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Making the Most of the Family Portrait Session for Your Clients

May 03, 2017

Liza Gershman

Lifestyle photography differs from traditional portrait photography in that it focuses on candid moments, or moments that appear to be candid, rather than traditional posed portraiture in which the subject is looking directly at the camera in a static pose. Lifestyle photography is often seen in advertising and editorial imagery to convey a mood, feeling, and experience. The goal is to capture real, genuine moments, and photograph these moments in a thoughtful way with attention to backgrounds, colors, lighting, and even wardrobe.  A major distinction between lifestyle imagery and candid imagery is that candid imagery captures what is preexisting. It is a moment that happens organically, something that is unplanned.  Lifestyle photography allows for candid moments, but within the structure of a planned scene.

Documentary vs. Lifestyle

Documentary photography is meant to chronicle what currently exists. Lifestyle photography captures real emotions within a carefully art-directed scene.

When you look at an advertisement or an editorial shoot that uses lifestyle photography you are seeing an image that has been carefully constructed down to the last detail. Typically a team of stylists, art directors, creative directors and more have spent days, weeks, or even months conceptualizing an idea and bringing that to fruition. Similarly, in lifestyle photography details are something that you want to plan in advance and discuss with your clients.

Every detail in an image helps to tell a story, and making those details purposeful rather than leaving them to chance is the best way to ensure that you are telling the story you want, rather than letting the scene tell the story for you.

Think about backgrounds, colors, lighting, wardrobe, and setting. Every aspect of an image signifies something specific and in lifestyle photography you control those aspects to tell a well thought-out story. As the adage goes…a picture tells a thousand words. So, make those words purposeful rather than leaving them to chance.

You can coordinate colors without being too matchy matchy. You can avoid clashing prints. Look and see the body shape of your subjects and be sure that clothing fits and is flattering to their shapes. Covering arms often looks more flattering on a subject as the camera truly does add visual pounds.  If you are photographing the family in spring then pay attention to clothing items that signify this time of year and use them rather than something that could be worn in a different season. Try using light sweaters, soft textures, umbrellas and rain boots. Clothing can play such a valuable role in a lifestyle shoot.  It is more than "just something to wear.” Clothing tells a larger story, and helps to convey a season, a style, and a story. If you need help with this, look to magazines for ideas.  Advertisements in particular have been created to convey a larger story in just one image.

Hair and makeup can truly enhance or detract from a portrait as well.  A bit of extra makeup can help eyes and cheeks to pop. Suggest that your subjects have freshly cut hair and simple makeup on for the shoot.

Look for clean simple backgrounds so your subjects are the focus of the image. If the background is cluttered and that's not an essential aspect of the family 'story,' then be sure that you clear the area a bit.  Remember that the less distracting a background is, the more attention your subjects will have in a given image. If you are in a studio you might use an all white background for a traditional portrait. In lifestyle photography though, you are setting a scene and the scene is as significant as the subjects of the image. Although the scene is essential to conveying meaning, you want to minimize distractions and keep your subjects the focus of the shoot. You can use a shallow depth of field to help with this. Use Aperture Priority mode (Av on your mode dial) for some of your photographs and notice the difference that a shallow depth of field (f/1.4-f/4) makes when photographing your subjects.  Notice how the background focus softens and your subjects pop. Experiment with using different depths and see which you prefer.  Some clients won’t like the look of a depth of field that's too shallow, so show your clients or family an example and be sure that they like this before you continue for an entire shoot. You can use f/5.6 to be safe, for a slight background blur if your subjects really like the details in focus.

Before you begin a lifestyle family shoot it is important to sit down with your subjects and understand what sort of story they are hoping to have you tell.  Is this a family that wants to capture a moment in time in their current life? Are they telling the story of an upcoming baby arrival, or a move into a new house? What story are you expressing through your imagery? Be sure that you establish this focus prior to the shoot so that everyone can prepare.

Goals of a lifestyle family shoot

- Capturing real, genuine moments
- Everyday details that make up your subject’s lives
- Telling a story

What’s happening in your subject’s life now? Showcase those details to create the story. Does your subject have braces? Are they living with messy bedrooms? What is the state of the laundry, who is cooking, where is the family pet? All of these details are a part of capturing a moment in time in a family’s life. Sit down with your subjects and ask them what they really want to convey with this shoot. Not everyone will want you to photograph a messy kitchen, but if this is how the family really lives, then see if you can get at least one image that showcases a bit more of their real life. Remind your subjects that you are creating imagery to help them tell a story of a moment in time, and in this moment a messy kitchen tells the story of their life.

You want to capture:

- Real moments
- Genuine expressions
- Not fake smiles

Spend a few hours, a day, or a few weeks documenting your subjects. Many people freeze up in front of a camera and act incredibly unnatural. Give your subjects the time they need to relax.

Aim to have candid moments within your controlled scene. Do this by helping your subjects feel relaxed. Suggest they play their favorite music, talk, be silly, and play.  Spend enough time photographing them that they can begin to forget that a camera is focused on them. Often the first half hour to hour of a shoot is truly just about getting your subject to relax in front of the camera, and to stop focusing that a photographer is there.

Have your subjects engage in an activity like playing a board game, reading, fishing, or cooking. This gives them something to focus on rather than the fact that they are having a photo taken.

Look for quirky moments. Lifestyle photography aims not only to tell a carefully art directed story, but it also aims to capture very real moments.  You do not need to always have your subjects smiling, looking at the camera, or even facing you in order to express their lives.  Find the quirks and capture them, because those will be the images that your clients really love.

Be camera ready!!

The most important thing you can do as the photographer is to have your camera at your side out of the bag, lens cap off, lens clean, your batteries charged, a memory card with ample space, and the power turned on.  If you aren't camera-ready, then nothing else matters!

Being camera-ready isn't simply about your gear.  Often the best shots happen the moment before or after what you might think of as "the shot.” When you have your camera available, turned on and ready to go, you can continue to photograph those candid moments that can often become the best images of any shoot.

A variety of lenses is the best when photographing any group of people. You will want to use a lens that allows you to see the entire scene for at least a portion of your images (a wide angle),  a lens that allows you to get close up details on hands (Macro), smiles, eyes, and also a lens that allows you to photograph a "normal" perspective.  You can accomplish this while using zoom lenses, or with prime lenses. Depending on whether your camera has a crop sensor or a full-frame sensor, your lens length will be different. If you use a full-frame camera then a 50mm lens gives a similar look to an 80mm lens on a crop-frame sensor, for example.

Anticipate moments. Just like in sports photography it is essential to anticipate movement and moments. You know that after a joke is told people either roll their eyes or this! Keep shooting. Some of the best moments happen the seconds after the “moment” you thought you were getting on camera.

Perspective is an important aspect to any photograph. When you are working with a family to tell a story try different angles, heights, and camera positions. Shoot low, shoot high.

Be a voyeur and look through doors with your lens, through plants, etc. The more variety you use, the more interesting and dynamic your images will be.  Try photographing from the viewpoint of the tallest family member. Then capture some images from the viewpoint of the smallest family member. Shoot from the subject’s perspective, over shoulders, from behind, from the height of a child. Shoot from the perspective of the family dog.

Seek out great natural light. Walk around the space before you begin to photograph and find windows, doors that you can open, skylights, etc. You can add light by using a flash or strobes, but that will be more intimidating to your subjects and they may not act as naturally as they would with less intrusive natural light. Remember that being the subject of photography isn’t always a favorite and takes a while for many people to ease into.

Give loads of time for the family to get to know you and be comfortable with you having a lens on them. Spend an hour at the beginning of the session asking questions about things the family likes to do. What do they do on their own? Together? Favorite spaces in the house? Favorite toys?

Does this family have pets? Include them! For most people a pet is as much a part of a family as any other member. Get on their level for a few shots, let them run wild in front of the camera, have children dress them in clothing and bows.  Have fun with this!

Expressions are what drive portrait imagery, so pay attention to this!  Get in close to faces, eyes, smiles, even tears. Not all photos need smiles. It is valuable to capture the full range of your subject’s emotions.  This is about truth and capturing a moment in time for a family. So let your subjects be as they are and be the eye that sees them. Remember that you are photographing a range, and while it is valuable to capture the happy moments of a family, it can be very touching to capture all of the true experiences and expressions that make up a full life. Imperfect is perfect, and imperfections are what set us apart.

Post Production Ideas

Try turning the photographs into Black and White. Play with saturation and desaturation. How will the photographs be used? Will they be enlarged and hung on a wall? Look to your subject’s home for inspiration on this. Perhaps they want to create a frame wall from the shoot, or a coffee table book to display.

With these tips you can easily transform a standard family photo session into a truly memorable, authentic story of who they are at a specific moment in time, and those powerful images are something that can be cherished forever.

Liza Gershman
Liza Gershman

Liza Gershman is an award-winning photographer, Bay Area native, and seasoned world-traveler. Passionate about food, people, and culture, Liza has had the opportunity to photograph in more than 37 countries and 46 U.S. states during her career.

Liza Gershman

Liza Gershman is an award-winning photographer, Bay Area native, and seasoned world-traveler. Passionate about food, people, and culture, Liza has had the opportunity to photograph in more than 37 countries and 46 U.S. states during her career.

Photographing for a wide and varied range of clients has allowed Liza to refine her ability to tell strong visual stories that support both the vision of a creative director and brand integrity. In 2014, she worked as the Senior Digital Photographer for Williams-Sonoma where she helped to define the new look of their eCommerce site, and has also photographed for clients including Restoration Hardware, Party City, Safeway, and Hyatt Hotels, among others. Liza is a Getty Image Contributor, and has photographed eight cocktail and food cookbooks for numerous publishers in the US, including Random House.

In 2010, Liza was Governor Jerry Brown's campaign photographer, and in 2014 was the lead photographer for the RedBull Youth America's Cup Team NZ2. Many of her additional clients have included celebrity chefs, wineries, beverage brands, restaurants and more.

Liza's passion for storytelling extends beyond her photography into writing, with many published essays in top magazine and newspapers.

Liza is honored to contribute to Canon USA.

Published books include:

  • The Good Cook's Book of Tomatoes (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • The Good Cook's Book of Mustard (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • The Good Cook's Book of Oil & Vinegar (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • The Good Cook's Book of Salt & Pepper (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • The Good Cook's Journal (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • More Than Meatballs (SkyHorse Publishing). 2014
  • Be Fabulous At Any Age (Lions Gate Corporation). 2013
  • San Francisco Entertains; The Junior League of San Francisco’s Centennial Cookbook (Favorite Recipes Press). 2011
  • A Taste for Absinthe (Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House). 2010

Liza's Publications include:,, Outside Magazine, Huffington Post, Wine Spectator, NBC Bay Area, Chicago Sun Times, C Magazine, Daily Candy, SF Gate, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle PI, Tasting Panel Magazine, Food &, Marin Magazine, 7x7, Fairfield County Look, Eater SF, Destination I Do Magazine, Grace Ormonde Wedding Style, Bloomspot, Beer Connoisseur, Wine X Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Table Hopper, Nightclub & Bar, Gig Salad, Tasting Table, MindFood (Australia and New Zealand), VSCO, and Food Arts Magazine to name a few.

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