Tips for Photographing Family Events

Breaking out your camera during a family event can be hectic. Before you’ve had the chance to 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 pictures 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 or simply looking for 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 and family – images that tell the story of your event rather than just being snapshots of it.


Knowing What Kind Of Images You Want to Make Will Help You Choose What Gear to Bring

Photography, like all creative arts, is about decision making. Be honest with yourself about the images you gravitate toward. 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 eyes see.

The focal compression effect in longer lenses creates an appealing blur (bokeh) behind the subject when you use wide apertures and when they are decently far from their background. 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.


Group Activities Will Help Narrow Down Gear Choices

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 your 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! Shooting speeds of 10 or higher is fast enough for wildlife and sports and will be more than enough for your event. See all of our 10 or higher FPS cameras here.

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.


Over the River and Through The Woods: Pick the Gear Based on Your Environment

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). Use a portrait lens to record the changes in family members year-over-year with stunning clarity.

Local Gatherings

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. I 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.


Far Away Gatherings

If you are traveling long distances, there are several options with discrete profiles, like popular mirrorless cameras. This camera style is great for travel and has greatly improved its sensor sizes and shutter lag since the 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 lenses are fast, sharp, and capable of creating images that rival some of 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. The electronic viewfinder is a major departure from the pentaprism viewfinders of traditional cameras. I encourage you to take the leap into mirrorless and give yourself time to experiment with the settings menu 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

If you are stuck shooting in the 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 the 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 a7S II or the Canon 5D Mark IV. Never underestimate the importance of a flash! They can take away from the “candid look” but if used correctly, they can also add some pop.


Keep Calm and TSA Carry-On

Choosing the right camera bag for your reunion shouldn’t be undervalued. It’s easy to focus so much on gear that you forget about how you’re going to carry it all! Camera bags are specially designed to hold items such as extra memory cards and extra batteries. You don’t want to miss a great photo at the end of a long day because your battery is drained or your memory card is full. Many are designed with exterior waterproofing and supportive interior padding to protect against Murphy’s Law.

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.


6 Ways to Get the Shot

You have your gear, extra memory cards, and charged batteries. You’ve reunited with your family and you’re ready to take some pictures! Time is moving quickly and people are fighting for your attention, either to engage in conversation or ask for help. Work out your camera settings beforehand, even if it’s just an educated guess that you fine tune later.


#1: Move Around

Don’t sit in one place and expect things to happen around you. Move around, make eye contact, and engage in small talk to create a candid smile. This interaction will warm people up to the lens and make them feel less awkward. Be kind when you perceive people getting tense around the camera and simply move on.


#2: Don’t Force It With Shy People

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 whatever light they’re in.


#3: Get Low for Perspective

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.


#4: Don’t Forget Still Objects and Food

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. Documenting these things will give breadth to your story, even if they seem like basic things at the time.


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.

#5: Seek the Shade

The dynamic range of cameras today is incredible. Slightly dimmer light will produce great results in post production versus high-contrast, mid-day sun on people’s faces. Look for an area with open shade, which acts as nature’s softbox, and expose for your subject’s skin tone. It’s ok if other parts of the frame overexpose.

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. With the right framing, however, the dappled light looks very artistic.

#6: Learn the Self Timer

Don’t leave yourself out of the shot either! Set your camera on a tripod and figure out beforehand how the self-timer works on your camera so once everyone is arranged all you have to do is run into the scene.


It’s never too early to start planning these kinds of shoots. I hope these tips inspire you to become your family’s personal photojournalist!

Cortigiano is a food, lifestyle, and event photographer with a contemporary aesthetic. She received an undergraduate degree in photography at Drexel University and has gone on to work as a freelance photographer and teaching artist in the San Francisco Bay Area.


  • Earl J Moniz (@MonizEarl)

    I do use the moving around factor quite often…
    First with a long lense (200 mm fixed) for the close ups and portraits (cropped in post) of everyone who fits the bill…
    I stand still and turn in a circle to see what I can and capture from there… then move on to another “perch” and repeat until I’ve done a 360 around the entire group…
    Change lense to 85 mm and circle again…
    Finally, with an 18-135 mm and grabbing what I can with varying focal lengths… food comes in here… and decorations…

    Repeat as necessary as the event activities change, and the group focus and the different activities, speakers, and presentations evolve…
    It’s always a “moving” experience for me… and hopefully for the attendees as they view my images after-the-fact…


    Until that time. . .

  • Earl J Moniz (@MonizEarl)

    I have ten cameras… I just need more lenses… and possibly a bigger family. . .


    Until that time. . .

  • TN Args

    According to the article, I need 10 cameras.

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