Breaking out your camera during a family event can be hectic – even the thought of it is overwhelming. Before you’ve had the chance to just set your exposure, grown adults yell for you to take their picture in unflattering light, kids are shoving their faces into your lens (much too close to even focus) and everyone demands to see the picture immediately after. Or there’s the person who covers their face every time you try to capture a beautiful candid moment of them! Nothing is off limits and, yet, you’re not allowed to be a fly on the wall when you photograph family and close friends.
Whether you’re the family historian, a tech aficionado bestowed with the camera, or simply looking for intentional practice in the comfort of a gathering, here’s a list of tips that will help you make images you’re proud to share with your friends family – images that tell the story of your event rather then just snapshots of it.
Knowing What Kind Of Images You Want to Make Will Help You Choose What Gear to Bring
1) Photography, like all creative arts, is about decision making. Be honest with yourself about the images you gravitate to – it’s a clue to discovering the best camera and lens that’s best for your gathering. Are you drawn to portraits? Then use a great portrait lens, like an 85mm prime or 70-200mm zoom, which will flatter your subject’s face and keep their bodies in natural proportion to what our eye sees. The focal compression in longer lenses creates an appealing blur (bokeh) behind the subject when you use wide apertures. If you’re into a documentary look that uses visual clues in the frame, then shoot with a wider lens, such as a 35mm prime or 16-35mm zoom. These lenses are wide enough to capture the environment without distorting your subject.
2) When making your list of what you’ll be shooting, any group activities that are planned will help you choose what equipment to bring. If there is always a ball getting kicked around when you’re family gets together, a body with a fast frames per second (FPS) rating, like the Nikon D500, will help you capture the motion at just the right moment! Having the correct focus settings in place will help even slower cameras keep up with the action. Learn how in All About Autofocus: Focus Area vs Focus Mode for Beginners.
High FPS Cameras
A larger reunion will call for a wide lens but if you want some versatility, consider a wide zoom like, the Sigma 18-35mm, which covers small and large groups equally well. A tripod is a must for group photos if you plan on being in any of the shots. Even if you prefer portraits, don’t underestimate the power of great detail shots. Mid-range lenses, like the classic 50mm, have close enough focusing distances for details such as food, piles of shoes, table settings, collected seashells, etc. Macro lenses, like this Canon 100mm, double as beautiful portrait lenses, too.
Over the River and Through The Woods: Pick the Gear Based on Your Environment
3) If your reunion is more of a stay-cation without much travel, then using a bulky DSLR or larger lens on a mirrorless body shouldn’t be a problem. Supplement your kit with a specialized lens with a faster autofocus, like the Olympus 300mm f/4 lens, to capture fleeting moments from a distance (shooting from a distance produces natural results since your subjects are less aware of you), or use a fast portrait lens to record the changes in family members year-over-year with stunning clarity. Photographing large family reunions is a great excuse to test a new camera upgrade you’ve been considering. Major camera manufacturers now have semi-pro bodies on the market that don’t leave you missing much from their higher end (and higher priced) cameras. We suggest Nikon’s D500 or Canon’s 80D bodies because they have a lightweight ergonomic feel, full manual control, video recording, and endless pairing options of lenses from fisheyes to fast zooms to specialty tilt-shifts.
If you are traveling long distances, there are several options with discrete profiles, like the popular mirrorless cameras. This camera style is great for travel and has greatly improved upon their smaller sensor size and shutter lag since their initial introduction several years ago. Lens selection used to be limited but has recently expanded for cameras like Olympus’ OM-D series and Sony’s a7 series. Their compact lenses are fast, sharp, and capable of creating images that rival their larger counterparts. There’s a learning curve for getting the best out of mirrorless cameras. The smaller form factor buries more settings in menus instead of in tactile dials and the electronic viewfinder is a major departure from the pentaprism viewfinders of traditional cameras. We encourage you to take the leap into mirrorless and give yourself time to experiment with the settings and option menus to avoid frustration during an event.
For even the most experienced shooters, sometimes your goal is absolute ease and staying focused on your family. Advanced point-and-shoot cameras don’t force you to sacrifice image quality for convenience. The Panasonic Lumix LX 100, Sony RX100 IV, and Canon G1 X allow as much or as little manual control as you wish plus they feature sleek bodies, beautiful optics, and up to 10x optical zoom.
Quality Of Light Makes or Breaks an Image
4) If you are stuck shooting in midday sun there are a few ways to improve your quality of light for better images. Look for open shade to shoot in while the sun is still high. If shade isn’t an option you can use ND or Polarizing filters to decrease the intensity of light, neutralize strong contrast, or saturate colors. They will also allow you to shoot using a wide open aperture without overexposing your image in extremely-lit scenarios.
The opposite problem is not having enough light. Consider cameras that can handle higher ISO settings without getting overly grainy, such as the Sony a7SII or the Canon 5D Mark IV. Never underestimate the importance of a well-used flash! They can take away from the “candid look” but if used correctly can also add some pop. Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Achieving Better Flash Photos.
Keep Calm and TSA Carry-On
5) Choosing the right camera bag for your reunion shouldn’t be undervalued. It’s easy to focus so much on gear that you forget out you’re going to carry it all! Camera bags are specially designed to hold items such as extra memory cards and extra batteries so you don’t miss a great photo at the end of a long day because your battery is drained or memory card full. Many are designed with exterior waterproofing and supportive interior padding to protect against Murphy’s Law.
Bonus: Recommended Travel Gear
If you’re flying to your reunion you should never check your equipment due to the high rate of damage and theft. Think Tank has made it easy to follow airline rules and regulations with the International Rolling Camera Bag, which was designed with maximum space while being overhead compliant.
Getting the Shot
You have your gear, extra memory cards, and charged batteries. You’ve reunited with your family and your ready to take some pictures! You’ve won the battle but it’s time to start the war! Time is moving fast and people are fighting for your attention, either to engage in conversation or ask for help.
6) The best tip for getting started is working out your camera settings beforehand, even if it’s just an educated guess that you fine tune after your first few photos. When you notice something interesting happening right away, you can quickly capture the moment, even if the settings are slightly off.
7) Don’t sit in one place and expect things to happen around you. Move around, make eye contact, smile, and even engage in small talk to coax a candid smile. This interaction will warm people up to the lens and make them feel less awkward when it’s pointed at them, especially if you are going for a more candid look. Be kind when you perceive people getting tense around the camera and simply move on.
8) There will always be subjects who love the spotlight and those who shy away from it. Keep tabs on what you’ve shot to avoid repetitive pictures of the same people. You’ll be more aware of when your shy family member is in their element and forgotten about the camera. This may require keeping your distance with a telephoto lens and accepting the light they’re in instead of trying to drag them into good light.
9) Consider the events of the day and shoot to chronicle the events and environment that are relevant to the reunion. Are there people who haven’t seen each other in years or young cousins embarking on a new friendship? Get in close using a telephoto lens or down low, in the case of kids, to photograph from their perspective.
Is there a traditional family food representative of your time together? Photograph it being prepared and enjoyed. So much thought goes into the details of an event to make your family reunion unique and documenting these things will give breadth to your story, even if they seem like basic things at the time.
10) At the end of the day, it’s the people who make getting together a real event. When the time comes to direct the family for a large group photo, choose a location that isn’t in direct sun, which forces people to squint and creates harsh shadows. Remember, the dynamic range on cameras today is incredible and subdued, flatter light, even if a bit dim, will produce great results in post production versus battling high-contrast mid-day sun on people’s faces. Look for an area with open shade, which acts as nature’s soft box, and expose for your subject’s skin tone, letting areas in other parts of the frame that are brightly lit overexpose. Learn more about this in Learning To Leave The Matrix – A Tip On DSLR Light Metering. Watch out for dappled light, which happens when strong light peaks through the trees or other incomplete shade sources and lands on your subject’s face, which can look weird. It can also be used for artistic effect but be mindful of it.
Don’t leave yourself out of the shot either! Set your camera on a tripod and figure out beforehand how the self-timer works so once everyone is arranged all you have to do is run into the scene.
It’s never too early to start planning your family gathering shoots for the fall holiday season and keeping a few portrait photography tips up your sleeve. Building on these tips, learn more about the importance of journalistic-style shooting in casual settings. See our Have All Your Holiday Pictures Become The Same? Try Telling A Photo Story tutorial as well as 7 Vacation Shooting Tips for Better Photo Books, which will help you plan shots ahead of time that look better together in print.
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