Many photographers struggle for great family photo ideas, but some of the best family portrait photography is that which relies on the old adage that less is more. In this quick and easy tutorial we’ll show you how to make one of our favourite family photo ideas – shooting individual family members in profile and combining them on the computer into one striking family portrait.
At once simple yet instantly recognisable, side-on profiles have been a popular record of a person’s likeness since long before the invention of the camera.
From the silhouetted keepsakes of 18th century lovers, to the royal visage adorning every coin in your pocket, profiled portraits have been ubiquitous for centuries.
One reason for this may be because they show off a person’s unique features in such a clearly defined shape, which also makes for a fascinating family portrait.
Here we’ll show you how to shoot a series of dramatically lit profiles of an entire family – one person at a time – then stitch the individual portraits to create a family photo that not only looks stylish, but also delivers an interesting study of the similarities and differences between each face.
If you’re planning on shooting your own, we’ve got a host of useful tips that will show you how to set up, light and shoot your family in profile.
Once shot, you’ll find a step-by-step guide that shows you exactly how to put your images together in Photoshop. This is much easier than you might think.
All we need to do is use the Lighten Blend Mode so that the lighter parts on each layer show through, then tidy up with a little painting. As the images are mostly black, this makes combining the faces a quick, painless task.
If you prefer to watch, there’s a video among this month’s files that guides you through both the camera skills and Photoshop technique involved in creating an elegant family portrait that will be cherished for years to come.
Family Photo Ideas – step-by-step how to shoot your striking family portrait
01 Use a black background
Begin by putting up a black background. Black velvet is best because it’s completely non-reflective. If you don’t have one, you can improvise with some other common material.
It’s crucial that the background remains as dark as possible, so watch out for light spilling onto it from your flash or lamp. If there is any spillage, reposition the light or place something between the light and background to block the light from reaching it.
02 Set up a light source
You’ll need a strong light source to create your dramatic profiles. We’ve used an Elinchrom home studio flash head here, fitted with a small softbox to diffuse the light.
If you don’t have a flash head, you could use a flashgun fitted with a diffuser as long as you can trigger it wirelessly or via a cable. Alternatively, a strong lamp will work, but you’ll need to increase your camera’s ISO and adjust exposure to allow for weaker light.
03 Position the light
Set up your light source off to one side and slightly behind where your subjects will be. The positioning, height and angle of the light is vital, because the aim is to light the edge of the person’s profile while keeping the rest of the face fairly dark.
Directing the light straight at the person will result in harsh light, while swinging it more in the direction of the camera will ‘feather’ the light and give softer results. Take a few test shots to determine the right angle.
04 Set up the camera
Set your camera to manual mode and take a few test shots with one of the people in position to determine the correct exposure. Be careful not to blow out the highlights – this means you’ll lose detail in the faces.
Either turn on your camera’s clipping warnings or check the histogram to make sure none of the peaks on the graph ‘hit the wall’ on the right-hand side. Exposure settings will depend on the strength of the light. We’ve used 1/125 sec at f/8, ISO200 here.
05 Pose your family
Use a stool or chair so that each person will be in roughly the same position, which will help to keep the lighting consistent. Ask each person to look at a spot on the wall facing them so that the heads will be at the same angle.
Getting people to roll their shoulders back and tilt their heads upwards will help to minimise double chins.
06 Shield against lens flare
A light source angled towards the camera means an increased chance of flare entering the lens. This can spoil the whole effect by dulling the darkest tones (which is what has happened on the right of this image).
Fitting your lens with a lens hood can help, but this may not be enough, in which case, use your hand or a piece of card to shield the front of the lens on the side where the light is.
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Free portrait lighting cheat sheet
3 stupidly simple lighting techniques that will transform your family portraits
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