Tips + Techniques

6 Ways to Make Outdoor Family Portraits Shine

February 10, 2021

By Sean Lara

© Sean Lara

Updated 10/22/2022

For me, conducting outdoor portrait sessions for my family clients have grown in popularity over traditional indoor studio sessions due to ease of access, the variety of scenery, and the simple fact that it’s just more entertaining for everyone involved. At every photo shoot, I’m looking for creative ways to tie in nature because it helps give a sense of place and creates more visually appealing pieces of art to upsell later on (prints, albums, wall art, etc.). As such, I’ve developed a variety of techniques over my 12+ years as a professional photographer that I try to utilize at every portrait session. 

Here are six strategies, as well as some family posing tips, that you can apply on your next outdoor portrait session to help integrate your clients with the landscape and allow the scenery, and your subjects, to shine. 


outdoor spaces and public parks are great pre-scout options for a family portrait session.
Pre-scout success: This location is at a public open space easily accessible near Estes Park, Colorado, with a variety of interesting natural features. This spot in particular is one of my favorites because during “golden hour” the light hits the mountains in the background perfectly while staying off the faces of my subjects. All Photos © Sean Lara

Next time you’re off the clock, do yourself a favor and spend half a day exploring the local scenery and natural areas in your region. I’ve found some of my most unique photo shoot locations while hiking, fishing and 4 x 4 adventuring, so it’s safe to say that as long as you’re into any sort of outdoor activity, you’ll be able to find a unique location or two. I would recommend scouting in the same season you’re capturing your photos in so you know what to expect when the day of the photo session arrives.

While I’m out scouting, I’m looking for areas that are easy for big groups to access, locations where my clients can have privacy, and unique features I can incorporate into photographs, including eye-catching backgrounds such as mountain ranges, dense foliage and areas with open skies for sunsets. 

[Read: 5 Tips to Posing Families Together for Natural-Looking Portrait Sessions]

If you bring your clients to a park, most state and national parks do require a permit, so make sure to do the appropriate research first. By scouting your locations in advance you can devote more time to being creative and less time scrambling for a good shot.


Creating connection with the environment with family portrait.
Remember to connect your subjects with the surrounding landscape. Here, I asked each family member to pick their favorite rock to stand or sit on.

Regardless of whether I’m photographing a family session or taking romantic portraits with a wedding couple, whenever I’m outside I try to find ways to connect people with the surrounding environment. Sometimes the answer is very obvious. For example, if I got hired to capture a portrait of a firefighter, I might have him or her lean on a firetruck or pose in front of the station with their equipment. With families and large groups of people, you’ll have to get a bit more creative. To help combat this, 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. 

[Read: A Personal Project Documenting Family]

In the image above, I posed the mother and father towards the front of the image, and grouped the children with their spouses. For the unmarried child, I deliberately placed her in the middle of the frame to still make her a prominent part of the shot and not feel “cast aside.” To create additional interest, I asked the mother and father to sit down and get cozy on one of the boulders, and told the rest of the group to “pick their favorite rock.” This allowed them to get creative with where they stood and helped tie them into the scenery. 


outdoor session framed by trees.
Using tree branches in the foreground helps frame this family and draws more attention to the environment.

Another effective strategy to really help highlight the landscape is to incorporate foreground elements into your composition. A key element of a successful environmental portrait is paying respect to the surrounding features, so you want to show off the scenery as much as you can. Things I’m always looking for to accomplish this are tree branches, tall grass, flowers, large rock formations, and bodies of water. This is a popular technique professional nature and wildlife photographers use and is something that’s just as effective with family portraiture. 

Keep in mind that not all portraits have to be cropped in tight. You can still have an effective family photo with beautiful scenery that doesn’t take too much attention away from the main subject.


family portrait walking or strolling on bridge
Getting your families up and walking will help promote more natural-looking photographs, and will help them relax. I usually have my clients do this towards the middle of a session to give them a “break” if I feel like they’re starting to look stiff or bored. 

One technique I’ve used for years that helps promote more natural-looking interactions with the environment is to have everyone “go for a stroll.” Put your camera in continuous focus, and snap away.

During a recent family session, I met my clients at a local park and asked them to stand side by side and walk across a bridge (above). What was intended to be a simple way to help integrate them into the scenery of the park turned into a hilarious encounter when their dog broke away from the group and started charging right at me. This moment created a genuine reaction from my clients, which photographed incredibly well. If you’ve never incorporated this posing technique in your sessions, I encourage you to try it on your next photo shoot as you may be very pleased with the results. 


large outdoor family portrait session using off-camera flash.
By balancing exposures using flash, we’re able to pull detail out of the background and expose the whole scene properly. This group was sitting under a shaded canopy, and without flash the background would have been completely blown out. 

If you’re really looking to elevate your environmental portraiture, using off-camera flash will really bring you to the next level. Full disclosure, 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. 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.

To combat this, take a light meter reading of the highlights in the sky and adjust your in-camera exposure accordingly. Once you’ve properly exposed for the brightest parts of the scene, you can then fill in your subjects with flash. The amount of flash power to use will vary based on how bright the existing ambient light is. I use this technique most often when capturing the colors of a sunset, shooting in bright and sunny conditions, or when I want to dramatically underexpose the natural light to create a moody image. 


Outdoor family portrait session tightly posed in cold weather
I asked everyone to get close and “snuggle up.” They were happy to oblige, due to the cold weather, but it also created a sense of authenticity and reaffirmed their love as a family by grouping so tightly together. 

Finally, and arguably the most important element to the success of any family session, is proper posing and positioning techniques. Sometimes, it can be challenging to make a group look natural but one way I help achieve this is by establishing a physical connection. While this technique isn’t necessarily specific to environmental portraits, it’s something that is so important to making a family portrait look authentic and inviting.

To accomplish this, the first thing I’ll do is to have everyone get as close as possible, to their comfort level. Using verbal prompts such as “snuggle up” or “show each other some love” is very effective. If there are couples in a relationship involved, something a bit more intimate such as placing a palm on a chest, a hand on a waist or rotating a hip into their partner shows connection without overstating. To establish connection without suggesting intimacy, some spots you can have people place their hands are on elbows, shoulders and the upper back. 

At the end of the day, I strive to set myself apart by confidently guaranteeing to my clients time and again that I can capture amazing images for them no matter the environment, weather and lighting situation. Being an avid outdoorsman has helped me further define the type of imagery I want to take to tell my clients’ stories and connections. Finding your own style within these strategy suggestions can help you do the same.

Sean Lara is a wedding and portrait photographer based in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is an educator within the portrait photography industry and has spoken at WPPI, he is a MagMod ambassador, and he’s ranked as one of the top ten artistic photographers in the world by the Wedding Photojournalist Association.