formal family portrait

posted in kids & families, portraits, tutorials at April 06, 2010

As a lifestyle photographer, it’s not often that I get hired to do formal family portraits. However, when I do them, I enjoy the challenge.

Here’s my thought process behind a recent family formal portrait.

  • Subjects: parents + their 2 adult children and one of their spouses
  • Selecting the background: the parents live right on the Puget Sound. The grounds are immaculate – the grass almost looks like a putting green. I knew the background had to be the view from the backyard – no real discussion here, this one was obvious.
  • The pose: most photographers would probably set up a shot like this:

Now there’s nothing wrong with this shot. If I had to shoot 30 family formals in 30 minutes (like at a wedding) I’d probably shoot something like this. But the problem is that there is no concept behind the shot. It’s just a bunch of people standing in a row.

I wanted to do something more interesting. If the client does not have a particular concept in mind, then I just make one up of my own.

My concept for this shot: I imagined that this was, say, a family that ran a prominent business and a story about their lavish estate was being run in Town & Country Magazine. I wanted a more 3 dimensional pose, which showed them in a more interesting and relaxing setting.

I set up two lawn chairs, one about 3 feet closer than the other, and placed the parents in the chairs. Then the “kids” went behind them. I wanted everyone to be relaxed, yet still in a more formal position than you’d typically see in one of my lifestyle portraits.

Using these chairs gave me 3 levels to work with: sitting on the chair, sitting on the arm, and standing. Placing the 2nd chair 3 feet behind the first adds a 4th level. These levels contribute to the depth of the image.

The key, however, to any family portrait (formal or lifestyle) is to show the closeness of the family members, which is why I made sure they were touching each other. The smiles came from me just joking around with them.

Here’s the final image. No Photoshop was required – this is straight from Lightroom.

Here are the technicals for the shot:

(1) Set the camera on manual mode, evaluative (matrix) metering. I used the following as a default setting: ISO 100, f8, 1/200 sec. Camera was a Canon 5D with 70-200mm lens @ 70mm.

(2) Take a test shot, view histogram to judge exposure. In this case, my initial settings were just fine. It gave me about -1 stop of exposure, just where I wanted it. Why underexpose the ambient light by one stop? Two reasons: it really turns the sky a nice blue on a sunny day or makes the clouds more dramatic on a cloudy day. Second, it will really make your subjects pop out when lit with off camera flash.

(3) My 580exII flash was on a stand to camera right. I did not use any umbrella or softbox. This was just straight, direct flash. Why no umbrella? To be honest, it was simply too windy to use an umbrella. However, because I had my flash pulled back some distance away from my subjects (to cover all of them without any significant light falloff between the nearest and farthest person), an umbrella would only have made a minor difference anyway.

(4) I set my flash on manual mode, 1/2 power and took a test shot. It was slightly underexposed so I bumped up the power a bit, but I was still less than full power.

(5) I kneeled down on one knee to get a low camera angle and fired away. I took about 6 shots from this position. Remember that a low camera angle always adds drama and power to a shot. Taken at eye level this shot would not have been nearly as interesting. Get down on that knee!

That’s pretty much it. When I opened the image in Lightroom, exposure was perfect. I did not have to move the exposure slider at all. The only thing I did was add a tiny bit of sharpening. Remember that a sharp lens, f8, and perfect light all contribute to an image that’s already going to be sharp.


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