There are times when it’s really handy to take a group self-portrait, and with a few simple tips, it’s easy to do too!
Over the years we’ve done quite a few self-portrait sessions, when we travel or for things like holiday cards. We even photographed our own wedding! (But that’s a story for another post…) Through it all we’ve learned how to get great results, and make the whole process easier and more fun.
So in this post I’ll share how we went about taking some family self-portraits during a recent vacation to the beautiful Hawaiian island of Kauai, and some tips you can use to take your own family photos!
1. Get your camera onto a tripod
Sure you can try to find something level to put your camera on, or try to improvise something instead of a tripod, but the reality is it’s going to be a lot easier to use a tripod.
I used the MeFOTO Roadtrip Tripod with Ball Head. It’s an awesome tripod for travelling with because it’s light, holds a good amount of weight, folds down small, comes with a carrying case, and is really well priced at around $200. (I’ll be doing a review on this tripod soon!)
2. Setup a wireless remote
This will let you trigger the camera with a remote control.
Now a couple notes about remotes:
A lot of new cameras have built in wifi which will let you connect to your camera through your smartphone. You might be able to use your phone to give you a live preview, adjust settings, and remotely trigger the camera.
Sounds great right? Well often it’s a bit of pain pairing your phone with your camera. Most apps made by camera manufacturers for smartphones are terrible. Then when you’re actually using the app you’ll find it’s nearly impossible to shoot photos in quick succession (because of the lag between the camera and your phone, and also because it’s tough to repeatedly tap the shutter release button on the app).
The other option for remotes is a physical radio transmitter that you plug into your camera (the receiver plugs into the camera, and you hold the remote transmitter). After trying several different wireless remotes from eBay that all broke, I finally purchased the Vello ShutterBoss. This remote is well built, and has been super reliable. One of the things I really like about it is that the cable that plugs from the wireless receiver into your camera can be swapped out depending on what brand of camera you’re using. So you don’t need to buy a new wireless remote for every different camera system you have (just the cable). Also if the battery dies in the receiver, you can plug the cable directly into the remote transmitter. The Vello ShutterBoss is a bit on the pricey side for a remote ($99), but it will probably be the last wireless remote you ever need to buy.
Here are the rough steps I take when doing a group self-portrait
1. Find the ideal background for your shot. It’s easier to do this without lugging your subjects around from place to place. Check your shot for good light, and composition.
2. Once you know where you’re shooting, direct your subjects into the frame. Check to see that your composition still works (and don’t forget to leave room for yourself in the frame!)
3. Focus on your subject. It helps to use live view and zoom in to 10x to get perfect focus. Then you should switch your lens from autofocus to manual focus, so that your camera doesn’t try to refocus (and lose focus or miss-focus.)
4. Set your camera’s exposure settings. Make sure to avoid setting a really low aperture (now is not the time to fool around with shallow depth of field!).
5. Take a couple test shots using the remote while standing next to the camera to make sure everything is working. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten to turn on the wireless remote receiver and then have to run back to the camera to figure out why things aren’t working.
6. Now join the rest of the subjects in the frame and start shooting!
Over the years we’ve picked up a few tricks that help these self-portraits go a little more smoothly.
Take lots of photos
Take more than you think you’ll need. Remember that there is no one behind the camera watching everyone and pressing the shutter at the best moments. You won’t regret having tons of crappy shots when you find that one photo where everyone has a great expression (Trust me, those shots are rare, especially when kids are involved in these!).
Make sure to look at the camera!
Now is not the time to be starring dreamily into space – make sure you look at the camera (and remind everyone else in the photo to look into the camera too!). Try to get the “looking at the camera” shots out of the way first when everyone has enough attention. It can quickly get tough to get kids to cooperate, so aiming to get this shot first is key.
Try to keep the remote hidden
Keep it in a pocket or behind someones back.
Don’t shoot everything on a tripod
You really only need the tripod for the group shots. There’s tons of opportunity to shoot smaller groups and individuals. And really the photos that aren’t on a tripod will be better (more variety, better moments, & much more intention!). Take turns with the camera so everyone has a chance to be in the shots.
Use a zoom lens
It’s not impossible to use a prime lens (learn what a prime lens is here), but it’s easier to make quick adjustments to your composition with a zoom. (Note: We used a 24-70mm zoom for most of the photos in this shoot even though the shots of my tripod setup show an 85mm lens.)
Make it an event
Get dressed up! And schedule ample time for the shoot. We usually make it the only thing on our schedule for the morning or afternoon, and don’t have anywhere else to rush off to. Often it takes a lot longer than you expect for everyone to get ready, to go and find the perfect spot (we try to figure out where we’ll shoot before the actual day, especially if we have to drive there), take all the shots, and then pack up. And by the end everyone will be a bit tired! So make your shoot a priority for the day, and you’re much more likely to get it done, and enjoy the process.
Kids like candy, and sometimes you might need to bribe them to smile at (or even look at) the camera, especially when there’s no one behind the camera to get their attention. I’m ok with that, and I like candy too.
With our two year old son we had to take a lot of breaks while shooting. You may be surprised to hear that children don’t have a long attention span when it comes to smiling at cameras. So when he was getting antsy we stopped for some play time along the beach (which was a great photo opportunity in itself).
Taking your own family portraits is a lot of fun, but it does take some patience and practice. One thing you should keep in mind is the value of hiring a professional photographer.
By having someone else take your photos you’re going to be able to be in a lot more of the shots, and you’ll get a lot more variety. You’ll also be able to focus more on having fun with your family – taking your own photos is definitely a bit of a juggling act! A pro behind the camera can catch a lot more of the special moments that come when you’re simply interacting with your loved ones, instead of worrying about whether your remote is working.
Finally, even if you don’t have a tripod or wireless remote it’s easy enough to squeeze your family into a self-portrait using only your camera phone. So do it! There’s something incredibly special about being in photos with the ones you love. It doesn’t matter how you do it – just make it happen!
If you have any tips for taking better family photos let me know in the comments below. Thanks!