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7 Steps to Perfect Portraits {Tutorial}

Up until a few years ago, I was a sucker for school portraits. I’d buy the big package to make sure every family member got their pick of 3x5s and wallets. At $45 a pop times 2 girls, I felt the sting in my pocketbook just a bit, but that’s just what good parents do, right? Well then I remarried and our extended family grew some. And then came baby #3 and grew our family even more! Suddenly the “sting” felt more like a gut punch.

One year, my middle kid brought home school pics with a booger hanging out of her nose and a Hello Kitty temporary tattoo on her bicep. Not to be outdone, the oldest kid was wearing a bleach-stained Dr. Pepper logo tee and ripped up jeans in her pictures…that was the day I decided I was done with school pictures.

We did the Target route for a few years (still cheaper than school! And CUTE!) until last fall my husband surprised me for our anniversary, with carte blanche to choose a fancy new camera. I decided I was going to get the hang of this photography thing and I’d never have to pay a portrait studio again.

Lucky for me, my own dad is an award-winning still and video photog. Talk about learning from a master of the craft. He remains my go-to editing guru and biggest inspiration. I’m still learning, but I wanted to pass along some tips for you to do your own family photo shoot, no matter if you’ve got a point-and-shoot or a big honkin’ DSLR.

all images copyright Emily Jones 2013

all images copyright Emily Jones 2013

1. Timing is EVERYTHING

Choose a time of day when your brood is well-fed, well-rested, and not likely to have meltdowns. In case you’re thinking “oh we’re out of the toddler years. I can ignore this advice”, then you’ve never suffered a teenage tantrum from a child who fancies herself the next Annie Liebowitz and just KNOWS she can take better pictures than you.

2. Let There Be Light

I’m a big fan of natural light. In fact I almost exclusively shoot in natural light, whether it’s outdoors or near a large window with sunlight streaming in. Overcast days are best, because bright sunlight causes washed-out spots and dark shadows.  You especially want to avoid the middle of the day when the sun is right overhead-hello, raccoon eyes! Watch the forecast and plan accordingly. If you’ve got an extra adult to help you, invest in a reflector to bounce sunlight into shadowy areas. It will open up new possibilities where the lighting situation is less than ideal. You really shouldn’t need your flash at all. Built-in flashes are harsh, unnatural, and too small to effectively fill a large area. If it seems as though your photos are too dark or too light, adjust the exposure setting up or down slightly. You can also adjust exposure levels somewhat during editing.

3. What to Wear

Avoid matchy-matchy and think “coordinating”. Think about where your photos are going to be displayed in your home, and use your decor palette as inspiration. If you’re really stuck, check out Pinterest for color guides. Some rules of thumb with clothing: Go with your own natural styles to avoid looking forced or stuffy. If your 6 year old hates collared shirts, forcing him into a polo will only make him miserable, and his discontent will be very obvious in the pictures. I speak from experience. Also, avoid anything super trendy, and bold patterns. Subtle florals, plaids, and even stripes can work beautifully provided they are in muted colors and not too contrast-y.

4. Location, Location, Location

Choose a place with lots of options for backgrounds. One of our favorite places to shoot is outdoors around our local mall. There are plenty of benches, brick and stone walls and walkways, cute storefronts, and even a few water features. This allows us a lot of flexibility. We also like nature trail areas. Depending on the lighting, trees can provide shade and filter harsh sunlight, and walking along the trail with a photographer’s eye will reveal endless opportunities.

5. Strike a Pose

Decide on some basic posing ideas beforehand, using Pinterest, photography books or websites, and even past family photos as inspiration. Stick with tried and true until you gain more experience and confidence. You don’t want to be reinventing the wheel as you’re trying to shoot. Once you’ve gotten the hang of the lighting, the available backgrounds, and everyone’s moods, feel free to get creative with fun and clever poses.

Full frontal poses are not flattering to anyone-they tend to look like mug shots! Tilt chins up, shoulders back, and turn slightly to one side to avoid neck wrinkles/double chins, and have the subjects close their eyes and open again just before taking the photo if squinting is a problem.

Invest in a lightweight tripod so that you can set your timer function and get yourself in the picture! Or, borrow another adult to assist you.

Don’t be afraid to take hundreds of pictures. Snap each pose several times because you never know whose eyes are closed, who is scratching their nose, or how the lighting might shift from one moment to the next. You’ll want to have ample shots to choose from for the next step. And don’t forget to snap some candid shots. Those pensive or playful faces kids make when they’re engaged in something other than posing, are often the ones which best showcase their personalities and make for great portraits.

6. Get Focused

Here’s a trick to get that soft focused background look like you see in professional portraits. If you have a DSLR, set it to AV (aperture value). Drop the f-stop (f followed by a decimal) as low as it will go, this will open up the aperture (the “curtain” between the lens and the camera body) really wide and allow shorter rays of light to enter, which narrows the focal plane and blurs out the background. If you haven’t got a fancy camera, simply set it to portrait mode and place the subjects as far away from the background as possible. The further away, the softer it will appear.

6. Editing Made Easy

I used to be a total Photoshop junkie until our very own Emily turned me on to PicMonkey. Super easy, fool-proof, and you don’t need to install any memory-hogging software. Best of all, it’s free! You can crop, fix blemishes, whiten teeth, even add artsy filters, fun effects, and text to your photos. One caveat, if you’re using a DSLR and shooting in RAW, you will have to convert to .jpeg first. If you’re shooting in .jpeg and/or with a point-and-shoot, make sure that it’s set to the highest quality. Narrow your pictures down to the few best. Usually 3 of each person/group is good to start, so you don’t overwhelm yourself. Only edit those very best ones, don’t worry yourself trying to fix a bad shot.

7. Prints Charming

Whatever you do, don’t sacrifice all your hard work to your home printer, or even the in-store kiosks. Only trust those precious memories to a professional photo lab. Mike’s Camera and Costco both have several locations all over the Front Range, and they both do a fantastic job at a very reasonable price, with prints ready for pickup within the hour or the next day in most cases. Both companies allow you to upload your pics to their websites, choose print sizes, canvases, CD’s, even photo gifts such as mugs, ornaments, calenders, and more.

Now that you’ve got the hang of taking beautiful family pictures, you can put the money saved toward upgrading your camera, taking some photography classes, or adding accessories. I’ve easily saved the cost of my DSLR and then some! Happy shooting!

This post was originally published November 2, 2013