Taking Better Family Photos
There are very few of us who look back a our family albums and wish we had taken less pictures over the years. Sometimes we take good pictures, sometimes average, but taking better family photos is in reach of everybody.
You don’t need the most expensive equipment to get nice pictures. This article aims to explain how you can choose the right camera for you and why using the most expensive professional equipment can actually stop you from getting good family pictures. To highlight my point I’ll post some images from my own family albums using both budget and top of the range cameras and lenses to show you that taking better family photos isn’t always about having the ‘best’ gear.
What Camera for Better Family Photos?
You’ve probably read lots of articles talking about the different camera systems available, compacts, advanced compacts, compact camera, Digital SLR (DSLR). Its a long and confusing list.
It really comes down to just 1 consideration and that’s what I call the weight/control/performance ratio. Cost, is less of a factor than you may think and I’ll justify that later.
For me the best camera for taking family photos is the one you will carry with you. It doesn’t matter how amazing it is if you leave it at home because its either too heavy to take on a walk or too expensive to take to the beach. When you don’t have it with you it has no value.
For my professional work I have some very nice, very expensive full frame cameras and lenses. With a body, lens and flash a camera rig can easily come to £3k. Great, but that’s too expensive to take to the beach, what if it gets damaged? It’s also a lot of weight to carry around and that can really spoil a family day out.
On the other hand for me a digital compact just doesn’t give me the control or quality I’m looking for. Everybody has their own point on the scale. For me the compromise area is a budget DSLR. Full control, great image quality but not too heavy or expensive.
The one I’m currently using, a Nikon D3200 I picked up for about £270 with a lens because a new model had just been released. At that price if it gets damaged its annoying, but not the end of the world or a reason to leave it at home. Image quality is amazing, in fact, I only don’t use it for my weddings because it doesn’t ‘look’ professional. Image wise it’s easily good enough and miles better than earlier ‘professional’ DSLR’s I paid nearly £2k for.
Taking better family photos on the cheap
I am aware £270 is money some people just don’t have available to spend on taking better family photos. The good news is you dont have to spend that much.
(DSLR) camera bodies do not hold their value as everybody always wants the latest model and they can be picked up on Ebay very cheaply. You can pick up something like a Fujifilm S3 Pro, a professional camera I paid £1,600 in 2005 for £70. Another good example something like a Nikon D2x. In 2005 this was Nikon’s top camera with a street price of £3,500 which I’ve seen going on Ebay as low as £96, although around £120-£140 is more typical.
With these older cameras the sensors cannot pick up quite as big a shadow to highlight range or operate in as low light as a modern camera as sensors have evolved. Howver they were good enough for the very top professionals and in the case of the D2x was only replaced 7 years ago. Additionally what you get at that low price that you can’t get with a modern camera unless you have very deep pockets is the professional build quality, weather sealing, autofocus and dual memory slots in some cases.
You can add a cheap prime lens such as the Nikon 50mm F1.8 D for around £60 on Ebay and you will have equipment of capable of taking incredible images. Also, if you do spend £180 to£200 on a D2x and 50mm prime lens and decide it’s not for you, you can sell it after a year or so use and probably more less get your money back!
If you are still undecided about which camera system to go for in order to take better family photos consider the lens. A DSLR isn’t just a camera, it’s a system of camera, lens and accessories. Your lens choice has a huge impact on your images. This reason alone is enough to keep me away from digital compacts and bridge type cameras, the lenses are just not good enough for me. Again for personal use my focus is on light, inexpensive but good image quality. I currently love the little Nikon 18-55mm VR II kit lens as a walk around lens. Its tiny, weighs next to nothing and is capable of producing an image that passes professional image library standards. Its not fastest, sharpest or clearest, but it costs around £70 as a kit lens and it is good enough.
If I want to be a bit more artistic and go for shallow depth of field and utter quality my firm favourite is the Nikon 35mm 1.8g lens. This is a real beauty of a lens. The image quality is incredible and combined with the D3200 you can produce images of far better sharpness and clarity than you get from cameras and lenses costing thousands of pounds more. It weighs next to nothing and costs around £130 online.
For truly better family photos, this is the most important element regardless of what camera or equipment you have access to. Composition is how you place the various elements within an image.
At its simplest when I am composing a photograph I am aware of the following two things. These can be applied in all photographs from the simplest snapshot at the park.
What is the feature of the image? Why am I taking a picture? This will help determine the ‘crop’ or put in other terms, of all the things I can see in front of me, what am I going to leave in and what am I going to take out. This is accomplished by either zooming in or out, or walking nearer or further away if using a fixed lens like the Nikon 35mm F1.8g.
What is going to be in the background? I am looking for a non distracting background Subject
Where the image is going to sit in the frame (I prefer horizontally centre, with the subject slightly lower in the frame so there is more headroom than foot room if its a people photograph.
In the photograph above I wanted to show a lot of the sea to emphasise my wife and daughter standing together against a big wide world. Note how they are horizontally centre, but vertically off centre with additional ‘head room’. This was shot with the Nikon D3200 and kit 18-55m VR II lens (£270 in total). Perfect to take on the beach and not be worried.
When you have time available and the ability to control what is happening around you I also look at the following elements
Where is my light coming from? Can I improve it by moving my subject near a window to give a nice directional light or if outside, can I use buildings to detract light, creating directional light by stopping it bouncing back off my subject.
If its too bright can I use shade to reduce contrast and stop my family squinting, if not, how about moving my family so the sun is behind them to avoid squinting and give a nice light halo affect behind them?
Third Dimensional Plane:
Most scenes can be split into foreground, middle ground and background. You can choose to place your family in any. A classic portrait technique is to place your family in the foreground and have the middle ground and background blurred out. This is fine, but you can also create some interesting photos by placing your family in the middle or even background.
Note in the picture below, my son is in the near background, but only he is in focus owing to a fairly shallow depth of field. This was captured with a cheap Nikon D3200, Nikons lowest budget DSLR and the incredible Nikon 35mm F1.8G lens.
Depth of Field:
Another thing to consider is how much of the foreground, middle ground and background you want to be in focus. This range from nearest point of focus to the furthest point of focus where everything in the middle is still sharp is called the depth of field. (DOF).
A shallow depth of field can help isolate your family on the third dimensional plane making them ‘pop’ or stand out as everything else blurs out.
Three factors determine how shallow the depth of field is:
- Focal Length of your lens. – The higher the ‘zoom’ the shallower the DOF.
- How close you are to the subject. – The closer you are the shallower the DOF
- Aperture – The lower the F-stop number (bigger the whole or ‘apeture’) the shallower the DOF.
The Important news here for the person just wanting to take better family photos is you dont need an expensive ‘fast’ lens capable of very large apertures to blur out the background, you have two other methods at your disposal, use the telephoto end of your lens and zoom in as much as possible and get close to your subject.
I am of the opinion that over posing is bad. If your family feel uncomfortable, they will look uncomfortable. Keep it natural. That said there are a few tweaks that make a huge difference to help you take better family photos. There are whole books dedicated to the subject of posing, in my opinion for family photos keep it simple.
Single Family Members
- Avoid having them square on to the camera, have them turn three quarters towards facing the camera.
- If you can get higher than adults and shoot down, or have them otherwise looking up (perhaps on same level but lying down facing you) it will eliminate double chins and be more flattering.
- Females often look best if we can build an ‘S’ shape into their pose, for example by placing their weight over one hip.
- Avoid standing in a straight line, square on to the camera.
- Turn everybody’s body into the centre of the group, that way it looks like you are ‘together’.
- If you can get people at different heights using physical differences in size or what is around you it can add interest.
- Bring everybody in close, there should be no gaps. A physical connection implies togetherness in the image.
- Try getting down at their level so the background isn’t the floor.
- Let them do their thing, they will lose patience and get bored quickly so take natural photos.
- Work quickly and make it fun. Don’t say cheese and never, ever get your children in the habit of seeing the back of your camera after every shot, it really breaks the flow!
Note how my wife and daughter are holding hands and bodies turned in towards each other, looking back over the shoulder rather than towards the camera which is more normal makes an interesting change. This was shot with an 8 year year old DLSR and a £150 Sigma telephoto lens.
To take better family photos, wait until the mood is right. Don’t push a bad situation. If the kids are upset or people are getting stressed it isn’t going to work, just try again later. The more natural and happy you all feel, the more natural and happy you will look. Simples!