Outdoor Portraiture – Photographing Families in Natural Light

Natural Light Photography – Part 2

Fall is approaching and this might be a good time to talk about how to handle an outdoor family session.  This is a good tutorial for those with a limited amount of equipment.  All you really need is a fairly good camera.  It would also be nice if you have a couple of different, fast lenses at your disposal. Depending on where you live, you might even be able to rent those lenses at a surprisingly low day rate.

Outdoor Portraiture - Photographing Families in Natural Light

I’ll be adding a resource page soon, so keep an eye out.

I’ll be using a single family session I did last fall to illustrate some of my ideas.

Outdoor Portraiture - Photographing Families in Natural Light
A family is a complex and shifting dynamic.  You’re dealing with individuals and the ‘group mind’ at the same time.  Photographing families requires several key components on the part of the photographer:

  • Patience
  • Keen observational skills
  • Flexibility
  • Patience
  • Tact
  • Diplomacy
  • Fast reflexes
  • Patience
  • Creativity
  • Good people skills
  • Patience

Did I mention it takes patience?

The bigger the family, the more of all the above will be required of you.  Why bother?  Because it’s fun, you’ll get some GREAT shots for your portfolio, you’ll meet some wonderful people and get to hang out with some super duper kids.

There are all sorts of places to photograph people outdoors.  For this particular session, we chose Piedmont Park, right here in the heart of Midtown, Atlanta.  I advise going on a pre-shoot, scouting excursion to any location you’re considering.  You can figure out where the best angles and lighting are, and make note of anything to be avoided.  You can also start to formulate a ‘game plan’, which is never a bad idea for a busy family.

On an earlier scouting expedition,  I made note of the beautiful, old stonework at Piedmont Park and decided that would be a good place to start, before moving on to a fantastic old playground.

Outdoor Portraiture - Photographing Families in Natural Light

Kids will always be kids, so I just follow them around as they do their thing.  I talk to them and listen to what they have to say.  At first, most kids are a tad stilted, often stopping to ‘pose’ for me.  However, they usually put it together fairly fast that I’m not really about the pose.  That’s not to say I never make suggestions or help people arrange themselves into comfortable groups.  But for the most part, with kids, I just like to let them go.

Outdoor Portraiture - Photographing Families in Natural Light

Outdoor Portraiture - Photographing Families in Natural Light

I always make suggestions for clothing before a shoot.  This wonderful family came prepared with loads of clothing, hats, hoodies and accessories galore.  Before we even got started, I couldn’t resist getting a shot of one of the boys.  We weren’t even out of the parking lot yet and there were cars in the background.  Who cares?  This is that flexibility, fast reflexes and creativity I was just talking about.  I simply post processed it to look a little dirty and gritty and voila!  I’ll talk more about post processing in another post.

Outdoor Portraiture - Photographing Families in Natural Light

This family included mom, dad, grandmom and three children.  That’s a big dynamic to work with.  Lots of relationships going every which way.  I always ask what the highest priority is, then shoot that first.  If it’s a family shot, that’s usually a little more structured.  Afterward, you can loosen it up and start breaking the family out into smaller groups and individuals.  It’s much harder to rein everybody back in, than it is to start more formal and loosen it up as you go.  When you’re dealing with multiple generations, remember to be sensitive to the physical limitations of those who are older.

Outdoor Portraiture - Photographing Families in Natural Light

Cooler weather is great to shoot in.  All those great layered clothes and rosy cheeks.

Outdoor Portraiture - Photographing Families in Natural Light

Ask the kids if they have any ideas for the shoot.  This often results in some of the most dynamic and funny shots in a session.  All of the images below were suggestions of the children.

Outdoor Portraiture - Photographing Families in Natural Light

Outdoor Portraiture - Photographing Families in Natural Light

Outdoor Portraiture - Photographing Families in Natural Light

This family session was done on a bright, overcast day.  I’ve stated before that it is really perfect lighting for skin tones.

Outdoor Portraiture - Photographing Families in Natural Light

If you would like to read more, check out these articles:

Outdoor Portraiture – Overcoming Challenges

Depth of Field – Photography Tutorial

Review: Totally Rad's RadLab software makes photo editing simple and easy.

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  1. Hi,

    I ve read all your articles and find them very helpful, ive certainly learnt from you! Im really intrigued by the photo of a boy sitting at the bottom of a slide? Ide love to know how this effect was achieved, I have both lightroom 2 and PS cs3, is it a complicated edit? It has a real urban/cross processed look.



  2. deborahwolfe says

    Hi Matt,

    First of all, thanks for reading and appreciating my blog. I’m really happy people are learning from the things I’m putting out there.

    I’ll be happy to tell you how I achieved the look of the image in question.

    I started in Lightroom. I almost always adjust ‘clarity’ and ‘vibrance’. In this case, it was +25 and + 50, respectively. I also almost always use the vignette function in Lightroom (Lens Correction), in this case Amount -100, Midpoint left at 50. I also usually sharpen the image a bit, as most images could do with some sharpening.

    After I exported to Adobe Photoshop CS3, I decided I wanted the image to have a gritty, grainy ‘urban’ feel to it. I’ve make no bones about the fact I LOVE using Photoshop actions. For this particular image, I worked with Doug Boutwell’s Totally Rad Actions. The first thing I selected was his Pross Crossessed #2, dialed back to 75% opacity. I really liked the color shift and increased contrast, but still didn’t feel it was quite there yet. Here’s what Doug has to say about this action: “Creates green-yellow highlights and warm-reddish shadows. Much more ‘acidy’ looking.”

    Next I decided to layer it with Boutwell’s Prettyizer action, dialed back to 25% opacity. This added a bit more richness and depth. However, it still didn’t have a gritty, grainy feeling. That’s when I went digging around through my own catalog of backgrounds I keep on file for layer and overlays. I found one of the side of a rusty old tractor shot in the golden glow of a late afternoon. I used that as a overlay, dialed back to 50%, then created a layer mask for it, so I could erase it from his face. I wanted his face to be ‘clear’.

    So, that’s how I did it.

    If you decide you want to get some of those actions or gear that I talk about and you click through the links or the banners in my sidebars, I get a bit of monetary motivation to keep providing this info. Just sayin’. 🙂

  3. Hi Deborah, like your work and your comments. Its good to know there are women photographers out there who aren’t afraid to do flowers, I work with a woman who does exquisite medium format photos of flowers at HSAD (Hull School of Art & Design, UK) I like natural landscapes and wild life especially trying to capture squirrels! Am reasonably new to lightroom and I like some of your ideas in photoshop.


  4. deborahwolfe says

    Hi Glynis. So glad you’re enjoying the site. And yes, I LOVE flowers. They make my liver smile.