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Shhh! Break The Rules To Take Great Family Photos

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

A lot of amateur photographers (and even professional ones, to be fair) live by a set of rules when taking photos. These may be instinctual, or, in the case of professionals, learnt, but oftentimes we take our best photos when we break the rules. Using some great images from the website Unsplash, let me show you how you can break the rules in style.

Rule 1: Don't Shoot Portraits in Hard Light

I'm always advising people to take outdoor portraits on cloudy days because the hard light and shadows of a sunny day can do unflattering things to a subject's face. But, used well, that same light and shadow can be incredibly effective. This photo by Humphrey Muleba isn't so much about facial features as the shape created by the two figures, and what that suggests about the relationship between the two. The way the light only reveals select parts of the subjects only adds to the effect: we can see the father's hands, so important in holding his daughter steady; we can see her feet, so tiny, perhaps not long able to walk; we see the whole of the child's face, but only part of the father's, because she is now the most important thing in his life, she is centre stage

Rule 2: Don't Shoot Into the Sun

If the sun is behind your subject, your camera exposes for the large, bright background, which, in a nutshell means that it darkens everything so that the background isn't overexposed. The often unwanted result of this is an underexposed foreground: so if the sun is behind you when you're posing for a photo there's no point smiling, because nobody's going to see it.

However, when a silhouette goes from being undesirable side-effect to a fantastic photographic feature is when the photo stops being about the subjects' faces and starts being about shape and movement, as shown brilliantly in this image by Lauren Lulu Taylor. How much better does this image represent the father-daughter dynamic than an evenly lit photo of the two standing side-by-side would have?

Rule 3: Smile!

This one drives me crazy: we grow up conditioned to say "cheese" because the only good photo is one where everyone is smiling. I won't deny that smiles are beautiful things to see, particularly real ones, and not faked-for-the-camera ones, but I find photos like this one by Jordan Whitt movingly beautiful in the way they capture forever the bond bewteen a parent and their young child in a way that could never be achieved by standing against a white background and grinning down a lens.

Rule 4: Don't Cut the Heads Off!

Okay, I concede that accidentally decapitating a subject (photographically speaking) is a composition no-no, but we shouldn't feel like we have to feature the subjects' faces in every single photograph. Apart from being a beautiful study in colour and tones, this photo by Daiga Ellaby brilliantly draws our attention to the dynamic between the two subjects: the way the child's waist barely reaches the parent's knees, the strarkly contrasting shoe sizes, and the way that the tiny, vulnerable human is enveloped and protected by the parent's legs. As an image it says so much about the relationship between the subjects, without showing either's face.

So the next time you take photos of your family, bear in mind all the rules of photography you've ever learnt. And break them.

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