I went into my first large family session of 25 people scared out of my mind. I was sure this was going to be about a thousand times more challenging that photographing a family of 4 or 5. But it turns out, working with large families wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s tough. There are a lot of personalities and a lot of desires to contend with. My biggest tip for you is to right away establish yourself as the one in charge. Because if you don’t, someone else in the group will see that void and move quickly to fill it. And nothing will set a session on a faster course to disaster than someone other than you, the professional photographer, being in charge.
You are the professional. They hired you for your expertise. Yes, grandma may want to run the show but you should lovingly reassure her that you will take care of them and you have a plan to ensure a final gallery of beautiful memories.
Here is the exact way that I approach my large family sessions.
First – start by asking everyone to “stand with their people” so you can get a sense of each of the family units. Ask for everyone’s names and then do your best to try and remember those names.
Start by photographing the entire group. If there are grandparents, I place them in the center and then build around them. Depending on the size of the group or height of the children, you may need to stand kids in the front. For this shot, you want everyone to be looking at the camera giving their best smile. This is the picture they want and have hired you to get. Everything else is a bonus. So get this one first before the meltdowns or snacks on the clean shirt start to happens.
Once you have this shot, move on to the smaller family unit that has the youngest child or children. They are most prone to meltdowns and not very good at waiting around with nothing to do. So start with the babies and toddlers first always. After you have photographed that group, your next one should be the family with the next youngest child and so on. Keeping in mind that older children can usually tolerate waiting a bit more so keep choosing the families with younger kids first.
In these smaller family breakouts, the priority shot you need to get is everyone looking at the camera smiling, then a secondary pose that is a little more natural (I like to move into a walking shot), and finally, a quick set of snaps of just the kids. If there is the time at the very end, I will try to get a shot of just the parents, but I never guarantee that. Keep an eye on the clock. Depending on how many are in my total group and how long the session is, I do not spend more than 10 minutes on each smaller family.
After each of the families has had their own individual breakouts, I will move on to photograph the grandparents with all of the grandchildren. The reason I personally don’t do this earlier is that now the sun has gone down a bit more and the light is more flattering. I want this shot to be very special and don’t want to have to contend with harsh shadows or overheated kids sitting in the bright sun for very long. Depending on the lighting conditions you’re dealing with, you could also do this shot right after the very first shot you do of the entire group.
Now it’s time to photograph all of the kids together. Usually, there are some older cousins who can handle carrying or having a smaller baby sit on their lap. Really enlist these older kids to help you. I will get on their level and explain exactly what I am going to do and ask if they could be my helper. Now you have an ally or two to help wrangle smaller kids. Additionally, younger kids often look to the older ones to model their behavior.
I sometimes prep the parents by calling this shot of all the kids the “unicorn shot”. I explain that we’ll do our best but with a lot of littles, it doesn’t always happen that everyone is looking at the camera. I strongly advise you to use every single trick you know to get everyone looking at you. Songs, dancing, silly faces, crazy noises – I am not above any of that! Sometimes I’ll have all the adults stand behind me and sing “baby shark” or do the “hokey pokey”. That often works like a charm!
Now for the finale – one more set of shots of the entire group again. By this point, you should have a great repertoire with everyone in the group. They are fully warmed up to you and are nice and relaxed. And probably excited that this is the end. After getting another gorgeous shot of everyone together looking at the camera, I will get as much variety as I can before I start losing people. Walking, looking at each other and laughing, kids running around them tickles – I capture as much as I can here and then when you start to feel like people are done (and I promise you, you will know) I put my hands in the air and shout “Yay, that’s a wrap!!”.
It only took me a handful of larger group sessions to nail down this formula and it works nearly every time. I hope you learned something and will give this approach a try at your next session! If you do, be sure to hop on back here to let me know how it went.
Until next time!