Before we start, I thought I would take a minute and talk about the word cheesy. Although it’s easy to associate cheesy with plastered on, “Say cheese!” smiles, I tend to associate cheesy family poses as fake or inorganic.
A quick internet search for cheesy family photos is especially revealing. There are images of family members striking identical poses and arranged awkwardly. Other families have their chins in their hands, piled on top of each other in front of the camera.
If a pose takes several minutes for you to assemble and more than one person has his or her chin in her hands, take a deep breath, step back. Then ask yourself if they would ever find themselves guided into that pose naturally.
If the answer is no don’t be alarmed! I am excited to give you a few tips I frequently use when photographing families.
Every family is different. They are different sizes, have different dynamics, and different personalities. Although you may need to adjust some of the following poses to suit the families in front of your camera, the key is to encourage natural connection and movement. If you can gently guide the family into poses while still allowing them to be themselves, cheesy photos will be a worry of the past.
The pose for Grandma’s living room picture frame
You know the photo I’m talking about. It’s the traditional family portrait that every grandparent wants. Each family member (and the dog!) is looking at the camera with a nice, big smile.
This is often the shot with which I start a session. Most families are prepared to look at the camera and grin. It’s what we’ve been trained to do! They also may be feeling self-conscious and awkward. I find it’s the perfect time to pose them and get that out of the way. It doesn’t take very long and gets everyone comfortable together.
How do you achieve it? Start with the parents. I start by directing them to stand together. Once they are in place, it’s easy to place children around them.
I like to work in layers and with a triangle composition in mind. Children can go on one or both sides, in the middle, and in arms or balanced on hips (depending on the family). If you do have a little one on a hip and he or she is shy and inclined to nestle into a parent’s shoulder, make sure to have the child facing out towards the light.
Try to eliminate space between your subjects. Physical connection translates to emotional connection in a photo! Therefore you’ll want lots of touching and very little space in-between.
This might be the most “unnatural” posing you’ll do, but I like to be honest with my clients. I will say, “this probably feels weird to you, but I assure you it looks really nice in photos.”
Start out suggesting that they hold hands and place hands on shoulders or waists or backs. Let them connect on their own first and then tailor the pose so that it looks cleaner for the camera.
Be sure to have them relax their hands and shoulders. If necessary, have the kids step out from their parents just a bit so they don’t appear hidden or squished. It is absolutely okay for you to make adjustments. You are the expert here and your clients will be glad you are making them look their best.
Pro tip: If you can get the kiddos to engage and giggle or laugh as you make adjustments, parents will immediately begin to relax, too. I like to run up and pretend I’m going to shoot up one of the kids noses and say something like, “I hope it’s clean up there!” That usually gets everyone laughing. Laughter is organic!
The holding hands pose
The real key here is movement and relaxation. Remember, stiff and identical = cheesy!
Begin by prompting the family to hold hands. It is okay to be discerning when it comes to how you arrange family members. If you have any wild children, it’s probably better to put them in-between adults and/or older children.
Once the family is in line, direct them to look at each other. You can also prompt the parents to look at each other while the kids look at you. The key is to create natural connections through physical touch and eye contact.
Pro tip: To have the family look at each other in a natural way, try some cute prompts! I love saying something like, “Look at the person who is most likely to burp at the dinner table!” This gets everyone to look at someone else naturally while also encouraging real giggles.
Next, have them to walk towards you while holding hands. With littler kids, you can suggest that the parents swing him or her between them. Feel free to instruct family members to look at each other or laugh like marching towards you is the most fun thing they’ve ever done. (Usually they will begin to naturally giggle about it.)
Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to change it up! Capture the family walking away from you, too. I find little kids will often look back at me when doing this (especially if I’m talking), which makes for an extra cute image. You can also call out specific family members to look back at you or even have the parents look at one another while the kids are moseying along.
Sitting on the ground pose
This is where the “triangle” composition rule can really be your friend! I always start out by instructing parents to sit comfortably on a blanket.
Once they are seated, arrange them so that they will be the peak of your triangle. Be sure to tell your subjects to swing their legs to the side and fix skirts if necessary. I like to have Dad bend a knee if he wants to get comfortable.
Once the parents are comfortably arranged you can invite their children to sit, too. I like to tuck them in close to their parents. Little ones can go in-between or in front easily. I often have older kids sit on the outer ends of the triangle.
When you are helping the family get situated, take a moment to step back and make sure no one’s face is blocked. This can often happen if a child is in a lap.
Seated poses provide a really good opportunity to let the family connect and talk to one another naturally. I like to prompt kids and parents with questions to make them look at one another and smile or laugh. “What’s your favorite memory of Mom?” or, “If you could do anything with Dad tomorrow, what would it be?”
For really young ones, sometimes I ask them to point out a parent’s nose, or pat a beard, or give hugs and love. There are lots of simple prompts to encourage affection and genuine smiles between family members.
If you have a wiggly worm or an escape artist, don’t panic. Instead, suggest that the parents engage them in activity! They can lift kids in the air and lower them down, gently tickle, or blow raspberries. And, as long as you don’t have a runner, you can tell parents to relax, enjoy a moment together, and capture the reality of trying to have a quiet moment while the kids are being kids.
Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to move around them and get different angles and close-ups. After you’ve captured some great photos of them seated, you can smoothly transition into having them lie down and cuddle, too. Shoot from above them!
Pose with everyone’s faces on the same level
When everyone’s face is on or near the same level, it makes the image easy to read because there is a natural flow. Your eyes naturally move from one face to another.
Cheese alert: avoid any impulse to have them line up, ear-to-ear, to take photos of their faces looking at you.
Instead, have parents carry their children or have the kids stand on an available ledge. This is an especially good pose for families with young children. Faces near one another gives them more opportunity to intimately connect and show affection.
It also works well for older kids and adult family groups! You can also get all faces near each other when families are laying down (the transition pose from seated photographs).
When you are capturing faces on the same plane, it allows you to get details parents love – eyes, lashes, curly wisps of hair. This pose allows you to have nice variety in the final gallery of photos.
The hug it out pose
This is one of my favorite poses to move into after taking a few shots of the parents alone together. It’s good to let the younger kids run and do their own thing while parents have a minute or two on their own.
When you are ready to gather the masses, you can call the kids over and instruct them to run over and give their parents a big – gentle, for a rowdy crew – hug.
If you’re working with families with older children or adults, you can transition into this after getting some photos of faces on the same plane. Encourage the parents to wrap kids up in a big hug. If everyone looks at you while they are hugging, that might be weird. But you can ask individuals (like mom or dad) to look at you. Then take some time to move around the hug pile to get some different angles.
I love to get close, capturing kids hugging a parent’s legs. It’s also fun to get older kids who may feel a bit self-conscious but will relax in a hug after a moment. Unless you have children who may topple over parents (it happens!), or want to see someone’s face or adjust an arm, let them hug naturally. It makes for a natural pose with sweet connection, and a good memory to end with!
The real key to non-cheesy photos is natural movement and interaction. If you engage with your subjects, prompting them to move and connect, you’ll walk away with photos you’ll be proud to add to their gallery.
And they will appreciate it too! Because even if fashion and editing styles change, the authentic love that you captured will always be meaningful to them.