Photographing Family and Friends: A Cheat Sheet

Capturing portraits of family and friends is fun but challenging.

By Inexorable in Articles and Tips on Jun 25, 2014
Photographing Family and Friends: A Cheat Sheet

Visualize yourself at a bash together with friends and family, showing photographs from your recent travel.

"Oh! That's a fine portrait! Why, you are a fine photographer!" goes a friend.

"Thank you!" you reply, thrilled at the compliment.

Eyeing the camera bag lying next to you, the friend continues, "Why don't you take pictures at this event. We are meeting after so long and no one is clicking with a professional camera. I would love to pose for some portraits."

Just as you are recalling your best line to turn down the invite because you are not prepared for it, the friend adds, "Please!"

Uh! Oh! The 'Please,' and the earlier appreciation leave you with no choice, do they? But you have no time to study the guests and pick suitable poses for them from among the few hundred in the Poses directory of your desktop, which isn't with you in any case! You have no studio lights, you have no assistant.

But you do have the camera and a few lenses that would do the job? Your honor is at stake!

You aren't sure you are upto the challenge; your trepidation is mounting! 

There is no help around the corner, but there is help in your pocket! A printout of the cheat sheet below! All you need to do is pull it out, recap the points, and click away.

It's easy to guess what happens thereafter. As soon as you take a photo, people breathe down your neck to see the camera LCD, and then collectively say - Wow!

The cheat sheet below is a compilation of practical tips to help photographers take good pictures at a gathering of family and friends.

Subject and Drama

A good photo needs a good subject and compelling drama.

You already have a good subject - someone who tells you that you are a good photographer and requests you to take her pictures is a actually a darn good subject!

As to the drama, in classic portraiture the drama comes from your subject's pose and light. So is the case in informal shoots, the difference being you are sans any studio equipment - backgrounds, props and above all lighting.

Posing: Our Cheat Sheet Cheats!

When it comes to posing, our cheat sheet cheats! It advocates precious nuggets extracted from the wonderful compilation - Zeltsman Approach to Traditional Classic Portraiture.

The initial chapters of the compilation dwell in detail on how men and women should pose for portraits. The fundamentals - positioning of legs, arms, shoulders, neck and head.

Read the chapters, imbibe the knowledge, and share it with family and friends before a shoot

Most of us are clueless about posing and very receptive to any posing tips. My friends and family members readily lap them up, and most are already well versed with them! Taking pictures is so much easier for me.

Posing on a Cue

Besides body posture, eye contact and the expression determine the effectiveness of a pose. All of us are good actors - but only when nobody is watching! Sitting all by ourselves in a room we can effectively emote a fleeting thought. The problem is, many of us become conscious when in public, more so when in front of the camera!

To capture natural expressions, many photographers click in between cued poses under the pretext of taking test photos! . An alternative approach is to ask your subject to close her eyes, breathe deeply, and zone out. On a cue from you, the subject makes eye contact with the camera and emotes a thought - smiles as if she has just met a long lost friend that she deeply admires - and you snap away in burst mode.

Using a well lit window as backdrop

Shooting against the light by placing your subject next to a well lit window adds softness but can result in great keepers.


Setting up studio equipment in the midst of a family gathering (Assuming you have studio equipment to begin with!) isn't practical, But you are not entirely out of luck. Every house has well lit and dark areas that you can use creatively, almost as effectively as a studio.

Place your subject against a well lit window and shoot against the light for soft high key portraits. Position them in front of a dark area of the house for low key portraits. In both cases spotmeter your exposure on the brightest part of a subjects face.

You can also use a window as a softbox and a reflector as fill light.

Using Window as a Softbox

Seat your subject next to a window well lit with ambient (reflected) light. Position yourself at one edge of the window, right next to the wall, and your subject 5-ft to 10-ft inside the room at the opposite edge of the window, facing towards you. (The positioning allows you to shoot reasonably long, ensuring the front and one side of the subject's face is well lit.)

Hold a reflector close to the window at a height well above the subjects head. Reflect light down on the dark side of subject's face to evenly light it without casting a shadow.

Using a dark area of the house as backdrop

A low key photograph with a dark area within the house as the backdrop.

Additional Drama

An informal shoot gives you additional methods of adding drama besides light, methods that can more than compensate for the lack of studio lighting.

If there are children in the house, their very presence in the composition would be high drama. The challenge is - children are spontaneous and you need to have your camera ready.

When photographing adults, look for object in the house that reflect their personality. Use the objects as props, or place them in the background.

You can also use an Ultra Wide Angle (UWA) / Fisheye lens for dramatic portraits. You don't normally associate UWA lenses with portrait photography, but their wide sweep makes it easy to show the subject looming large in front of her turf. The lady of the house portrait shown below, for example. It was taken using a DA 10-17mm F3.5-4.5 Fish-Eye lens.

Fisheye portraits need to be carefully composed to avoid subject distortion, and limit background distortion

Adding Drama with Drama

There is nothing stopping you from adding drama to your composition using... played out drama! Whether formal or informal, blatant drama can make group photos memorable.

Adding drama with drama

Adding drama to a photo with drama. This was at a formal occasion, during a post wedding shoot!

General Shooting Tips

Shoot from a distance using a telephoto lens. Your pictures will be more flattering because of image compression.

Frame tight; the subject will appear closer suggesting intimacy. But keep adequate margins for fine cropping. Don't crop heads while taking pictures, do it during PP!

Outside a studio, you will have very little control over the background. The best you can do is keep the background free of distracting elements that could draw attention away from your subject.

Shoot in burst mode. It will ensure your photo is not ruined 'in the blink of an eye'

Use portrait mode for single subject portraits, unless its a profile shot, in which case use landscape mode.

Group Photos

Group photos are best taken outside, since finding adequate space within the house can be challenge.

The The Zeltsman Approach to Traditional Classic Portraiture covers posing in groups.

As a thumb rule, don't line up subjects as in a class of 69 (the year I passed out of school!) photo, rally them informally around a certain object. Rally them tight, their closeness must be evident. At the very least they should be touching each other. The type of intimacy displayed must hint at the relationship - couple, siblings, friends.

We will talk more about group photos when discussing outdoor shoots.


As far as lenses go, 50mm equivalent should be viewed as minimum focal length, unless you are shooting UWA / Fisheye portraits. You could go right up to 135mm, or even higher when outdoors.

Recommended and affordable lenses include 18-55mm kit lens, DA 35mm F2.4, DA 40 F2.8, Sigma 30mm F1.4 and Sigma 35mm F1.4.

Camera Settings

For candids, use a zoom lens unobtrusively to capture spontaneity. (Chldren zooming in and out.). When shooting indoors, set ISO to 800 for maximum shutter speed and depth with hand held shot.

For portraits, your camera setting would depend on many other factors.

Shoot during the golden hour
Shoot during the golden hour while outdoors, using a golden or silver reflector to uniformly light the face.

Shooting Outdoors

If a get together is outdoors, your approach towards lighting would be radically different.

If possible, plan your shoot during the golden hour and use reflectors, silver and golden, to evenly light up faces.

Capturing good photos during afternoons can be challenging because the bright sun casts harsh shadows and makes your subject screw up their eyes. Your best bet is to look for shade. If you use the shade of a tree, make sure the light falling on the face is not dappled by its passage through the leaves.

If there is no natural shade, use the diffuser part of the reflector; place it between the sun and the subject's face. An alternative is to use a ND filter. A diffuser is preferable because it gives subjects a welcome respite from the harsh sunlight, but a ND filter gives the photographer more flexibility. For group photos, for example, you would definitely need a ND filter.

You can get good portraits in bright sunlight without a diffuser or ND filter, by shooting against the light, spot or center metering on your subject's face. You will get a blown out background, sans any distracting object as a bonus! Use a reflector to bounce light on the subject's face, if you don't want a completely blown out background.

The sun behind a subject's head can serve as hairlight. It can create a good rim effect.

When you are photographing a group of people, watch out for shadows. Make sure no one is casting a shadow on the other.

Outdoor Backgrounds

You can find some interesting backgrounds when shooting outdoors. Look for stone walls or other interesting textures.

If you can't find an interesting background, take care to keep background distractions out of your composition, as mentioned earlier. Use a shallow depth of field with the subject well displaced from the background to put the background out of focus.

A fisheye portrait that pulls in a lot of contextLady of the House - fisheye portrait.

The Cheat Sheet

Essential Equipment
  1. Camera with lenses.
  2. Tripod.
  3. Remote.
  4. Reflector.

Familiarize your family members with the basics of male and female posing using the guide at Zeltsman Approach to Traditional Classic Portraiture. 

In short explain

  1. The three facial views and two profile views
  2. Quick, posing steps
    • Use a prop.
    • Face the camera with feet together.
    • Move one foot back and angled 30-40 deg away from the camera.
    • Shift weight to rear leg allowing front leg knee to bend slightly.
    • Females should flex bent knee towards the straight rear leg.
    • Position and rest hands to create a gap between body and arms.
    • Shoulders horizontal.
    • Females can angle neck towards a shoulder and strive for S shape.
    • Don't pose early. Pose on a cue from the photographer.
General Tips
  1. Shoot from a distance.
  2. Frame tight, but with PP margins.
  3. Use a tripod and operate the camera using remote, since you will not have any assistant.
  4. Keep the background free of distracting elements that could draw attention away from your subject.
  5. Use contrast focus, especially if you are shooting indoors. Since you do have the camera on a tripod, leverage the greater reliability and flexibility of contrast focus.
  6. Unlink autofocus from shutter release.
  7. Shoot in burst mode. 
  8. Use portrait mode for single subject portraits.
  9. Use landscape mode for profile shots.
  10. Add drama - no holds barred!
Shooting Indoors
  1. Sitting puts subject at ease.
  2. Use bright and dark areas of the house creatively for high key and low key photos.
  3. Use well lit windows without direct sunlight as softboxes.
  4. For candids, set your camera to ISO 800 and use SV Mode
  5. Find object in the house that reflect subject personality.
  6. Mom, Dad - Shoot full length portraits with a wide angle showing them with a lot of their house.
Shooting Outdoors
  1. Shoot during the golden hour and use a reflector
  2. Shooting in bright sunlight
    1. Find Shade
    2. Use Diffuser or ND filter
    3. Shoot against the light
  3. Look for backgrounds with textures
  4. For out-of-focus backgrounds, use low DOF and keep subject well displaced from background objects.
Group Photos
  1. Group photos are best taken outside.
  2. Don't line up subjects as in a class of 69 style photo, rally them around a meaningful object.
  3. Rally them tight.
  4. Let the photo show the relationship.

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