Taking family photos outdoors can be a challenge – you’ve got no control over the weather or the lighting, and foliage of plants and trees will change dramatically with the seasons. How best to overcome these challenges and take great family photographs outdoors?
Award-winning family photographer Louise Downham shares some tips and techniques for making the most of any outdoor situation.
Read time: 6 minutes
Make use of the space
Make the most of being outdoors by encouraging games that wouldn’t be possible indoors. Children being thrown in the air makes for a dramatic and fun shot, and how better to show how small a child is than to show a parent launching them into the air?
To get this shot, choose a fast shutter speed (1/400th or so) as the child will be moving fast. To start with, you might find it helpful to use continuous shooting/burst mode so you have a selection of shots to choose from. I prefer to use one-shot focus in single shot mode, though, and to focus on the child’s face just before they’re thrown up in the air. Panning upwards as they’re thrown vertically upwards means you’ll still have the child in focus when they reach the top.
Look for colour
Since children are pretty small, it doesn’t take an epic forest to add colour to your photographs. Even a small bush with flowers on can do the trick – just get down to the child’s level, and position them in front of the flowers.
Use a wide aperture (around f/2) and the flowers will become soft and part of the background bokeh.
Have the family stand a little further from the flowers than they would instinctively – you’ll benefit more from the colour as an abstract shape, whereas if they stand too close you’ll be able to see the details of the flowers and the effect will be lost.
For individual portraits, I look for areas with gentle shade. Tree cover is great for this, as long as the tree is tall – if the leaves are too close to the child, they’ll throw an unhelpful green cast onto their face.
If you position a child in gentle shade and with the sun slightly behind them, you can achieve a subtle rim lighting (halo effect) around the edge of the child’s hair, which can really bring a photograph to life.
By facing a child towards the sunlight, you can achieve catchlights (where the light source is visible in the subject’s eye) to bring lots of vibrancy to the portrait. Just the little area of white light in this boy’s left eye (below) brings this shot to life.
Using a wide aperture here means that the background becomes a nice, soft blur of colour and the focus of the photograph is firmly on the child.
Be careful using this strategy with adults though, as it can be harsh on facial lines and wrinkles – most parents will prefer the effect of indirect light on their faces.
Use interesting features
Even a simple fence can add a lot to your composition, and help with storytelling by giving some visual clues as to where the family live or enjoy spending time.
Leading lines from railings, fences and gates can all be fantastic tools for composition – look out for these features and make a point of incorporating them into some of your family photos.
If it’s a very bright day, look for areas where the leaves are catching the light but there’s also light shade. This way you can photograph the family in the more flattering shade, but still benefit from the bright sunshine on the trees and foliage.
As a photographer in the UK, where it’s more often grey than sunny, I contend with flat light a lot. Luckily for me, I love that! The light is really flattering on grey days, and I can choose the background I’d like rather than have to worry about where the light’s falling.
You won’t have strong shadows to worry about, and squinting isn’t an issue. For me, this is a win-win situation, so my heart lifts when I see clouds!
Having said I love grey days, there’s grey and then there’s grey. Sometimes the weather is ominous and you’ll have to work hard to create an interesting photograph. Look for dramatic shapes to add interest to your composition – playgrounds are great for this, and they’ll often be more or less empty on a rainy day!
Don’t panic if it’s a windy day. Use it to your advantage to add some movement to a static scene – but have it blowing mum’s hair away from her face so it’s flattering, rather than towards her, creating chaos!
I love using spaces that are child-sized – such as gaps in hedges. Children really enjoy exploring them, and they make a great framing device for photographs.
It can be harder to get parents on board with this shot than children (I’ve been asked many times if I’m serious about taking a photograph in a hedge!), but stick with it – once they see how cute their child looks in the space, they’ll love it.
Taking family photos outdoors can be a challenge but it can also be lots of fun, and it’s a great opportunity to be really creative. The myriad unknowns of outdoor photography can work to your advantage – think about how to use the weather to add something to your photograph, or how to use the seasonal colours. Just keep thinking about light, framing devices and colour and you’ll be set!
If you’d like to read more from Louise and see more of her wonderful family photos, please visit her website and follow her on social media.
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