Photographing Families: Great Light, Great Expressions

Taking pictures of a family and doing it well is challenging. There are many things you have to think about to please both you and the people you are shooting. First, you should have soft and diffused lighting. An overcast sky works great and so does shade. Second, you should avoid on-camera flash if possible. If it is hopelessly dark and you don’t have any other lighting equipment, then on-camera flash will have to do. However, this kind of lighting is the least attractive type of artificial light we use. It is flat and dimensionless. Only if you use on-camera flash as a subtle fill light to open up shadows will it look good.

Third, you should place the family in front of a background that won’t compete for attention. Distracting elements and bright highlights should be carefully avoided. If the group of people is positioned in the shade, make sure the background is shaded as well. The last thing you want is a sunny background behind people in the shade.

The biggest challenge is to get good expressions on all the people in the family at the same time. This means that you have to take lots of pictures, hoping that one of them shows each person with a good expression. Also, make sure that no one is hidden behind another family member in a detracting way.

This photo (#1) is an example of an image where all the aspects of good picture taking came together. The lighting is complimentary (notice how there are no harsh shadows at all), the background is unobtrusive (nothing diverts our attention from the family), and each person has a great expression.

All Photos © 2010, Jim Zuckerman, All Rights Reserved

Photographing relationships within families, like mothers and daughters or fathers and sons, requires the same attention to detail. I look through my camera and watch how people interact with each other, ready to snap the picture at the perfect moment. I know that if I take my eyes away from the viewfinder and see a great moment, by the time I’m ready to shoot again I could easily lose that special smile or interaction between people. For example, the father and son image I took in Papua New Guinea (#2), is one of my favorite travel pictures because I loved how the father was teaching his son the art of shooting a bow.


Including very small children in the pictures introduces a factor that is entirely unpredictable. Little kids have a very short attention span, and their emotions are completely uncontrolled. Sometimes, though, this can produce some very cute situations such as in (#3). More sensitive depictions of relationships can often be found when babies are sleeping (#4). This picture was taken indoors, and notice again how soft and diffused lighting was so effective in illuminating the scene.



Silkylead's picture

Great speak of necessity of great lighting with no harsh flash shadows, well I agree these are great shots, ... But how did you get them?