Top 10 list of family photography tips

Top 10 list of family photography tips

1. Get to know your client ahead of time so you know what they expect.

I always send out a questionnaire to the family ahead of time.  I not only survey them on their personalities, etc. but also the poses they are looking for.  I let them know that while I have certain ones that I will use, there could be photos that spotlight relationships you do not want to miss but did not know exist.   Who would know that little Tommy wanted a photo with his favorite aunt?  That mom and daughter want just a special photo of the two of them?

small family photography advice by Courtney Keim

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Worry that you can see every person’s face and they’re not lost behind someone else.  Worry that there are no shadows on faces.  Worry that everyone is posed in a flattering position (think dresses+ underwear).  Worry about taking multiple shots of the same pose for head-swapping purposes.  But don’t worry about calling someone the wrong name (hey, it happens to me all the time to the point I now call clients “mom, “dad, and “brother” sometimes) and don’t worry if everyone is not in the picture perfect position.  Case in point, see below … big brother is playing with sand but it didn’t matter.  Mom and dad still loved it!

family beach photography by Courtney Keim

3.Learn to transition from pose to pose smoothly.

For both traditional sitting and standing poses of large familes, I always position the oldest member(s) of the family first – either grandma/grandpa or mom/dad.  From there, I build my poses slowly adding in family members.  You don’t want to ask grandmom to keep getting up and down.  Keep them there.  First get a photo of grandmom and grandpop.  Then, add in siblings.  Take out siblings.  Add in grandkids.  Now add in siblings.  Voila.  Three poses and grandmom and grandpop didn’t have to hurt themselves moving in the process.  Photographing a newborn?  Take a photo of mom and baby.  Then ask dad to join in.

large family photography by Courtney Keim

4. Ditch the list you have in your head.  Sometimes the big group isn’t the first photo.

Check your questionnaire (see tip #1).  I ask them what the #1 photo they want is.  I go for that first.  Don’t think to do a large group first if the #1 photo they want is one of their child laughing.  Do that first.  Why?  Because as the mom of 3 kids under 3, I know that one moment my diva 3 year old can be the happiest little girl in the world.  Her brother can say or do something to her to set her off and then she’ll be miserable for the next 2 hours.  Or bedtime or naptime can creep in and you will capture the frowns and tears rather than the giggles and smiles.  And then, you’ve missed what the family wanted most because you chose to do all the family ones first.  Sure, in a perfect world, you could do both and most times you can.

family photography tips by Courtney Keim

5. Let them have fun.

You hear it all the time … the dreaded “cheese,” the stiff poses, the doe in headlights look at the camera, the yelling “stop doing that.”  Too much pressure often for a little kid.  Make it fun. Make it a game.  Ask them to tell you a story.  Capture them enjoying themselves.  Often, with mom or dad (or even all extended family) looking on, kids can act up, get uptight and sometimes even upset.  Put them at ease.  I make weird animal noises, jump up and down and scream to get relaxed laughs.  If that means asking mom or dad to take a few steps away or head into a different room, don’t be shy.  Ask.  Your photo could depend on it.

family and sibling beach photography by Courtney Keim

6. Once you think everyone is posed,  tell them to move just a little closer …

Tell them to touch.  Be affectionate.  Show emotion.  Like I said before, it’s not about the perfect positioning … it’s about the love you can capture. You don’t need everyone standing all stiff next to each other.   They’ll thank you later for making them “squeeze” together.  Trust me.

family photography by Courtney Keim

7. A large group doesn’t need to be a procession line.

Large groups are the toughest.  Throw in different familes and posing presents a problem.  I’ve learned two poses best for familes.  While still maintaining their separate family dynamics by having mom and dad slightly face each other, place the kids in front of the respective families.  The other is to have two rows with mom/dad or grandmom/grandpop in center.  And then follow #6.  Either way, never have a straight line.

large family beach photography by Courtney Keim

8. Offer families different poses that they can’t do themselves.

While anyone can grab a passer-by and ask them to snap a photo of them all together, most can’t ask a stranger to create a silhouette or capture a tender moment or a laugh.

small family photography by Courtney Keim

9. Switch it up.  Think outside the box.  Ditch what you were taught.  Kinda.

You’ve been taught about chopping limbs.  Big no-no?  Not necessarily.  Envision it.  Take the photograph and CHIMP … you may be surprised at what you get.   Don’t delete on the spot.  Go home.  Open it up.  You may be surprised.  Don’t delete at the session.  What looks bad in the viewfinder could be saved with a little tweaking and cropping.

family photographs by Courtney Keim

10. You are the photographer.  Remember that.

I’ve found that the more options given, the more room for error there is.  I only photograph families outside either super early in the morning or an hour before sunset.  Don’t let a client choose their time.  If you don’t offer it, they don’t expect it.  Tell them.  I can photograph you at this time or that time.  Don’t photograph in an area you don’t know.  Give them a list of a few locations.  Show them examples on your website or blog of sessions that took place in those locations.  The moment you step out of your element, disaster happens.  I only photograph in certain locations and I always check them out ahead of time.  You never know when Mother Nature can plays a nasty prank on you.  Your favorite tree fell in the last storm.  The dune you photograph families on was washed away during the last storm.  You are the photographer.


children beach photography by Courtney Keim

About the Author:

Courtney captures her every day with a Canon 5d mark II and varying lenses in a classic yet modern style. Residing in Atlantic City with her surfer husband, princess-clad daughter, and firetruck chasing twin boys, Courtney is a “self-proclaimed science geek” spending her days as a Chemistry and Physics teacher and her off time as a photographer. Visit Courtney Keim online.


  1. Marisa Sep 05 2011 at 11:47 am - Reply

    Fabulous tips! I'm saving this for future reference. Thank you!

  2. Tanya Sep 05 2011 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    Would not remove one thing from that Top10 list. All so true. And instinctively, I've lived by many of those. I think I'll pick one (maybe #3 or 6) and make a point of applying it more often for a greater success rate. Thanks for the great list!

    My most recent fave family session would be here:
    And even though the family, whom I'd met before several times, didn't mention how much they'd love pics of daughter and daddy, mommy certainly was happy to tell me "I can't believe you got those…we love them!"

  3. Rebecca Sep 05 2011 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    Oh this is so timely! In two weekends I'm doing my first family shoot. I'll be watching the blog with special interest! Thanks for the tips.

  4. Angie Windheim Sep 05 2011 at 3:36 pm - Reply

    Great refresher. Especially enjoyed the comment about taking multiple shots of the same pose for head swapping. I've had to do that so many times! Just that one person out of 10 or 12 that blinked. Always glad I have the next shot with eyes open to borrow from. Also totally agree with squeezing together and showing the love…I always say, "C'mon now, act like you like each other." Always get some good smiles with that.

  5. Reena Sep 05 2011 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    Wonderful advice Courtney! Thank you.

  6. Heather Rendle Sep 05 2011 at 4:28 pm - Reply

    Anyone have a good tutorial on head swapping? That trick would have saved me many times but I just don't know how to do it. Well.

  7. Jill Samter Photogra Sep 05 2011 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    Great advice. I share the same with friends who ask about shooting a large family or children. As a mom of 9 I get tons of practice at both! This shot is 6 of our children two days before school began. I get lots of practice with skin tone and WB too.

  8. Jill Samter Photogra Sep 05 2011 at 5:14 pm - Reply

    Here is my other favorite of them 🙂

  9. Beira Sep 05 2011 at 5:37 pm - Reply

    Great tips! Very refreshing, Courtney.

  10. Leah Cook Sep 05 2011 at 5:43 pm - Reply

    awesome advise and beautiful images, Courtney!! you are amazing with large families. love #9 + #10 – don't be quick to delete and remember that you are the photographer….very important!!

  11. Celestejones Sep 05 2011 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    Great article. I enjoyed my session with Courtney!

  12. Nikki Crockett Sep 05 2011 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    Super duper helpful. LOVED this!!

  13. Tonya Sep 14 2011 at 5:39 am - Reply

    I love the list! Thank you for this post!

  14. Susanne Oct 30 2011 at 3:20 am - Reply

    I'm not a photographer but loved, loved, loved this site for another reason. I'm a mother with 5 adult children and a nana with 9 grandchildren. Love your poses and can't wait for us to all get together again for a group shot. Thanks for your ideas.

  15. Krista Campbell Phot Mar 30 2012 at 3:10 am - Reply

    These are great Courtney- thank you! 🙂

  16. Mallory D. Jun 30 2012 at 8:25 am - Reply

    Can I ask what aperture you'd recommend for large families- families of around 5? and families of 10? so that everyone stays in focus?

  17. Mamad Mossadegh Jul 04 2012 at 1:26 am - Reply

    That's a great top 10 list Courtney. That's coming from a dad (if that's allowed in this group!). And some fantastic photos to go with it. There needs to be a Clickin dads goup that's as good as yours!

  18. Sophie Nov 05 2012 at 7:41 pm - Reply

    You make it look so easy, but large groups are definitely our biggest challenge. I love the idea of starting from the middle and building out from there. Thanks for the awesome tips!!

  19. Staci Lee Oct 22 2013 at 11:07 pm - Reply

    Thank you! This is a great list. Helpful and to the point!

  20. Relyn Jul 15 2014 at 3:07 pm - Reply

    I am photographing my first large group this week. Nineteen people – 13 of them under 12. Gulp. I’ve been spending hours scouring the internet for help, tips, and ideas. This is BY FAR the most useful post I’ve discovered. Thank you so much!

  21. Stacy Kim Dec 15 2016 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Great advice! I know when I drag out my family for photos, they absolutely hate it! Yet it need not be an awful experience, with tips like these 🙂 Also, I found this really helpful article on what kind of items to bring to make the experience enjoyable and productive, so I definitely recommend checking it out when you have the chance:

  22. Geat article. Learnt a few great tips. I love number 5. The best shoots and happiest clients are those who enjoy the experience and retain the find memories of the shoot. Thanks! 🙂

  23. Kylie Dotts Jun 08 2017 at 8:55 pm - Reply

    I really like how you explain in the fourth point that by doing what the family wants first you can get that perfect picture of the child laughing or something like that. I think it’s good that a family can come to a photo shoot with ideas in mind already and being able to tell the photographer what it is that they would like. It is important to remember that the photographer is the professional in the situation and has a unique opinion that may not occur to the clients.

  24. Katie Dunn Sep 12 2017 at 7:50 pm - Reply

    I really like your idea about giving children prizes when doing family portraits. My family and I are doing a family photo shoot next weekend, and so I’ll have to decide what type of prizes that we’ll do. Perhaps we’ll give out candy to the child with the best smile or something like that.

  25. Shine Oct 16 2017 at 9:27 am - Reply

    All moms should know about this! Really helpful! Thanks!

  26. Eric Nov 08 2017 at 6:34 am - Reply

    Very good article. Thank you

  27. Bobby Saint Dec 20 2017 at 1:25 am - Reply

    I totally agree with tip # 5 when you said to let the kids have fun when you’re posing for a family picture. Getting your family pictures taken should be a light and fun activity, which means you just have to let it all out and be natural. Let the kids act who they are…kids! It’s actually even better to get some candid shots because those are as natural as they could get. If I were to have my pictures taken together with the rest of the family, I would make sure to keep this in mind. Thanks.

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