Posing Large Groups of People for Family Portraits

It's been my job for the past several years to take our extended family portraits anytime our family is all together (and conveniently dressed nicely - usually on our way to church, at a holiday or on a beach vacation).  It's a job I love, and so far we've almost always had good results.  But it's not easy, and I've learned a few tips & tricks along the way that can help get a shot that everyone will love.

Family Portraits

Let's start with photographing a nuclear family.  Since I'm usually dealing with families with small kids, and I'm not PAID to take portraits (I'm a hobbyist, not professional) - I stick to the basics.  My main goal is to get one good shot of everyone in-focus and looking at the camera - a smile on each face is a great bonus! 

We usually take these portraits outside, so I look for a shaded, evenly-lit area with an uncluttered background, under a tree, in a field, in front of a row of trees, or if I'm really lucky - on the beach. :) 

Since I deal often with people of varying heights, ages and attention spans, I like to have the adults hold the kids if they're small enough. The kids are usually happiest and most-focused this way anyhow - and then I can line everyone's faces up across the frame.   All that "hugging" and "holding" helps everyone stay close together (and often makes them smile) and it lets me get a tight shot of all their faces.  Sometimes, as in the case of my brother & sister in law on the right (below), I'll arrange them on a hill or ask Josh to crouch down a little bit to meet the rest of his family - a large height difference can be very tricky!

I shoot on AV priority with a Canon 40D SLR camera, setting my aperture to about 5.0 in an effort to get all my subjects in focus, while keeping a blurry background.  I most often use my Canon 50mm 1.8 fixed lens and just take a few steps back so that I'm far enough away to get everyone in the shot. 

If I'm not going to be *IN* the photos, then I do not use a tripod for these portraits, which allows me to move around and adjust my angles to get everyone lined up well in the frame.  If I am included in the portrait, then I love to use a tripod to set up the shot and frame the picture, leaving space for myself. Then I set the self timer, press the shutter and book-it fast to get in the shot before it snaps the photo!  My son thinks this is hilarious and truly, it's often the only way we can get him to smile.

*The beach photo of my family on the right was actually a fabulous shot taken by my sister-in-law.  She's my protege...trying to steal help me with my job as family photographer. :)

Repeat after me - you only need ONE great photo.  Especially with small kids, don't irritate everyone and wear down your welcome by trying every pose under the sun.  That said...take a TON of pictures.  Digital images are free - take advantage of it. It's not uncommon for me to take 20-30 pictures of the same pose, waiting for everyone to be looking & smiling, hair-not-blowing, eyes not closed, and parents-not-talking.  That's where the insane speed of an SLR camera is VERY helpful.

If we have a cooperative bunch, then next I'll ask them to sit down and make themselves comfortable. Sitting helps the adults and teens relax a little and then they also have their laps free to hold heavy toddlers or preschoolers in place.  The main thing here is to make sure everyone is comfortable - and LOOKS comfortable.  If they aren't...they won't look it!

I'm also a fan of having everyone crouching down together, especially next to standing kids.  I often ask my subjects to put their arms around each other, lean on each other a little bit, and even have kids sit on their knees to show the relationships and give the whole family look more connected to each other.  Plus, then I can get a shot of them from up above, simplifying the background of the photo, as in the photo below on the left, where I included more of the leaves on the ground as the background instead of the trees behind them.  And...in case you weren't aware...everyone looks skinnier looking up at the camera, so that's always a bonus. :)

Extended Family Portraits

When you add in several families or a larger group of people, it gets a little tricker to pose everyone.  Depending on the number of people, I'll either line everyone up again or put them into rows or sub-groups, taking into consideration their relationships & height. For instance, I'll have couples stand together, arrange everyone in boy-girl-boy-girl pattern or move really tall people to the center while the more vertically challenged move to the outside or front row.   

The beach photo on the left (below) could have been arranged better by having my husband and I scoot over to the right just a smidge to fill in the hole above my petite sister-in-law's head.  Oh, and had the 1-year old-twins been willing, they would have looked awfully cute sitting in front of their parents in the sand -- but c'mon folks, the shot we got was nearly a miracle with all those kids and me sprinting in the sand to get into the center of the photo!

The photo on the left (below) was an impromptu photo of three families of friends.  We set the camera on a table, lined up on the benches with our kids in our laps, and smiled for the timer.  I love the casual and happy together-ness it exudes.

In the photo on the right (below), we asked the kids to stand/kneel/sit in the front row, dads to kneel in the middle row, and the moms stood in back.  By having the tallest people (the dads) kneel in front of the women and behind the kids, we were able to create three levels of faces, that were all fairly close together, letting us get a tighter shot of the whole group, and creating a pyramid-like grouping.

Spontaneously Photographing Very Large Groups

When I'm at family events, holding my camera, I'm often asked to get a picture of the whole group.  Since it's not a planned portrait setting time...we do this VERY quickly - like in about 5 minutes.  It happens kind of like this:

Me (shouting)Okay everyone to the backyard!  Stand right here.  Families together!  Get close.  I can't see Uncle Josh.  If you can't see me, I can't see you.  Everyone look this way!  Grandpa, get a little closer to Grandma.  Mom, hold the baby on your other side.  Okay, I can see everyone.  I'm going to stand on the end next to Ben.  Everyone ready?  *press shutter* - RUN - RUN - *smile* - SNAP.  Okay stay right there!!! RUN - RUN - *check image*. Let's do another one!

I'm usually only allowed about three of these before the babies start wiggling and crying and smiles begin to fade as everyone looks longingly at the cake inside waiting to be eaten.  Perhaps a wireless remote would be helpful here so I could take several shots at once!

When you're taking a wide shot of a large group of people, I recommend going wide enough to get everyone in the frame from head-to-toe.  There's nothing worse than having half of the group cut off at the ankle or elbows.  If you aren't aiming for a head-and-shoulders-only shot of everyone, then go ahead and include everyone's entire bodies and leave a border of the background around the whole group.  

Photographing Groups of Kids

Next let's talk about portraits of a large group of kids, and not-so-many adults. I'm still working on the logistics of mastering this, because kids are tricky...but I've had a few successes (or at least not utter failures). 

Primarily, I've worked with grandparents & their grandkids and I simply surround the grandparents with the kids, letting them hold babies, younger kids' hands or placing a hand on an older child's shoulders.  It helps keep everyone in place and creates a circular or triangular trail of vision around the photo.

In the photo on the right (above), we used the arms and back of a couch to surround "Noni" with the older grandkids while the babies sat (held securely) in front of her as Noni lay sideways on the couch.

In the photo below, a park bench made a perfect spot for Grandma & her grandkids to squeeze together, creating a triangle of faces.

Older kids can also be very helpful in holding the toddlers and babies still - so use them if you're lucky enough to have a range of ages in your kid-filled portrait. 

Our Steed cousins portrait attempt this spring was a little rough because the youngest two cousins weren't quite old enough to cooperate and the oldest two weren't quite old enough to keep the babies in check.  My friend Molly Bridges (a local Birmingham, AL area photographer) took on the impossible task of photographing the 6  Steed grandchildren - all under age 7.  With a crying baby girl, a stoic and serious toddler, and a big-boy with a just-broken arm, it just wasn't gonna happen in our quick little mini shoot.  I think we'll keep the Steed parents in the photographs for another year or two before we can give this cousins-shot another try! 

But smiling or not...Molly did a great job of positioning the kids so that we could clearly see their faces, staggering and layering them to add an interesting dimension.  Plus, the foreground blur of the grassy field turned out so beautiful!

Getting Everyone's Attention

Now...getting everyone to look at the camera at the same time - let's talk about that. 

My best recommendation is to have no more than 1 person stand directly behind you to make silly faces and catch the attention of all the subjects.  EVERYONE else would ideally be completely out of sight. 

This doesn't actually happen much for me. Usually I have a crowd of family members jumping and dancing behind me.  But, my self-timer pictures with no one but the camera to look at proves my theory on this.  In my experience, the less there is to look at, the more likely everyone will look at the camera.  The more moms, dads, cousins, grandparents, etc. there are that try to make everyone laugh and look, ends up making the whole experience more chaotic, stressful, louder, and less-successful.  Plus, I've been known to step right on top of my "helpers" toes as I move around to get the shot.  I make no apologies for that. :) 

And I'm TOTALLY making myself one of these Elmo-like camera buddies to stick into my camera bag to help me out the next time I attempt that Steed cousins photo!


No Fail Artistry

When all else fails...turn everyone around!  No one will know what they were looking at, if they were smiling, and you'll get a sweet shot like this:

or this:

I hope this helps give you a few tips and tricks to try the next time you're asked to take (or choose to attempt) a large family portrait.  Happy shooting!


21 comments so far:

Kasandra Mathieson said:

Thanks a bunch for this post Andrea!! Loved your ideas and am hoping to use some!!!

Nick said:


Very nice tips and helpful, as a wedding photographer that's one of the hadest thing to learn. Posing groups of people can be tricky if you don't know what you are doing.


Jeanne said:

What a lovely, generous thing for you to share! Thank you for the time and effort you put into these tips. I will be using them in my next shoot!

Anonymous said:

thank you for the tips. the pictures all look great!

SometimesKaren said:

Love your tips!

Here is one of mine worth sharing: I think the hardest thing about photographing kids is to get a natural smile. I overcome that by posing the kids first, and then asking them to scream as loud as they can for 3 seconds. They inevitably collapse into giggles straight afterwards and that's when I snap the shot(s).

Another trick is to pose them and then say something scandalously funny and photograph their surprised delight. This tactic may or may not please the grandparents though :)

Maggie - wedding photographers lubbock said:

How I love your final tip! Genius! :) I hope you won't mind if I "steal" this idea soon ... :)

One more thing I like to do when taking group shots is to instill some fun into the shoot. One trick I like is to instruct the group to stay on one side. Then, I ak them to run towards the direction of wherever I aim my camera at. The results are extremely interesting, varying and amazing! Try it! :)

Kristina said:

This was so very helpful! I want to get a large family picture before my parents move! I LOVE the ones from behind and loved the one sitting down even more! :)

Thanks for sharing!

Heather said:

Andrea, this is a FABULOUS tutorial!! I absorbed every word and am going to go back over it again. Thank you for taking the time to share all of these details, tips and tricks with us at Inspiration Friday!


somedaycrafts said:

CONGRADS! This was the most viewed link at last week's Whatever Goes Wednesday party at somedaycrafts.blogspot.com. I am highlighting it today. Grab my "featured" button. Awesome tips. We might be doing extended family pictures at my baby's baby blessing in a month or so. I better read these and follow the tips.

Ginger Snaps said:

Great post! :) Following you from Someday Crafts. Would love to have you link this up at my {wow me} wednesday link up party going on right now. :)


Jacqueline said:

Thanks a lot! I came over from Tatertots and Jello, and I'm pinning these ideas!

Shelley said:

What great tips! And, how incredibly nice of you to take the time to share them with us! I must say, my favs were the last two pictures of everyone's backs facing the camera. So unique and absolutely gorgeous :D

kimberly said:

Great tips, thanks!

Tina Hendrickson said:

Thank you for all of your photographry tips! I've been a Creative Memories consultant for 14 years & photography is one of my hobbies. I appreciate you taking the time to explain each of the photo tips in details. www.mycmsite.com/tinahendrickson Blessings

Donna said:

Thank you so much for these tips! It came at a perfect time for me. I am shooting a large family this afternoon and it will be my first time with a group of twenty. I have the same camera gear as you and I am also a hobbyist. I am shooting photos for a friend. Your shots are wonderful. Love them!

Jenny said:

These are great tips! I'm bookmarking this to check out again before the next holiday or get together.
I love the picture of the kids in the grass. Priceless.
{Visiting from 504 Main.}

Rosa @ Capture the Little Things said:

Thanks for the great tips! My uncle's family of 10 married children is planning on getting together in December and have passively mentioned having me take a family shot {very large - approx. 45}! Yikes!! I haven't agreed to take the challenge, but will keep your post for a reference. :)

ShannonSews said:

Lovely photography!! Thank you for the great tips. I'm sure a lot of families will be getting together this summer and your tips will help to get great photos!

Pollyanna said:

Thanks for the great tutorial. Great ideas!!

btanders said:

Thanks for the tips. I LOVE taking pictures of my kiddos. I am by no means a professional, but I like to mess around. You can get a sneak peak at http://btanders.blogspot.com/2011/06/pictures-of-big-e.html. Thanks for the tips. I will take them into account next time I try to take pics of my 3 kids!

Greta said:

Great tips! Thanks!

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