Top 10 Rules for shooting family portraits outside

Date November 30, 2009

I was hired to shoot a Christmas family portrait session and frankly I was nervous. See, I’ve been paid before but it’s usually candid, or sports. Nothing where I set it up or anything, and the “customer” has always been faceless. This time it was a friend who wanted family photos for the holidays. She’s always loved my work (sometimes more than I do) and I really want money for a new lens, so I agreed. I shot it today, and I think it went ok (yes, I looked at the photos before writing this) but I have some things I would do differently next time and things I have learned today. Here they are in no particular order.

1. Don’t be late. I didn’t anticipate how far away I was when I left, and they were early so I was more nervous. Things were ok probably because I knew the people. If I hadn’t, I am sure the impression of being late would’ve been worse.

2. Know your location. A good photographer would be there early, know his landscape, have shots in mind, etc… The woman who hired me had in mind what she wanted to see, and I bet since I was late they may’ve walked around a bit to check things out beforehand.

3. Learn everyone’s name before you get started.
There were two grandparents, four cousins, and two sets of adults. I called one young boy “Malcolm” half the time, and I still don’t know the matriarch’s name. I just called her “Grandma” all day. Had I been early, I probably would’ve had more time to formally get names.

4. You will get dirty. When shooting children outside, be prepared to get dirty. I was lying in wet mud/grass for some shots near a lake today. I was kneeling to get down at their level (don’t shoot from above children!) and my knees and hands came home dirty/muddy.

5. Politely ask parents to let you work. No matter how much the adults want to help by calling to their children while you shoot, ask them politely not to. The kids only look towards the noise and not the camera. To rectify this, you can a) get some sort of noise maker to use yourself (‘cept my camera is heavy!), b) talk to a single parent beforehand (the mother if it’s a single child) to get her to be behind you and at your level if she wants to help get the child’s attention or c) bring an assistant with you.

6. Bring an assistant. That last part brings me to #6. For the first couple of shots, I forgot my fill flash (it was on and ready, but I had the camera set so it wouldn’t go off). Had I had an assistant he or she could’ve a) got the children’s attention for me and b) held a reflector to catch the natural light so I could forego the flash all together. (I’d prefer assistants who you don’t have to pay.)

7. Shoot selectively. shooting portraits with people who are posed, you do not need to take 500 photos. I just kept shooting. I already had a great shot of grandma (nope, still don’t know her name) and the baby but I kept going. Finally she said, “did you get the shot?” Yep, 50 of ’em.

8. Use a good zoom. If there were not children, I would’ve popped on my 50mm f1.8 EF II prime and went for it. But with children you never know what you need to do or what the child(ren) will do.

9. Time matters. Pick a better time of the day. 2:00pm is not a good time of the day. Too many harsh shadows, squinty eyes, etc… The customer’s husband’s face was blown out on some shots (with and without fill flash), and when a storm began to roll in (we were able to finish before it hit) he commented about being worried. I was just happy it diffused the sun for me.

10. Don’t be afraid to give direction, but don’t always give directions. The customer knew what she wanted, but she’s a dominant personality and was the money. I was fine with that, plus she knew I was nervous. I gave very little direction myself, but there were a few times when I should’ve/could’ve said more. At one point Grandma and Grandpa wanted to get some shots of just the boy and girl (girl must’ve been about 1) and kinda held them up above them near a tree. I am not sure what amount of editing will remove the adults’ arms and shoulders from those shots.

I think these are my top 10 rules for now, but I have not edited the photos nor have I met with the customer for a debriefing (yes, she will read this). I’d love to hear your comments about your own experiences with this.