don’t know enough about photography to do it myself.

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