Capturing a good family portrait can be an elusive feat. All you want are a handful of sweet, normal shots that you can send to grandma, but instead your lighting is wonky, everyone looks stiff, and little Tommy got mysteriously ill. While we can’t help you with random bouts of food poisoning, there are a few pro tips you can use to create a relaxed and charming family photo.
The Seattle-based Happy Film Company has been winning the portrait game for years. As a group committed to spreading joy, making lives easier, and doing things their own way, the Happy Film Company caught our attention. We got a chance to talk photography with them, and they were kind enough to clue us in on their expert family portrait tips:
1. Careful attention to background sets professional portraits apart. If there’s a stop sign or a stranger in the background, the photo instantly loses its impact. We also gravitate to more simple and solid backdrops. Instead of taking a photo in front of a garden with lots of random shrubs, we’ll stand the people close to one tree. The simple background makes it easier to focus on the subjects. We also love solid colors or textures in the background (e.g. brick walls, big metal doors).
2. Attention to detail takes your portraits to the next level. Before you take the photo, double check for twisted necklaces, awkward hand positions, and of course, background weirdness. The best way to focus is to look at the situation with your naked eye. Ask yourself if everything looks balanced and relaxed.
3. Coach subjects to look natural and relaxed. For example, dad’s hands may look awkward as they hang by his side. Get him to put his hands in his pockets and boom—just like that, the photo looks more natural. If a family flashes fake smiles, we don’t tell them to “give us a real smile.” That’s unhelpful. We’ll give them something to do that’ll create a real smile. Telling everyone to giggle and pretend to laugh will usually result in genuine laughter. If you’re trying to get kids to relax, get them focused on something other than the camera while you’re taking their picture.
4. Keep the pace moving. The stiffness sets in when they’ve been standing for a while, so get ’em to walk around, jump in the air, or goof off. If you want your portraits to look natural, you have to let people behave naturally.
5. Indoor vs outdoor. In photography, lighting is everything. Natural light is an essential ingredient for the bright, dreamy-looking photos that our company creates. It’s great. The biggest problem with shooting indoors is that the artificial lights discolor your subjects’ skin. When shooting indoors, try to turn off the lights and use sunlight from the window. You’ll have to stick pretty close to the window, and if your subject’s face is half light and half shadow, you can use a reflector (a white pillowcase does the trick) to brighten the shadow side of the face. If you use a flash, this will also help to fill in shadows, but results in photos that have higher contrast and sharper edges.
6. Pay attention to the sunlight on the skin. If it’s a bright sunny day, and you’re out in the blinding sun, not only will subjects be squinting, their skin will also be very shiny (we describe this type of light as being “hot”). Hot light is very distracting and unflattering. A great way to work with bright sun is to place your subject in “open shade.” This means there is a shadow on the ground but you’re not under cover. Stand your subject in the shadow of a tree or building, so they can look up and still see the sky, but the hot sunlight is blocked. This light works beautifully. Overcast also works great. There’s no hot sunlight to worry about and the clouds will work like a reflector, filling in any unwanted shadows.
The final thing to watch out for is dappled light. If your subject is under a tree and there are sun and shadow spots on their face, it’ll look distracting. Usually, the best solution is to turn the subject’s back toward the sun until the light on their face is in even shadow.
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