Family Photography: How to Create Authentic Family Poses

One piece of living room decor has survived past the cross-stitched phrases, floral couches, and shag carpet: the family photograph. But just like those turtlenecks and coke-bottle glasses that you wore in those family photos growing up, stiff poses have gone out of style. In their place? Family poses that might not be quite so textbook perfect, but capture the essence of family with genuine expressions.

That’s a great idea, but most family sessions usually start with the family awkwardly standing in front of the camera and at least one family member asking, “Um, what do I do with my hands?” By mixing authentic expressions with a less strict variation on traditional posing, photographers can create authentic family poses that capture the group’s unique dynamic. Here’s how.

Tips for authentic family posing
credit: Hillary Grigonis

Use playful posing.

The biggest challenge in family posing often comes from the fact that families include multiple age groups. Newborns present different posing challenges from toddlers, toddlers from preschoolers, preschoolers from kids and kids from teenagers. The key to getting a successful shot with authentic expressions from every member of the family is to make pictures fun.

Learn how to take great portraits of the entire family! Mike Hagen will teach you everything you need to know to use flash for family photos. Learn more.

Family photos with Mike Hagen

Instead of asking everyone to look at the camera and smile (when, chances are, you have a toddler, baby, or dog that’s not willing to or able to follow the directions), ask instead for an interaction. Setting up an action poses often works well with families, such as asking everyone to hold hands and walk, creating a giant group hug, or starting a tickle fight. Every family member doesn’t have to be doing the same action either. Ask dad to playfully toss the baby into the air while mom gives the toddler a piggyback ride.

Interaction doesn’t always have to be in the physical sense — asking members of the family to tell a secret or share one thing they like about each member of the family can work too. Having a contest to see who can not smile for the longest somehow always ends in laughter. Another option is to tell jokes from behind the camera. Exactly which method you use will depend on a number of factors, starting with the ages (and personalities) of everyone in the family but also factoring in your own personality and photographic style.

Using playful posing doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t direct individual members of the family into better poses, but it does mean you prioritize great expressions over textbook perfect poses, particularly when working with families with young children.

Create a connection.

Body language is key to posing, and literal distance between family members creates a feeling of metaphorical distance. Creating some form of contact between members of the family creates a more cohesive feeling. Connections come in many forms, from an arm around the shoulders to holding hands, from a hand on the shoulder, to a toddler head resting against an adult chest. Often, that playful posing will naturally create that physical connection, but when it doesn’t, ask for the connection first, then try that playful pose again.

Think levels (and triangles).

With different ages comes a wide variety of heights. While having everyone standing and holding hands is fine for a shot or two, in order to get a variety of poses, put the family on different levels, so the faces aren’t all in a symmetrical row. Arranging family members at multiple heights helps get more faces into the shot.

Learn how to take great portraits of the entire family! Mike Hagen will teach you everything you need to know to use flash for family photos. Learn more.

Family photos with Mike Hagen

The potential pitfall of putting everyone on different levels is creating too much distance and losing that connection, like a one-year-old standing next to a six-foot-tall adult. The solution? Try creating triangles. Adjust family heights by mixing up standing, kneeling and seated positions and create a general arrangement where the tallest pose (not necessarily the tallest family member) is towards the middle.

Remember, with families with small kids, getting a great expression is more important than a textbook triangle pose, but if you are able to set up a base pose before telling that joke or asking for that interaction, creating levels will help create poses with flow.

Tips for authentic family posing.
credit: Hillary Grigonis

Vary the individual poses.

Photographing a family isn’t the same as shooting a sports team — a great pose will draw the eye through the entire image, not straight across a perfect row and out the other side. Symmetrical poses don’t invite the eye to explore the entire image, but an unsymmetrical pose will. The easiest way to create a pose that’s not symmetrical is to have each individual pose in a way that is different from the others. Adjusting the height, stance, or seated position will all help create a pose that draws the eye through to every member of the family.

Embrace props.

Props can make getting that playful pose, creating connections, and arranging family members on different levels all a bit easier. Props don’t need to be elaborate, but simple items can help create more authentic family poses. A picnic blanket can open up possibilities for poses laying down or create an interaction while a small family snuggles up underneath. Stools and crates can help get family members on different levels, while wagons can help keep active toddlers in one place. Holding an item like a chalkboard sign or holiday-themed prop can help create interactions or give fidgety hands something to do.

Props aren’t always something you bring with you to the shoot either — tossing leaves up in the air on that fall shoot, arranging a pose on those steps, or using those swings at the park can all create authentic family poses too.

Mixing family posing with genuine interactions creates images that capture the family’s unique dynamic — while simultaneously easing the challenge of getting so many eyes on the camera at once.

Learn how to take great portraits of the entire family! Mike Hagen will teach you everything you need to know to use flash for family photos. Learn more.

Family photos with Mike Hagen

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Hillary K. Grigonis is a web content writer and lifestyle photographer from Michigan. After working as a photojournalist for several years, she made the leap and started her own business and now enjoys sharing tips and tricks with emerging photographers.