11 tips for family photography

Discover top tips for stunning family photography with Canon Ambassador Helen Bartlett.
Two children silhouetted against a woodland background by the low sun streaming through the trees.

Helen Bartlett is one of the UK's most respected family portrait photographers. Her work uses only natural light with no flash. Helen produces all her work in black and white to create timeless family photos.

We asked her to share some of the things she has learnt during her long and prestigious career. Read on and discover how to capture beautiful images of your own family.

1. Keep your camera to hand, not your phone

"The first step towards taking great photos is to make sure you always have your camera with you. Smartphones take decent photos these days, but a good camera will give you much more control over your images. The other downside to phones is that it's easy to get distracted by emails or work. A DSLR or good compact camera makes you focus on taking pictures. Most cameras also give you higher quality files to work with which is really important if you want to print your pictures. I'd suggest keeping your camera in your bag or on the kitchen counter so it is always nearby when you want it."

2. Photograph special occasions

"It's wonderful to capture the family's routines and traditions at Christmas or Easter. As your children get older, looking at these memory-filled images will transport them back to happy times. If the weather is good at Christmas, head outside with your camera and the children's new toys. Photographs of children kicking a new football or riding new bikes will always make you smile, and those moments offer a perfect opportunity to photograph your family in a natural way."

3. Start early

"I tend to start my shoots at 8am. Children are best photographed first thing in the morning, when they are well rested and have had a good breakfast. As the day progresses, children will get tired, toys will be fought over and co-operation can go out of the window. So try to do any formal or group shots early in the day. Then the rest of the time you can all relax and get fun natural images without worrying about how to get a toddler to smile for the camera. Work around the children's schedule for the best chances of good photos. Shoot lots, shoot every day and by the end of the season you can make a book of your family adventures that will be great to look back on."

A child standing on a jetty reaching out to high-five his mother, who is knee deep in the water.

Posed portraits are better taken early on in the day, when children are less tired, but you can make candid shots at any time. Shooting in the late afternoon light has captured this mother and child in silhouette, while their outlines are reflected in the water's surface. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/8000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1600. © Helen Bartlett

4. Involve the whole family

"Most families will have one person who is always behind the camera; when I grew up it was my dad. Make sure that you swap around so that all family members feature in the photos, as these images will be important to your children as they grow up. To capture a full family portrait, put the camera on a tripod (or place it somewhere steady like a table or a park bench) and use the self-timer setting. You could also hand the camera to your children and get them to take the pictures. Kids are naturally creative, and we can learn a lot from their often unexpected compositions. Getting the kids involved in the creative process will make it a fun family activity and they may have wonderful ideas you haven't thought of. This also has the benefit of sparking an interest in photography, it might be the hobby you can do together throughout their childhood and teenage years or it might even become their future career."

A little girl smiles, with her arms outstretched, at the bottom of a slide.

Carry your camera everywhere so that you never miss an opportunity – you might be surprised by the rewards of shooting everyday activities, such as a trip to the park. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/3.2 and ISO1000. © Helen Bartlett

5. Photograph the everyday

"Gone are the days when a camera was only brought out for special occasions and holidays. Today, we can get a lot more shots of natural activities. Photograph how your family snuggles together on the sofa at the end of a long day. Capture that gleeful look as your children jump into your bed bright and early and ready to play at 5am. Move into the background and use a longer lens or your camera's zoom function to photograph the children playing so you get really lovely, natural images."

6. Use locations for storytelling

"Try to capture storytelling elements in some of your images. It's great to get a perfect portrait shot but taking a wider view can be just as rewarding. Photograph your child in their bedroom with their toys. Give scale to an image of them playing in the park or local woods by shooting vertically to get the height of the trees. Use your environment creatively, looking for shapes and shadows, reflections and framing elements to add something special to your shots."

A top-down black and white shot, taken from the landing above, of two children lying on a rug framed by the banisters of the stairs.

Experimenting with angles and composition enables you to create striking images wherever you are. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM) at 1/60 sec, f/3.5 and ISO3200. © Helen Bartlett

A little boy playing with a toy plane in a dark room. The shadow of the plane is reflected on the ceiling by a spotlight.

Playing around with lighting can help to create bold images. Here, Helen has used silhouettes and a spotlight to emphasise her subject and make what could have been quite an ordinary shot much more interesting. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM) at 1/250 sec, f/1.4 and ISO8000. © Helen Bartlett

7. Look for interesting angles and compositions

"Sometimes you can capture the essence of someone without showing their face. Interesting angles and viewpoints can make for really interesting pictures. Maybe capture the details of your baby's tiny hands or the fact that your toddler insists on wearing his wellingtons on the wrong feet. Experiment with your camera's settings. Use high shutter speeds to capture all the details of movements. Or show your child as a blur of activity by dialling the shutter speed right down and using a tripod to keep the camera steady as your child rushes past. Don't be afraid of using a higher ISO when you're shooting indoors. I don't ever use a flash and prefer using available light so photos look natural. Try shooting black and white images, as these look timeless and will hopefully be enjoyed generations to come."

8. Look for the light

"Identify your light source – if you are working indoors, use natural light from a window and face your subject towards it for a beautifully lit portrait. If you are outside, look for open shade to ensure soft and even light on your subject's face. Low winter sunshine can be wonderful for atmospheric portraits. Look for long shadows which can add interesting compositional elements into your pictures.

"A fast prime lens is a great investment for your DSLR or mirrorless camera. I always recommend the Canon EF 50mm f1.8 STM for photographers working with a Canon DSLR. It's a high quality and inexpensive lens with a fixed focal length and a wider aperture. The Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM would be the equivalent for those using Canon's full-frame mirrorless system. These wide aperture lenses let in a lot of extra light, so they are perfect for photographing children indoors."

A close-up black and white shot of a young child looking towards the floor.

Crouching down to capture your subject at eye level will give your images a sense of intimacy. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/1.2 and ISO100. © Helen Bartlett

9. Get down to their level

"Get down to the children's eye level to see the world from their point of view. Try sitting or laying on the floor. This approach can also minimise background clutter and distractions from your shot. You can often fill the background with sky or trees or walls rather than with the entire contents of the toy cupboard spread out by your feet, though it's also good to get a shot of a child delighted with the mess they have made!"

10. Print your pictures

"Whether you have a home printer or get your photos printed online or at a shop, do make sure you print them out. You can even make your images into mugs, posters and more. This way they can be enjoyed every day. Paper prints can be preserved and kept safe, and they won't get lost on a computer or memory card."

A black and white image of a young boy laughing as he bounces on a bed.

The quality of your final images will be improved if your subjects are enjoying themselves, so remember to have fun. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 38mm, 1/1000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO2500. © Helen Bartlett

11. Make it fun

"Make sure your children enjoy having their pictures taken and they will be more likely to co-operate. Don't expect too much from them, especially when they are tired, and do get them involved in the whole process. Take the pictures of their favourite things, their cuddly toys, the picture they have just painted. Play games, sing songs, climb trees."

"Remember, photographing your family is the most fun you can have with a camera and I hope these tips will encourage you to get your camera out more this season and take pictures that you will treasure for years to come."

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