A quick Google search of “tips for family photoshoot” can leave your head spinning. If you consider yourself a fairly easygoing parent (or at least strive to be) and are looking for a simple guide to a relaxed experience and natural photos, you are in the right place.
If you are looking for a printable checklist with just the essentials, click here for a free pdf download.
Planning your family session
Lifestyle or documentary
If you are here, I am assuming you want something natural and authentic. Both lifestyle and documentary sessions offer exactly that.
Lifestyle sessions tend to be shorter (60-90 minutes for me), are a bit higher energy, and involve more photographer direction. We often utilize beautiful outdoor locations and time our session for that warm, glowy late afternoon light.
Click for my Lifestyle Session pricing
Documentary sessions are usually at least 4 hours long, and are more about capturing your family as it is, without much input from the photographer. They are more likely to take place at home or while on an extended family adventure, with an emphasis on storytelling.
Click for my Documentary Session pricing
Planning your family session at home or outdoors
Not surprisingly, the most eye-catching family photos come from outdoor sessions. Golden sunsets, wind whipped hair, light streaming through the trees – these are pictures you can only get outside. If your family is comfortable outside and your kids love to explore the natural world, outdoors is an obvious choice.
There are two main reasons you might choose at home. The first is comfort. Depending on the age and personality of your kids, they might be most comfortable at home. Newborn sessions are generally at home, but some toddlers will also do better there as well. And let’s be real, if it is a cold winter day in San Francisco, we all might function better inside.
The second reason is storytelling. If your home feels like an extension of your family, like it is a part of your story that can’t be missed, then it makes sense that it should be a part of your pictures.
Choosing an outdoor session location
Here are the questions I ask when helping families choose a great outdoor photoshoot location.
- Is there a place or activity that is special to your family? Do you watch the ducks at the botanical gardens every Saturday morning? Or maybe fly a kite on the beach on Sunday afternoons? Not only do these places have meaning, but your kids are already comfortable there.
- Are you envisioning beachy, coastal, or forest vibes? Do you want something iconic (i.e. Golden Gate Bridge) in some of your photos?
- What are the best times of day for your kids? Time of day can help determine the best location.
- Do you just want me to decide? I have a whole list of San Francisco locations that you will love!
*Coming soon – San Francisco Family Photo Location Guide
Time of day (golden hour)
The hour before sunset is when you are most likely to find that soft, glowy, golden light. The first hour after sunrise also provides beautiful light, just a bit more pink than gold.
Depending on the time of year, the weather, or scheduling conflicts, a golden hour session might be out of reach. That’s ok! I would suggest avoiding the middle of the day, but anytime within 3 hours of sunset or sunrise will allow for beautiful family pictures, especially at locations with ample shade.
Click to check sunrise and sunset times.
No photographer can guarantee warm and sunny weather for every session, and every photographer is unique in how they handle changes in weather, so make sure to ask.
Almost all photographers offer the option to reschedule when there is significant rain in the forecast. But you need to be prepared for other types of variable weather – fog, wind, cold, etc. If you are not someone who keeps an eye on the weather, it is nice to find a photographer that does.
This is something I suggest discussing with your photographer during an introductory consult or via email. Asking how they handle wind at the beach, or fog that moves in unannounced (welcome to San Francisco) will give you a great sense of whether or not they are tuned in to local weather patterns.
Should you bring the dog?
I live with three dogs in a little San Francisco house. To say that I love dogs is an understatement. But I’m pretty realistic when it comes to having them join your family photoshoot. To be honest, more often than not, they add a lot of distraction and usually some stress.
Does your dog have perfect recall? Do they stay close and avoid bothering other people and pets? Are you completely comfortable with having them off leash wherever we’re headed? If the answer to these questions is yes, then by all means, bring the dog! Otherwise, think long and hard about how important it is to you that they are part of your pictures.
Click here for my guide – Best Dog Friendly Beaches in SF
What to wear for family photos
Simple & comfortable
For women, I usually suggest loose-fitting dresses that will show movement in the wind. If dresses aren’t your vibe, jeans and a flowy top or chunky sweater are a great vibe. For men, I love a simple wool sweater, a nice henley shirt, or a button-down with a bit of texture (linen is great). Whatever you wear, make sure it feels like you.
*Coming Soon –
Maternity Session Outfit Suggestions
Newborn Outfit Suggestions
Family Photoshoot Outfit Ideas (Pinterest board)
Colors & materials
Coordinate if you’d like, but don’t match exactly. If it helps, choose three different colors as a swatch on which you can base all your outfits. If you tend towards cooler colors (blues), I suggest at least a few splashes of warmer tones (dusty reds, burnt oranges, pastel yellows), especially in the Fall.
Avoid solid white or black. Rich solid colors, off-whites, and textured clothing work great.
Accessories, as long as they are not too loud, add depth to your images. Jewelry, belts, hats, headbands, scarves – as long as they feel true to you, wear them!
I do not suggest outfit changes for adults during a regular family session. They become a distraction, and the photos really are not about your clothes. Instead, simply wear or bring an extra layer, and we can take some photos with and without it.
For babies and toddlers, a backup change of clothes in the car is a great idea. I encourage kids to explore the natural environment, so they are likely to get a bit dirty. And if we are at the beach, they just might end up soaking wet. A warm change of clothes can save the day.
In San Francisco, there is never a guarantee of sunshine, so bring warm layers. You can always take them off and leave them in the car, but the more comfortable you are, the better your photos will be. This is especially important for little kids, and we work hard to make sure they stay warm.
Beach photoshoots with the family require a few special considerations.
Footwear. I generally wear sandals to beach sessions because I inevitably end up wading into the water. If your family will likely end up splashing around in the ocean, wear shoes that are easy to take off, or that you don’t mind getting wet and sandy.
A session where we all got wet and sandy.
Outfits. Starched white shirts and dress pants look out of place for a family beach day. You can still look nice, but keep it casual. And like I said, be ready to get wet. Lastly, if you live here in San Francisco, do not forget those extra layers. Sunny and warm can turn to foggy and windy, especially at the beach, without a moment’s notice.
Click for my guide to all the SF beaches with a Golden Gate Bridge view.
At home family photos
Most of the above advice still applies. But especially for documentary-style sessions, put even more emphasis on wearing something that feels really comfortable and natural. Pretend you were having family friends over for dinner. You probably aren’t going to really dress up, but you will probably wear real pants and avoid clothes with stains.
How to prepare the whole family
Convincing your partner
This should start before you even book a session. Partners do not need to be as excited as you are, but they need to be on board.
The first thing to try is finding a photographer whose images resonate with everyone in your family. For hesitant partners, this often means pictures that involve more play and less posing.
Next, if your photographer offers a free consult call or video chat, find a time when you can join the call with your significant other. This can really help you find the right fit.
Lastly, if anyone in the family is still a bit hesitant, don’t overhype it. It is easy for them to spend more time dreading it than we’ll spend taking pictures. Just keep it casual.
What to tell your kids
Kids are all different, and you know yours best, but often the simplest and most effective thing to tell them is…
“We’re going to hang out with our friend David at the beach/park/backyard and he’s going to take pictures of us!”
While it can be tempting to use a treat (like ice cream) as a bargaining chip, I suggest working these incentives into the plan for the day instead of dangling them as a reward for suffering through our photo session. You want them to know that you are excited to hang out with your new photographer friend and that they should be too. And afterward, you’ll get ice cream too!
Pack a bag early
The ultimate goal is for the session day to feel relaxed. Getting packed the day before is a simple step that will help.
My basic packing philosophy?
- Pack light
- Keep optional and extra items in the car
- Bring as few valuables as possible
- One bag to carry, one for the car
The two bag system
The first bag is for your absolute essentials. An extra layer, a snack for kids, a bottle of water, a rag or wipe for dirty faces and boogers, and any meaningful items you wish to include in your pictures.
A note on snacks. Bring snacks that your kid likes but doesn’t love (so that they aren’t a distraction), are limited in quantity and time to eat (not a huge bag of chips or hard candy), and are relatively mess-free. Cheese cubes or dried apricots work well, chocolate and peanut butter do not.
The second bag is the one you will likely leave in the car, but you want to have along just in case. A towel if we are at the beach, warm dry changes of clothes for the little ones, more extra layers, a blanket for sitting, and any additional newborn supplies you might need.
Obviously, needs vary widely for different families. If we are going for a hike together or I am photographing you surfing with your kid, all bets are off!
*Coming Soon – Family Session Packing Checklist
Aim for rested and well fed
Yep, this is a big ask for busy families. But you have invested in quality family photography, so you might as well stack the deck in your favor. This is as simple as keeping schedules light the evening before and morning of your session. And planning a favorite healthy meal or hearty snack in the hours leading up to the photoshoot, so that the kiddos are happy and well fed.
And then, let go…
This is undoubtedly the most important step of all. If you wake up on the morning of your session after a terrible night’s sleep, remember that you forgot to pack your bag, and the kids are threatening to find new parents if you make them take pictures today, it is ok. I repeat, IT IS OK!
We will still make great pictures. You are a parent, a guru of turning the day around. And even if that feels like a stretch today, you hired a professional family photographer. Mood swings, tantrums, and even some tears are just another day in the office. We know how to make great pictures no matter what.
Here’s a promise: the more you are able to let it all go, the better your pictures will be. Lean into the day, show your kids and your partner all the love you have for them, and start thinking of the photo session as the thing that will turn your day around!
Tips for the photo session (no posing required)
Empty your pockets
Before we start, make sure that everyone’s pockets are empty. It is costly to have the outlines of keys and wallets photoshopped from your pants pockets after the session. It is easy (and free) to make sure that they do not end up there in the first place.
Don’t look at the camera
Yep, I said it. Today is about you and your love for each other. 95% of the time your family photographer wants you to look at each other or at nature, not at the camera.
I interact a lot with my clients, so you end up looking at the camera (I’m behind it) from time to time. And every once in a while, usually when your kids are already looking my way, I will ask the parents to look over for a quick portrait together.
Connect and be present
If cameras have one magical power, it is the power to convey connection. Put hands on each other anytime it feels natural. Run fingers through hair. Make eye contact constantly, and if your kids run ahead, keep connecting with your voice – talk or sing or laugh so that they can hear you. Notice the smell of the salt spray or the eucalyptus forest, and ask if your kids can smell it too. Your photo session is a rare excuse to turn off all of the distractions and enjoy the chance to be fully engaged.
You are here because you want family pictures that feel relaxed and natural, not stiff and posed. Movement is our best friend. This can be a big movement, like moving from the sand dunes down to the water’s edge, throwing your son above your head, or twirling on the beach with your daughter. It can also be as simple as letting the wind blow through your hair. Simply put, there’s no need to “hold still” for the camera.
Let the kids have fun
We want to create pictures full of authentic joy, and kids are most joyful when they are exploring the world at their own pace. Family sessions are all about creating an environment where they can safely do that. It is handy to have in mind a game or activity that your child likes, something that we can easily integrate into the photo session. Hide and seek, I Spy, or flying a kite are all great examples.
I hope this guide helps take the stress out of planning and preparing for your family photoshoot. And remember to download the printable version right here!
Thanks for being here. I’m David Enloe, a San Francisco family photographer. I make soul-stirring pictures for families that find adventure around every corner. Want to learn more about the person behind the camera?