“Give me all the extended family photo sessions!” said no photographer ever.
Let’s face it, photographing large groups can be a struggle. Not because we don’t absolutely love our clients and their great big families, but because there are so many variables to complicate an already complex process. With large group photos, we need to find a location that works, calculate depth of field, make sure everyone’s wardrobe coordinates, pose and place everyone with family dynamics and relationships in mind… not to mention getting everyone in-focus and smiling at the same time. It’s a lot.
But don’t stress! I’ve been photographing extended families for years and would love to share my tips with you. Here’s how to nail those large group photos every time!
p.s. There’s a video tutorial at the end of this post!
1. Prepare your clients and manage their expectations.
Part of the reason extended family sessions can be so overwhelming is that there are often multiple families with different expectations and ideas. If each family doesn’t have an opportunity to communicate their wants and needs to you ahead of time, you’ll have people asking, “Can we get this shot real quick?” This leads to missed shots and a feeling of chaos on the day of the session. The best way to make everyone feel included and heard is with a pre-session questionnaire and a client-made shot list.
The pre-session questionnaire:
Before the session, I send my clients a questionnaire to help them understand and communicate what they want. I ask that the mom of each individual family, as well as my main contact, fills out the questionnaire.
If I see from the responses that someone is expecting a full-on family session with variety and individual shots, it might be time for me to make a friendly phone call and explain the time constraints and goals for an extended family photo session. During the call, I also share my packages for regular family photo sessions. It’s important to manage expectations in a confident way, while still being sensitive to the client’s wishes.
Client shot lists:
Once I’ve collected the questionnaires and managed expectations, I ask the point person — typically the one who contacted me about the session — to get with everyone and create a “priority” shot list and an “if we have time” shot list. The priority list should be no more than 15 photos in priority order. I have yet to have a client with more than 15 shots that they definitely wanted to capture. The “if we have time” list is shots they want if everything runs smoothly and time permits. Creating these photo lists helps the client really understand how the session is going to flow and takes away worry about not getting what they want.
Always under promise and over deliver. Guarantee enough photos and variety to make the client happy, knowing you can still deliver more. Nothing makes my clients happier than getting to choose from photos they weren’t expecting.
2. Create a master shot list.
Once I’ve collected the shot lists from my clients, I create my own master shot list to keep on my Apple Watch. This way, it is super easy to check off shots as we walk to new locations. Here is a sample shot list for extended families:
- Group shot
- Grandparents and grandkids
- Individual of Sarah’s family
- Individual of John’s family
- Individual of Seth’s family
- Grandma with granddaughters
- Grandpa with grandsons
- Individual of grandkids
- Parents with kids individually
Ask ahead of time if there are any special bonds between family members. For example, grandma and oldest granddaughter, grandpa and only grandson, etc. Knowing this ahead of time can help you capture those in-between moments or, if time permits, put together a special shot for them.
3. Choose a location that works for large groups.
Locations for extended family photos should be minimally busy and should have room to put distance between the family and the background in a spot with open shade. A peaceful, more remote location ensures that there is no added stress of unexpected interruptions and distractions. You will typically need a narrower aperture, so putting distance between your subjects and backdrop can help isolate the family from the background and still allow for some bokeh. It’s also good to keep in mind natural and man-made structures that will be large enough to beautifully frame a large family.
4. Work quickly and efficiently.
The most important family photography skill I’ve acquired is knowing when to move on. Early in my career I was afraid that admitting something wasn’t working would communicate failure, but it actually does the opposite: It communicates efficiency and expertise. So, instead of burning up daylight on something that’s just not happening, I quickly switch gears and move on. This keeps kids — and dads — from getting irritable.
If a child is just not having it and you’ve tried a few of the tricks up your sleeve, then let them move! When this happens, tensions start running high and everyone responsible for the child becomes stressed. I like to say, “Let’s put a pin in this, mom; he needs to explore! I’ve got other shots I can get while he’s getting the lay of the land!” Then grab an individual family and begin with their photos. Whatever you say, communicate to the parents that it’s OK, all kids are like that. Even if it’s not true, this is exactly what they need to hear to relax. And if mama isn’t relaxed, nobody is!
My approach to the shoot as a whole is to keep ticking off those “priority” shots, while looking for those in-between moments when switching gears and locations. I’ve found that candid moments often happen organically, or sometimes clients will stumble into a beautifully framed shot while we’re moving to other locations. ALWAYS be looking for that shot! Time is valuable when shooting a larger family session.
It’s so important to get all the priority shots that include kids outs out of the way first (if possible). You never know how long kids will be willing and able to work with you. Tackle a group shot first thing.
5. Calculate your depth of field.
With extended family photo sessions, it is imperative that you understand the capabilities of your camera and lenses in order to achieve sharp focus on your subjects. This includes understanding depth of field for your camera and lens at different apertures and focal lengths so that you can calculate your settings for various sized groups.
For example, I know that with my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, I can get everyone in a line in focus at about 30ft away if I’m using a focal length of 200mm with an aperture of f/4. With those settings, my focal plane is about 1.5 feet deep, so I know I’ll need to narrow my aperture or adjust my subjects if they are outside of that depth.
Understanding depth of field and knowing the capabilities and settings for your equipment will help you pose your large groups so that everyone is in focus.
I always keep my shutter speed over 1/250 for photos of kids and generally use an aperture of f/4 for large groups posed in a line.
DO THE MATH
If you want to take the guesswork out of setting your aperture to get everyone in focus, you can do the math yourself or use a depth of field calculator. I would recommend figuring out these calculations ahead of time and not at your shoot. Practice at home to test the settings and focal lengths for your shoot and make notes to reference during your session, if needed.
6. Nail the group shot (a video tutorial).
The large group photo is the crown jewel of the session and likely the main reason this extended family hired you. You’ve gotta nail it! In this video tutorial, I’ll walk through everything you need to know to get that perfect large-group photo for your extended family photo sessions.
Here’s a time-stamped guide for your convenience:
- Finding the spot (:24)
- Setting up the group shot (1:17)
- Posing the group (3:26)
- Shooting for the edit… when kids don’t look or smile (7:37)
What to wear for extended family photo sessions
In order to keep things looking cohesive and put together, it’s important for clients to consider their wardrobe as a large group. Here’s what I advise my extended family clients to do when choosing outfits:
- As a whole family choose 2-3 coordinating colors (no more than two colors and a neutral). Good examples include blue, coral and white or mustard, purple and grey. The colors don’t need to be the same shade. Do what works for skin tones and hair for each person.
- Next, I ask each individual family to coordinate separately. Start with mom and have her choose something she loves and feels good in, then trickle down from hardest to easiest to dress. Dress each person for their personality and taste. Everyone should feel confident and comfortable.
- Dress to the shoes. This includes socks, as they will likely show at some point. And your shoes will definitely be in the photo.
- Please make sure not to go too matchy. This can sometimes work for small children, but never for adults. Please no khaki pants and matching colored shirts unless you want it to look like a store employee photo.
Photos and video by Jen Sebring.