The thought of capturing a large extended family is terrifying for many, and I know lots of photographers who make it policy to decline them. Those who did take them on chewed their nails in the lead up, sweated buckets during, and cried with relief when it was over. The photographer who was prepared to shoot a group larger than say 7 was a rare bird indeed!
I used to be one of the former, with a self imposed rule to never capture extended families, the large kind where you have Grandma and Grandpa, their four or so grown children, their respective partners, a dozen-ish grandchildren, and maybe even a dog or two.
But then a day came when a good friend asked me to capture her extended family as a gift for her mother’s 70th birthday. With a smile, I said I’d love to. And then I secretly cried inside a little bit. Holy crap!
So I did it… and I loved it. In fact, they became my favorite kind of sessions and I ended up doing so many of them I came to be considered a specialist among my photography peeps!
Read on to learn why I love them, and how I shoot them for a pain free session that results in a good quality, cohesive gallery…
Heads up… you do need to a little bit bossy, to stay on track and get the combos you need. That way you’ll get it done quickly and before the little ones are over it (crucial!). So if you’re not naturally bossy, fake it.
I don’t believe you can run a large extended family photo session in a lifestyle manner. There’s just too many people and it would be serious mayhem! It would also make it harder to get all the shots you need, as the family will have lots of combos they expect you to get.
But that doesn’t mean the photos have to be stiffly posed. I still aim for natural smiles and capturing connections, within the framework of organised and consistent set ups for each combo. The following covers everything you need to know to run an extended family photo session and get a beautiful, cohesive gallery that the family will love!
Ask the family to give you a list of all the groupings they want. They’ll almost always need some guidance… I frequently had families tell me “oh I only want the one big family shot, and one of my parents with the grandchildren”.
First of all, you really don’t want to do this session for two photos do you? Second of all… it’s a logistical nightmare for the family to get that many people together on the same day, at the same time… encourage them to make the most of it! Then make at least these suggestions and ask them to tell you which ones they want, and which shots are their priority:
Once you confirm the shots they want, write it down in the order you plan to take them (more on that soon), and put it on your pocket on the day.
Families always ask me what they should wear, and my biggest tip is to suggest they’re not all dressed in black or white, because it doesn’t make for very vibrant, interesting photos. So I always ask them to talk to one another and make sure more than half of them are wearing a mix of colours and classic patterns.
In fact I started answering this question simply by showing them two photos – one where everyone wore blocks of black, white and navy, and another where they had splashes of colour and classic patterns.
That’s all the explanation it ever needed because the difference between the photos in terms of overall visual appeal was huge.
If you have a preference for muted, neutral tones, that’s ok. Just add interest with a classic pattern.
Choose a location with a good area of open shade with a nice natural backdrop. I aim for a dense backdrop of foliage or some repetition such as an avenue of trees.
Steer the family away from choosing locations that will be busy or in full sun with no open shade available (popular beach at noon anyone?).
Also consider distance for the family, especially those who have young children. Nothing spells the end of a family session more than the poor child who’s just had to drive an hour to get there and is already worn out.
When I take the whole family shot, I want to shoot with an aperture of around f/7.1 in order to get everyone in focus from front to back. So this means I’m going to lose some of the beautiful background which is created when we shoot at wider apertures such as f/2.8.
To compensate for this and bring back some of that gorgeous bokeh, I position the family as far forward of the backdrop as I can without bringing them beyond the edge of the open shade.
You can take that a step further and shoot with a long lens which adds to the background blur. I started out photographing extended families with a 200mm lens, and it gave me such a beautiful background blur. The images in the blog post I linked to above were all shot at 200mm.
However I eventually tired of needing to run back and forth to give direction, so I moved to a 135mm lens, and eventually I went even wider, and now shoot the group photos at 70mm with my Canon 24-70mm f/2.8.
When it’s time to capture the smaller groups I position them in the same spot as the large group photo, and I’ll open up the aperture. I tend to shoot groups of 3-5 at around f/4.5 when I’m framing them half or full body.
For the large group always focus on a person near the middle of the frame, and the middle focal plane.
This isn’t random and there’s good reasoning behind my decisions.
I always start the session with the whole family shot because that’s the shot families say is their #1 priority and anything else is a bonus. This has been the case for every single extended family I’ve ever photographed. So if you lose the kids after that shot, at least you got that one they really, really wanted. But that’s never happened.
Factor in the priority the family put on each shot. If their top priority was grandparents with the grandchildren, do that shot next.
I also try to get shots that include young children (toddlers especially) out of the way early so I don’t miss their window.
Other than that, all the groupings are done before I’ll do any candid stuff that’s not on the list.
Tip: Don’t assume the youngest family member will have the smallest window. Ask the family if there’s anyone that might be particularly reluctant and bear it in mind when ordering your shots. In my experience more often than not it was Grandpa!
I can’t say this enough… your images need to be consistent in every respect.
When the family get their gallery and need to decide what to print and frame for their wall, they’ll be looking for photos of each grouping all in landscape, or all in portrait, in the same location, same backdrop, same editing style, etc.
So keep this in mind when shooting every single grouping:
For the whole family shot, you can mix them up, or group them in their individual family groups. Whichever way you do it, place grandparents front and centre.
Make sure they’re no more than 3 people deep – this means you can shoot at a mid range aperture that gets them all in focus whilst still giving you a decently blurred background.
Mix up heights, this is much more visually appealing than straight lines of heads.
I like to add interest by getting grandparents and other adults to either hold one of the babies, or pull one of the older children in close.
Ask women to stand at a 45 degree angle to the lens as it’s more flattering, and facing their partner if their partner is next to them.
Ask everyone to make sure they’re touching the person next to them (that always gets laughs). Whether it’s an arm around the shoulder, the waist, head on someone’s shoulder, holding hands, a cuddle from behind. The overall photo will look more relaxed and convey connection.
I tell them not to worry if small children aren’t looking at me. It’s ok for kids to be looking at mum or dad or even kissing them. If you expect to get every single person looking at camera and smiling at the same time, it will take ALL day and people will get cranky. As long as they’re interacting with one another or my lens, and not vaguely looking at nothing, the photo will be fabulous!
When I’ve got them all positioned, I check to make sure there’s no big blocks of the same colour sanding next to one another – I try to mix it up in terms of colour and patterns.
I also check to make sure I can see every face and if not I’ll ask them to move themselves into a gap. The easiest way to do this is to simply tell them make sure your head is not behind someone else’s head or you won’t be seen.
Once it looks good, I take a LOT of photos. Just focus and shoot, focus and shoot, focus and shoot. I’m talking at least 10 or more. Then I’ll zoom riiiight in on my LCD to ensure I’ve got a LOT of sharp focus photos, because there is a 99% chance you will need to head swap to get the perfect whole family shot.
Tip: Learn how to head swap in Photoshop, or be prepared to pay someone to do it.
Then I do the rest of the combos, always checking my camera when I think I’m done with each group that I got at least one perfect shot (before letting them go!).
So, here’s all that in a nutshell:
I find a spot in open shade with a neutral ground such as gravel which makes a great backdrop, get the kids to sit cross legged on the ground, and I take portraits from slightly above them so that I can fill the frame with the ground.
This way I don’t have to be mindful of random people walking into the frame, and that lets me work super fast – we are in a public space after all so random pedestrians are common!
I run these in an almost military fashion, but I do it with humour so it gets the kids laughing and interested and wanting to have a turn. I can easily shoot 10 kids portraits in 10 minutes
Tip: You only need one good shot, don’t overshoot, keep it moving.
Once again, be cohesive. Take each portrait from the same angle, same framing, same settings, and leave a little room for cropping just in case.
Once I’ve got all the groupings and the individual portraits in the bag, we can relax! If everyone is still happy and having fun, I’ll keep shooting.
At this point I whip out my 35mm and bring all the kids together for something more casual.
I tease to encourage silliness to get some candid, playful shots. A good way to kick this off is to tell them to group hug. Older siblings can be reluctant to do this, but I have found when cousins come together, it’s very easy to draw out playfulness and connection. I get in close and the distortion of the 35mm conveys the fun, and I’ll shoot wide, say f/3.2.
If the adults are playful types on the whole, once I have the formal posed shots done I’ll shoot the individual family combos in this way too.
You need keep the session moving and work fast to get all the groupings done before everyone is over it, and for that to happen you need to be confident in a few key areas:
A few things to consider to keep the session moving:
If you can do all this, you can finish a typical extended family in an hour. The family featured in these shots numbered 13, we had multiple posed combos, portraits for 7 children including a gorgeous special needs fella, and lots of candids, and we wrapped it up in 45 minutes.
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and it gives you the confidence to head out and try an extended family session yourself!
Join our FREE Mini Photography Course
Learn how to take photos you LOVE
5 Days = 5 Video Lessons
Join the Fun + Take Gorgeous Photos
Our 8 Week Enthusiast Photography Course is starting again SOON! You'll learn how to get the most from your DSLR & take photos you LOVE!