Tips + Techniques

5 Poses and Prompts for “Candid” Family Portraits

April 6, 2022

By Brooke Schultz

These days, I’ve noticed that the word “posing” is not well-received within the the photo genre of candid family portraits. We want our clients to act natural, but without the structure of a pose or detailed prompt families often feel awkward and anything but natural. If you’ve ever had to say, “Just relax!” to your clients during a family session, you know it backfires more often than not. How do we create imagery that is candid, emotive and connected? By creating “candid” poses that encourage connection. I find that the best poses are endlessly recyclable and can be used at every family session. Here are my five of my favorite posing prompts for candid family portraits:

  1. Have Parents Touch Heads
  2. Turn Someone Upside Down
  3. Don’t Forget to Flatter Mothers with Small Posing Tweaks
  4. Create a “Parenthood” Portrait With Child Looking at Parent
  5. Let Dads Be Playful

for candid family portraits, have parents touch heads.
Having two parents touch heads is a way to create connection quickly in a family portrait. All Photos © Brooke Schultz

1. Have Parents Touch Heads
The fastest way to create connection in a photograph is through touching heads. Even if it feels awkward for parents to touch heads and keep them touching amidst kids climbing on them or tickling each other, it looks connected. I often tell parents, “Keep your heads glued together no matter what!” Be mindful of the stories you tell with posing. For me, parents—not children—are the center of the family unit, so I keep their heads touching and don’t let kids come between them.

prompts and poses include turning someone upside down
Turning someone upside down creates excitement and energy in a portrait.

2. Turn Someone Upside Down
Younger kids love to be turned upside down, so I’ll often have dads do this while mom holds another child. You can do it with parents as well, and have them lie in each other’s laps or on a bed. Being upside down elicits excitement and energy for everyone to loosen up and play, and also creates a more interesting composition as opposed to everyone sitting or standing in a straight line.

candid family portrait with young girl turned upside down.
When turning someone upside down, getting everyone to loosen up and play creates a more interesting composition as opposed to everyone sitting or standing in a straight line.

You don’t have to come up with all new poses and prompts at every photo session either, so feel free to riff on the idea of someone being upside down as often as you like. I keep it fresh by playing with composition, groupings and lighting. Some of my photos may have someone upside down, but variations in how many family members are in the photo, the cropping and the lighting make it feel new to me and to clients even if the prompt is the same. This isn’t lazy—it actually conserves my creative energy so when it’s time to try something completely new, I haven’t expended all my energy trying to reinvent the wheel with all new poses and prompts.

Mom and child lying side bu side laughing.
If mom looks like garbage, the photo goes in the garbage. Have her turn her face slightly to be in more beautiful light, catch her from the side instead of the top of the head, and so on. Small tweaks go a long way.

3. Don’t Forget to Flatter Mothers With Small Posing Tweaks
Often when photographers try to create candid images, they throw all thoughts of flattering posing out the window. My mantra: if mom looks like garbage, the photo goes in the garbage—no matter how cute or funny a child looks. Moms are the ones who have to walk by the image in the hall every day, the ones who often bear the brunt of the invisible work of raising the next generation, and they don’t have much tangible proof of the depth of their contribution. They certainly don’t get enough recognition and acknowledgement, but photographers can honor mothers and the magnitude of the work they by taking a moment to see them. Notice when mom’s face needs to be turned slightly to be in more beautiful light; spread her hair out to flow underneath her when she’s lying down on the bed; have her smell her child’s forehead from the side instead of the top, so the camera sees a beautiful profile instead of the top of her head. Flattering doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Small tweaks go a long way.

Child looking at mom and mom looking at camera.
A portrait with a child looking at a parent and the parent engaging the
camera is a good way to blend candid imagery and portraiture.

4. Create a “Parenthood” Portrait
Even if the goal of your sessions is candid, a portrait with a child looking at a parent and the parent engaging the camera is a beautiful way to blend both candid imagery and portraiture. The easiest way to do this is to pre-focus, then say the parent’s name while they’re engaging with their child. This elicits a look to the camera that is natural and unguarded, which always takes my breath away as a photographer looking to capture the unmasked, real version of a parent when they’ve stopped putting on the front all of us assume at times. Even if you want to adjust something like the tilt of their head, offering a genuine compliment will keep the relaxed feeling and they will sink into the moment of holding your gaze—or, it might also make them “crack” with a giggle, which is just as delightful. And so continues the dance of directing your clients and being open to their reactions, variable from person to person and moment to moment. 

Get dad involved in the candid family portrait by having him be playful.
Motion lends emotion to your family images. Using dads as the source of this energy can infuse your photos with life and authenticity.

5. Let Dads be Playful
Family photographers often feel at a loss as to how to pose dads, because dads get a bad rap for sometimes resisting a photographer’s direction during a photo session or wishing they could opt out of the photo shoot all together. Dads have a special aversion to anything that feels awkward or posed, so try having him wrestle with a child on the floor if you’re indoors, or encourage him to surprise another family member with a hug outdoors. Motion will lend emotion to your images; using dads as the source of this energy will infuse your candid family portraits with life and the authenticity we’re all craving with the rising popularity of candid family imagery.

Orchestrating candid family photos takes posing and prompting, but little tweaks go a long way in making a photo emotive and loving. Use these guideposts at your next family session to draw the best out of family members, allow their authenticity to shine through and document the ups and downs of family life in a way they want to remember it for generations to come.

Brooke Schultz
 is a family photographer who’s obsessed with creativity and making parenthood and family deeply seen and felt. She doesn’t do boring, cookie-cutter, or anyone-could-have-taken-that images. She loves candid family portraits and creates passionate, romantic, authentic, soulful work. She is equally drawn to the light and the dark, the pretty pretty, and the nitty gritty. She tells both sides of the story and shows other photographers how to do the same.

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