David J. Toman Photography | How to prepare for Family Portraits - San Francisco Bay Area Photographer

How to prepare for Family Portraits - San Francisco Bay Area Photographer

Baby SoloMaking portraits of happy children alone is essential to any family photo session

As a photographer I have had the pleasure of making beautiful images with sweet, loving families that they will cherish for years, decades, and generations to come.

But not every session has gone smoothly, without a hitch. And sometimes a good session could have been made great, with just a little more planning and communication between the client and the photographer. 

Pitfalls include not knowing where to shoot (location), why the photos are being made (purpose), what the subjects will wear (wardrobe) and who (arrangement of subjects). Yes, these all-important considerations happen to begin with the letter W...

In logical order, the four main considerations going into a photo shoot comprise the usual elements of a story:





And of course there is the when, which should be agreed upon by both the subject(s) and photographer, ahead of time.

The how that goes with the four W's above is my job, as the photographer, to figure out and execute to best achieve the client's stated objectives and intentions. To that end, I always prepare a checklist going into any shoot. This includes such basic things as gear (cameras, lenses, accessories, film, memory cards, etc.), location, lighting ideas, and poses. 

As the subject, your job is to communicate your needs and expectations, and to be fully prepared for our session to maximize your family portrait session. This will ensure an enjoyable experience from start to finish, and of course result in pictures you will be proud to take out of a wallet, share on Facebook, make into a beautiful album, hang on a wall, or a combination of all of these options.

In addition to my own checklist, I also send one to the client in advance of each family portrait session going over what to expect, as well as asking them to put some thought into ways to make the session unique to who they are.

Following are a few guidelines I share with clients prior to our session, along with some example images from real shoots. 


Home Setting: I have directions to your home, but if there is anything tricky about finding the location or getting access to the building, and where to park, it would be great to know in advance. Also, what’s the best way to contact you when I arrive (i.e. text, call, or just ring the doorbell)?

indoor family portraitsFamily Photos - Home SettingThe home can be an excellent setting for family portraits. The giraffe was pretty excited to be included, too ; )

Location Setting: If we will be shooting at an outdoor setting and meeting directly there, as the photographer I will be sure to keep any restrictions and logistical issues in mind, such as limited opening hours, parking hours and fees. There could also be multiple entrances to a single park or property, so we'll usually agree on a meeting point at or close to a specific entrance. 

Blake Park, Berkeley, park, family portraitOutdoor Family PortraitsA back yard or a park can provide numerous elements that can be incorporated in photos for posing and framing.


Most families are looking for a happy, joyous, loving mood. However, last time I checked not even today's advanced cameras come with a handy “Happy” mode, so how to achieve that in still pictures often depends on family dynamics. For instance, the father might enjoy rough housing with the children, putting them on his shoulders, or tossing them into the air, whilst the mom might make funny faces or speak to them in a certain way. If grandparents and grandchildren are together, the contrast between big and little, older and younger, can be used to nice effect. 

You know your family best, and anything you can do - from making up games, promising ice cream to a child (or temporarily depriving them of it, hehe), to grabbing attention with funny faces or  a joke - can go a long way to putting bright, natural smiles on your family's faces.


Since the focus is on you and your family, in general the location isn't as important to me as the elements in the immediate surroundings, such as trees, shade, light, and grass. In a short time we can move to several locations within a certain area. Accordingly, the general rule of thumb is to keep backgrounds uncluttered, and a nearby park or playground can provide a number of spots to achieve a variety of actions, lighting, and elements. And while parks and playgrounds work, they can be crowded, distracting to children, or just plain uninspiring. So feel free to exercise some imagination and think of more creative locations that might be worth gathering at.

Grand TreeA cool tree to the side of a park made for a great posing prop for this set of grandparents and grandkids.

As the best laid plans can always be interrupted by events, large gatherings, Frisbee players, or changing light conditions, when shooting on location I will always make sure to arrive early and walk through the area to find suitable areas in which to shoot without interruptions or inconveniencing others.

Oftentimes great images can be made right out in front of the family's home. 


Like wine and food, people look best in pictures when well paired. Knowing in advance how you’d like to pair the images can go a long way to conducting a smooth shoot AND ensuring no one looks back and regrets not having a picture with a particular family member. If the session is arranged expressly for a certain occasion and end product, like a birth announcement, graduation, or holiday card, keeping in mind the design you prefer can also facilitate your choices of pairings.

Let's say we have a cross-generational group with one set of grandparents, whose adult offspring each have families of their own. Example pairings might include:

-The entire group: grandparents, two sets of parents, all the children

-Grandparents and their children

-Grandparents alone

-Grandparents and grandchildren

-Parents with their young children

-All children

-Just siblings (including adult siblings).


We’re all about wearing smiling faces, but clothing choice is also important. Try to avoid anything with prominent logos. Wear comfortable clothing that fits well, is neat and clean, and will not look particularly dated in a few years (although it’s admittedly fun to laugh at our former selves). Rather than outwardly matching outfits, consider outfits and colors that complement one another. This isn't to say that matching outfits can't be cute. They worked great here:

Coordinated Family WardrobeSometimes identical outfits can be irresistibly cute


With young children sometimes it’s effective to have a few items with you that can get a response out of them, whether a huge smile, a look of surprise, or just get them to look in a certain direction. Does a wooden horse, a rattler, a stuffed animal, or an Elmo doll do the trick?


Instead of, or in addition to, everyone posing and looking at the camera great results can be had when the subjects do something. This technique is valuable for  studio and individual portrait photography, and can be especially effective with small children.

Running instead of posingInstead of posing and staring at the camera, having subjects do something can be quite effective.


Maybe your family is really into race cars, baseball, swimming, or even Scrabble. Why not incorporate some of the elements that make you unique and bring you together in your shoot? In other words, you be the creative director and producer of your story and I'll be the director of photography and production studio. These sessions will cost a bit more depending on what's involved, but will certainly be a conversation piece for others and something extraordinary for you to enjoy fondly for years to come.

In the case of this image, the daughter was in a "too cool for school" teenager phase, and her dad prided himself on being able to relate to her (having not quite grown up yet himself), so we set up a cool shot to show that special father-daughter dynamic they'll always share. We actually did this shoot right in their living room with my portable studio setup, against a background with such distracting elements as a power strip and wall socket. I applied some of my hard-won Photoshop skills to replace the background and achieve a look that reminds me of a movie poster.

Too CoolFather and daughter competing to see who's cooler

An alternative to an elaborate arrangement that requires a special location, costumes, or composite post-production techniques that could be equally effective at expressing your personalities, interests, and group dynamics is to incorporate something unique about you, such as in the case of the musical father and his daughters below. Instead of posing together looking at the camera with them, I asked him to "duck walk" and rock out through the frame. This resulted in great natural smiles from his admiring yet amused daughters.

Musical FamilyDad instilled a love of music in his three beautiful daughters. I had him show that rock and roll is not just for kids


In this family's case, I knew I wanted to have the young boy jump with his scooter off the front landing. Again, instead of having his mom and sister just look on, knowing that Mom is super fit and can do all sorts of great poses I asked her to do a hand stand and her daughter to cartwheel into the frame from the left just as her brother leapt into the picture from the right. We even got the family pooch, Tinley, to photo bomb them ; )

Active FamilyWhere's the pooch? We weren't done there, either. Just a short walk up the hill (seen in the background of the above image) a walkway led to an open field - the perfect place for a family pyramid showing off how fit and fun Mom is. And again, we somehow got the doggie into the shot.

Family PyramidPosing doesn't have to be boring. And you never know when the family dog can bring a perfect element of balance to a picture ; )



If you're thinking about doing a family photo session, or have booked one and need some ideas and assurance, I hope that these tips and example photos help you achieve fun, beautiful, and most of all unforgettable images to treasure for generations. The more input you provide the photographer the greater the chance that together you will make something you can't wait to share right away, and will never tire of looking back at as the years go by.

Feel free to comment with suggestions for any other areas you feel are vital to working with a photographer. Ready to book a session for your family now? 



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