9 tips for taking great family portraits

This weekend, our family had a professional photo shoot for our annual photos.  We actually had a great experience, which, if you have small children, you understand is no small feat.

This is definitely the time of year when families endure the grueling procedure of getting everyone in their clan to look happy and peaceful into the camera for a few minutes – all for the sake of sending out copies to loved ones.

Even though it can be a pain, in the end, it really is worth it to document your family in each life stage.  Use the Christmas season as your excuse to take that photo, and make it your weekly project to prepare for the season.

Here are some ways to make the entire family photo experience a positive one:

1. Schedule the photo shoot when kids are at their happiest. Usually, at least for little ones, this means 5 to 6 p.m. is not the best time.  You can’t always get the time you want, but if you have any control over this aspect at all, I highly recommend working your appointment around your kiddos’ routines.

2. That said – lighting is important, so you may have to be flexible.  Bright, high noon sunshine is not ideal, so oftentimes, photographers prefer to shoot outdoor photos either in the morning or just before dusk.  You might have to go with the flow and let your kids’ schedule be a bit different that day.

3. Speaking of photographers – if you want a professional photo shoot, but it’s out of your budget, try looking in your local Craigslist.  Budding photographers are always wanting to expand their portfolio, so you may find someone offering a great deal.  You can also try your church, your local university, or word of mouth with your friends – there’s always someone out there who’s wanting to expand their photography business.

4. Do your best to buy a package deal that gives you all the digital files for a flat price.  This is much easier in the long run, because you’ll have control over all the printing.  It might be more up front, but it’ll probably save you in printing costs over the long haul (especially when every. single. picture. is adorable).

happy family
Photo by Chelsea Elizabeth Photography

5. Coordinate, but don’t match. This is just my opinion, as I know many families like to wear the same outfit for their portraits.  But in my experience as a holiday photo card designer, photos look better when everyone blends well, but not too much.  To be honest, when I see a photo with the entire family wearing denim shirts, all I see is a sea of denim shirts – not the people.

6. Avoid patterns. It’s okay if one family member has a simple stripe or a basic design, but too many intricate patterns detracts from faces.  If in doubt of what to wear, go with a simple, solid-colored shirt.

casual family portrait
Photo by Andrea Janda

7. Go casual. Especially if you have little ones.  I love photos that look like the family is relaxed, having fun with each other, and basically like they do most any other day of the year.  Sure, go ahead and brush their hair and have them in clean clothes – but you’re probably fighting an uphill battle asking preschoolers to sit still more than a minute at a time.

8.  When it comes to the setting, think outside the box.  The background is not the most important subject of your photo, so keep your location simple. Many cities have beautiful parks and natural settings, but don’t forget about your backyard.  Other fun settings are front porches, old buildings, fences, and even on your master bed – let everyone play around and get goofy.

happy boy
Photo by Zulpha Dawson

9.  Get closer than you think. If you’re going to take the photos (with a timer, or when it’s just the kids), I can’t emphasize this enough – get much, much closer to faces than you think you should.  Faces are what you really want to see – so get right up there.

The beauty of digital photography is that you can edit, retake, retouch, and experiment in all sorts of ways.  Have fun taking that family memento, and keep it relaxed and light-hearted.

For more tips on photography, check out:

What are your tips for family photos?  Have any plans to embark on that adventure this holiday season?

top photo source

Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

Encouragement for living simpler, right in your inbox.

We share our stories as we simplify our lives - no guilt-trips, just love.

(no spam, promise. we hate it, too.)


  1. Thank you for the tips and reminders! We’re doing a photo swap with friends today. (A budding photographer in each family.)

    I’ll add a tip for the photography buffs – if there’s kids in the photos, set your shutter speed fast. We lost so many potentially good shots last year because of this. (My kids are squirmy!)

    Avlor’s last blog post…Dusk (photo catchup from the other day)

  2. These are great tips! When we’ve tried family portraits in the past it was tough to get our youngest to cooperate. He will not hold a pose very long, and gets easily irritated by the whole set up – flash bulbs, annoying photographers waiving a silly stuffed animal in a failed attempt to get him to smile, etc. I think the next time we try this we’ll take your advice and go for something less staged, more relaxed, more casual.

    Frugal Dad’s last blog post…The Fab Five – Leap of Faith Edition

  3. You’re right . . . the casual, relaxed look is SO much more appealing! A staged, “studio look” doesn’t allow the subjects’ personalities to shine through. A great tip about getting close to the subject, too. I love this blog!

    Julie – On the Dot Creations’s last blog post…:: Let’s Get Personal(ized) Week ::

  4. I enjoy a coordinated look but not a matchy-matchy look as well. After all, I want our personalities to shine through!

    And as for taking photos with our toddler, if she doesn’t want to smile, that’s okay! I don’t get frustrated because that’s her! : )

    Thanks for the links!

    Allison J’s last blog post…Inadequacies

  5. Nice shots! And you’re so right about the digital flat rate package. I made the mistake of NOT doing that and, 4 years later, I still haven’t ordered the super pricey prints of our photo shoot.

    Angie (from over at

    Half Assed Kitchen’s last blog post…Baby cakes with fudge frosting

  6. We did the professional photo last year and it was horrible. This year I am opting to just take the pictures myself and already have one of the children that is just perfect. If you get them done now, you can take advantage of early bird ordering specials on those photo cards which really does help!

    Amy’s last blog post…Redbox Code 11.10.08

  7. Great tips! With all the new great digital cameras, we have been very lucky to have friends take our pregnancy and baby pictures.

    Just Plain Joy’s last blog post…The Key to Success is Making Mistakes

  8. I have been nagging my husband to get our Christmas photos done. We both work at a large college…good idea on getting a student to do our shoot! We’ll get right on that…

    Mandie’s last blog post…We Picked a Peck of Apples.

  9. Great tips! I’m off to Craigslist. Why didn’t I think of that?

  10. Awesome tips!! Amazing links!! Thanks, mama. 😉

    Megan@SortaCrunchy’s last blog post…Grateful for mercies, ever new

  11. Great Tips – love the photo with everyone wearing jeans! I’ll keep these tips in mind, and I’m sure that I will use them suring the holidays!

    Libby’s last blog post…Lots of Blue – On Monday

  12. Great tips! We’re taking an annual photo at the beach during Thanksgiving this year, and I’ll keep these in mind.

    Mommy2Twinkies’s last blog post…Recipe Monday–Soul Food

  13. Very timely post! I am one of those ‘budding’ portrait photographers you spoke of and I currently have a few families lined up for sessions this month (mostly through church, but also word of mouth). Your tips are perfect, thanks!

    Sarah H.’s last blog post…Houseplant Hacks – Four questions to ask yourself before buying a houseplant

  14. Love the tip to coordinate outfits and to get closer than you think. I need to start trying to get our holiday card kid photo…

    Julie’s last blog post…Experimenting With Affiliate Programs

  15. The first year I had to take a photo with more than one child my dd was 2 1/2 and my son was 3 months. It was a disaster. I ended up freaking out alot and telling the older one to smile and if you look at the 40 or so pictures I took you can see my daughter’s smile become more and more forced. I chose one of the first 5 I took. So….that leads me to my advice. I now have four (6,4,2 and 4 mo) and I took our Christmas picture last week in about 5 minutes. I just got them all set up casually and took about 25 pictures in a few minutes. There were a few that turned out really nice. If that hadn’t worked I would have done it again but it isn’t a big deal because it only took 5 minutes! Generally the best shot comes early in the photo shoot!

  16. Great tips —Thank you!

    Keana’s last blog post…Around the Corner

  17. Nice tips! I’d also like to add: Have fun! You can tell when those smiles in the photos are fake. So, laugh a little, joke a little. In the car ride over, crank up the radio, sing at the top of your lungs. Whatever it takes to loosen up. (I know, you were totally stressed out at home chasing after everyone trying to get shirts tucked in and hair combed!) You have to look at these pictures the rest of your life, so try to relax a little when you get there. You want the pics to show the “real” you… well, the happy version of the real you, right? 😉

    Crystal’s last blog post…Photoshop Actions

  18. Those are some great ideas! I 1000% agree with you about getting close to your subject. Take plenty of photos.
    For kids – get down at their level – they make really good photos.

    Dana’s last blog post…Another healthy breakfast

  19. Always Somthing says:

    I love these ideas.. I really want to take pictures of our family for Christmas cards this year. The problem is that I am the one that takes the picture so it is hard to get all of us in the pic. I love outside and very natural pictures. I may have to figure out how to use the timer and tripod.

  20. I’ve been getting some hits from your site today, and I just wanted to tell you thank you for listing me as an inspiring photog!!!!

    Have a blessed day!

  21. I love the tip about going coordinated, not matching. When we got family pictures with my inlaws, someone told them that the picture would look best if we all wore blue shirts with khaki. We all looked like we worked in retail. Boring, no personality.

    On my side of the family, we’ve always agreed on a color range, such as “jewel tones” and let everyone do as they like. The last picture had about 14 people in it (3 generations), but it turned out great. Hoping to do similar with the inlaws after the baby comes.

    Stephanie’s last blog post…Have You Taken Charge of Your Family’s Nutrition?

  22. I *am* a photographer and LOVED your list. Especially #2. (I am the ANTI-studio type myself….)

    Just had to say GREAT LIST!!

    Suzanne’s last blog post…Veteran’s Day

  23. Thank you for featuring my image and giving me photo credit. Those are some good tips!
    Chelsea Elizabeth

    Chelsea Elizabeth´s last blog post…Best of 2008 | Portraits

  24. Just saw this post. Great tips! Thanks for using one of my images 🙂
    .-= Chelsea Elizabeth´s last blog ..The Turnip Rose, Grand Newport Plaza | Prima + Jack =-.

  25. Great tips, thanks! I always enjoy reading photography tips. I try to practice them on my kids, but unfortunately, I have practiced so much that they run and hide when they see me with my camera.

  26. As far as Craigslist photographers go, it’s kind of a mixed bag. Make sure you like their work before you commit to a session with them. The best deal for Craigslist photographers is finding a photographer that’s recently relocated from a different city or who’s adding another type of photography to their services offerings (ie they shot weddings, so they’re going to try family photography).

  27. Thanks for the tips! I have a shoot coming up Friday. I will apply these suggestions!

  28. Tracy Hadsock says:

    These are great tips. You should find a photographer not only whose work you like, but one who makes your kids feel at ease and has fun with them so they naturally smile and laugh. As a photographer, I do most of my work outdoors but am not anti studio (no, I do not own a studio, I do my home, their home, or on location). While I love the outdoor look and lighting, I also still love the studio look with, for example, a clean white background, and props for babies or young children. And the personalities can shine no matter what the background. One thing I would strongly discourage is trying to use a self timer to get a family picture. I swear I am not saying this because I get paid to take pictures, I am saying it because the subjects need a smiling face behind the camera, it makes all the difference. If I tried using a self timer I think my kids would be looking everywhere but the camera and their expressions would not be the same. A self timer might be okay in a pinch if you working with all adults.

  29. Wow, Nice tips! I should have read this before we took our Christmas pics…on the coordinating thing :)-

    You can go take a look at my pics and let me know what you think

  30. it’s true that even consumer cameras can take good shots. most often the difference a pro makes (besides simple experience) is lighting. everyone has a digital camera. very few people have the lighting equipment or skills to make a good shot great. that said, if YOU love the shot, then it is a GREAT shot.

Add Your Thoughts