Tips + Techniques

2021 RF + WPPI Family Portrait Photography Tips and Trends

October 4, 2021

By RF + WPPI Staff

© Sean Lara

When photographing families, Sean Lara is always looking for creative ways to tie in nature. He says natures gives a sense of place and creates more visually appealing pieces that can help with the art to upsell later on for prints, albums, and wall art.

When family portrait shoots moved out of department stores and into photographers’ studios, intimate home settings and beautiful outdoor locations, the tendency toward emotive, genuine images began to reign.

It’s this sector of photography, alongside wedding and newborn photography, that suffered the most during 2020, according to a report in December from UK electronics chain Currys. As the industry continues to bounce back in 2021, Rangefinder + WPPI are offering monthly educational content to help photographers reset their business.

This month, 234 photographers (84% of whom are U.S.-based) answered questions about their family portrait businesses. Respondents were mostly male (46%) and over the age of 45 (79%). Over three-quarters of them considered themselves professional photographers. Their experience ranged from less than 5 years to 30+ years in the business.

Before the pandemic, photographer Sandra Coan noticed a turn toward classic studio photography after years of lifestyle imagery dominated the field.

© Sandra Coan

“The appeal of lifestyle photography is clear. Capturing families as they are in their home or in a beautiful park feels authentic to many,” she told Rangefinder. “However, many of the photographers I spoke to shared that despite their lifestyle approach to family photography, they were noticing a growing interest in studio work.”

In this survey, half of photographers described their family portrait aesthetic as lifestyle, 14% as photojournalistic, and 26% as posed or formal.

When cities began restricting contact with one another, many photographers got creative with social distancing, and “porch sessions” cropped up in different cities. “Since my go-to lens is my Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8, which lets me work well outside with 6-foot distancing restrictions, I thought this was particularly smart,” photographer Andre Brown explained to Rangefinder.

Wherever photographers are staging shoots, capturing their clients’ personalities was paramount, as 74% of survey-takers indicated. See more of the findings below.

When photographing family portraits, respondents said their top five important considerations, in order, are quality of light, posing, background, expression and sharpness or focus. To prepare for their shoots, the majority of photographers said they talk with their clients before the shoot to understand their personality (81%) as well as scout location (69%). Only 29% map out lighting, and only 23% create mood boards.

“I get as much information as possible on their expectations as well as who they are, what they are looking for specifically, and what challenges they may have experienced with past portraits,” one respondent said. “Basically, all the info I can obtain to make it a success in every way. Ultimately, they become an assistant salesperson for me by way of referrals.”

As for who makes up the team, studio assistants were the most popular (39%), followed by makeup artists (38%), hair stylists (29%), clothing stylists (22%), retouchers (22%) and lastly, set designers (9%).

Photographers told us their biggest concerns during the shoot, ranking having an uncomfortable subject the highest at 75%, followed by limited time at 50% and unflattering space at 43%.

Portrait photographer Elena S Blair has advice on coaxing out more natural interactions from family members who might not be used to being in front of the camera. Having them dance in a line, hold each other close and inhale, or tickle each other (lightly) are just some of the techniques she uses while on set. She details these tricks in “5 Tips to Posing Families Together.”

Brooke Schultz, meanwhile, reveals her approach to photographing in family homes—each of which, she says “will come with its own unique challenges and its own gifts.” Instead of lining up everyone on the couch, “break the rules—have subjects sit on the edge of a sink, lie on a bed or kneel down on a pretty rug.” Though not all of these places are particularly realistic to day-to-day life, they can create genuine and dynamic photographs.

© Brooke Schultz

Photographers who took the survey emphasized that to amplify personality, open communication and posing are key, with 94% choosing this option. Just over 60% indicated that wardrobe can also play a huge role, and 29% and 23% pointed to decor and set design, respectively.

With time restraints in mind, 70% of survey-takers said they plan multiple setups and stay flexible, 44% said they bring reference images for posing and mood, and 33% said they develop a creative brief.

Most importantly, to build the foundation for a good shoot, nearly all of photographers said they collaborate with their subjects in some way, with 79% saying “always” and an additional 12% saying “sometimes.”

“I do most of the heavy lifting in terms of creating the images, but I’m open to client requests,” one photographer said in the survey. “I plan the session out with my clients ahead of time and get their input on what they’d like to see so that we can accomplish their goals.”

Half-day shoots were the most popular length of time for survey-takers, followed by sessions ranging from 1 to 3 hours. Full-day and multi-day shoots were rarer. 65% of survey-takers said they do not offer mini sessions, but for those who do, half of them said they added the option to their services to reach new clients, while 20% said it became an alternative service during the pandemic. (For advice on pricing your portrait packages, Michelle Lange has an insightful breakdown here.)

Nearly half of photographers said they typically shoot on location, only 11% said they primarily shoot in a studio, and 43% said they do both.

Photographer Sean Lara has advice for large groups outdoors. “You’ll have to get a bit more creative,” he told Rangefinder. “I will look for unique features in the landscape such as uneven ground, boulders, trees and other areas of visual interest. Then I’ll have my clients stand, sit or lean on these elements to create a portrait more interesting than having them simply stand in a straight line.”

In a studio (or on location), photographers who use backdrops chose muslin/fabric as the most popular option, followed by seamless, collapsible backgrounds, then vinyl/PVC. Most respondents said they choose their backdrops for ease of use and transport. And the majority (59%) said they use props during their shoots.

Lighting is the single most important element to deliver an impactful family portrait, according to 49% of respondents, while 25% said posing, 18% said composition, and 8% said setting/set design.

To create mood, photographers favored side lighting and low-key lighting over silhouetting, high-intensity lighting or spotlighting. For the most flattering results, photographers said they use off-camera flash, speed lights and strobes, which were far more popular then on-camera flash or ring lights. In addition, they considered their biggest lighting challenge to be midday sun.

Lara emphasized the role of off-camera flash in his Rangefinder editorial. “It can be challenging to use with squirmy children and large groups of people, but if you can plan ahead and maybe even bring an assistant, using flash will help balance exposures and make subjects “pop” from the background,” he explained. “When capturing people with vast landscapes, it’s almost guaranteed that you will have variances in exposure between your foreground and the highlights in the sky.”

Godox, Profoto and Westcott proved to be the top three most popular lighting brands, while Westcott, Profoto and MagMod were the top three picks for accessories.

On the lens side, survey-takers said the aperture was the most important feature when choosing a lens (49%), followed by prime (21%) and image stabilization (15%). Autofocus motor (7.5%), zoom (5.6%) and weight (0.9%) ranked last. Canon, Nikon and Tamron came out on top as photographers’ favorites, while Sony, Sigma and Zeiss each captured less than 10 percent of the votes.

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