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How to Connect with Families


A couple of years ago I did a session for a family that changed everything I believe in when it comes to photographing families.  The family I was with had 3 children, all older.  2 teenagers and one 10 year old.  We were in an area that was in the hills.  I wanted to get some good group photos of the family and so I had them all sit down.  What happened next is what changed me as a photographer.  They all connected with each other, physically.  They were able to do that because they were connected emotionally.  So how did I take what happened with one family and translate it to help with all other families?

Image is courtesy of Karin Sanders Photography

  • Choose your words carefully. Use words like connect, link and hold.  When you choose these words, they will know that you want them to get close.  These words should be used before your camera ever comes out.  When you are setting up your sessions with clients, that’s a good time to let them know that you are a photographer that likes to have families connect during your session.  You want them to feel close and comfortable with one another.  They have most likely seen your work and expect that from you.
  • Will you be able to do this with every family?   Not every family is super close physically but I have found that a family that is making the investment to be photographed must at least really like each other!

Image is courtesy of Sierra Pearl Photography

How do you get those candid moments?

I wait until about halfway into the session.  By then, they’re comfortable with me, their surroundings and having their photos taken. I have them sitting down on one of my quilts doing a few posed shots, then we move into doing some candid shots where they are able to interact with one another.  There is really just one main thing that I do and say to have families interact with each other instead of me.  I tell them to talk to each other and pretend I’m not even there.  I encourage them to laugh, tell jokes or even tickle each other.  Some families get a slight look of panic and other families act like they do this all the time.


Image is courtesy of Sierra Pearl Photography

A few other things to help with interaction during a family session:

  • Play games, like ring around the rosie or have children run underneath a quilt that mom and dad are holding.
  • Have mom and dad kneel down, bring the children (great for younger children) several yards away and have them run towards mom and dad, who have their arms out just waiting for them. This works well if you are at the spot where the children took off running from.
  • For families with older children, doing something as simple as walking while holding hands can give you some great shots. Tell everyone not to look at you, but to walk slowly and look at each other, making jokes or laughing at who has the stinkiest feet!

Image is courtesy of Cindy Arthur Photography

I usually shoot with my 85 1.8mm lens on my camera so I’m a little bit away from them already.  Although, recently, I added the 35 1.4 to my camera bag and I’m finally embracing the width and being closer to my clients! I love finding a bush or tree or something that I can peek my lens through.  This helps them to not focus on me and it creates some nice bokeh in the foreground.  What happens if it’s obvious this isn’t going to work out for a family?  Abort!  Abort! Let them know you got the shots you needed and you move on!  That’s all you need to say.

One last tip I have to photographing families is learning how to shoot multiple people while on the same plane.  This comes down to your own aesthetic as a photographer, but in order to do it well, you have to be able to communicate what you need from your family.  I love to shoot pretty wide open with prime lenses. I usually shoot a family with an aperture of 2.2 on my 85mm 1.8 lens and 1.8 on my 35mm 1.4 lens.  I like the bokeh that this creates and because I know how to get families on the same plane, this works really well for me.


Image is courtesy of Sierra Pearl Photography

5 Tips to Photographing Families on the Same Plane

  • In your mind, imagine everyone’s faces together. And then you’ll have an idea of where they need to be.  Even if you capture mostly candids, you can still capture your family on the same plane, you just have to know how to set them up beforehand (If they’re all lying down in a field on a quilt, their faces will be roughly on the same plane.  If they’re all in a line walking towards you, they’re on the same plane…) To be on the same plane, each person has to be in the right spot, but you’re not going to take time during your session to explain that this is what you’re doing.
  • Choose your focal point. I use my middle focal point since it’s known to be the most reliable.  Don’t let your camera choose your focal point because it will choose whatever has the most contrast.  So when you look into your viewfinder, if you see that all of the lights are lit up when choosing the focal point, change that to a designated point. You’re in charge of your camera, not the other way around.
  • Pay attention to the ground. This is especially important if you’re taking a photo with a larger family.  Imagine a piece of blue tape on the ground that extends in front of the family.  Now imagine that their feet are on that piece of tape.  This will help you keep them on the same plane.
  • They don’t need to be in a line. You can have family members on steps, kneeling down at different levels, be at different heights…the key is that their faces are on the same plane.  Another thing I used to imagine as I was learning how to shoot this way accurately, was to picture all of their faces up against a window. Kind of weird, but if all of their faces could touch that window, that would mean they were on the same plane. So the plane goes up and down and side to side.  If you’re shooting wide open like I do, it’s very important to make sure you have everyone in focus and on that same plane.
  • Check your screen. Always check your screen.  If you check your screen and find that you are shooting wide open, they seem like they are on the same plane, try stepping back a foot or two.  Remember that depth of field calculator that you memorized? Yeah, me neither.  The best way to know if you are in the right spot is to simply check.

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