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How to Take Better Pictures of Your Family

6 tips to help make lasting memories using your smartphone

5 Tips to Take Better Family Photos

Thanksgiving and the quick succession of HanukkahChristmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s and a variety of other parties and holidays mean family gatherings and extended group photos.

Professional photographers find themselves very busy arranging family members and producing photos. But smartphones from 2019 and newer have gotten so good that you can easily make your own photos for cards and gifts. Beyond the joyful reunions and memories made around the dinner table, for many of us this will be a great opportunity to create updated family photos.

Are your images too dark or too light? Do you have photos that look like they’ve been torched by a gas lamp because the flash was too strong, or are your images fuzzy and out of focus? Thanks to software tricks, especially on recent Google Pixels, iPhones or Samsung Galaxy phones, these glitches are less likely to happen.

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But human error can still get in the way. So here are six tips to help you get memorable family photos to pass down from generation to generation.

1. Appoint a director

Big gatherings create competition for your time.

Some folks prep the food. Others watch TV. One person needs to take charge and make sure the photos get done, either before mealtime or after. No amount of software trickery or artificial intelligence (AI) will convince folks that it’s photo time. You or a designated director needs to take on the task.

Pro tip: If you can set a time before eating, you’ll probably have better attention from family members along with good afternoon light in which everyone will look better.

2. Place the camera at eye level

To get everyone in the group shot, you won’t have any extra hands to take the photo. Luckily, software comes to the rescue. You can use the timer on your smartphone to take the photo using the selfie camera. With the visible screen, everybody will be able to crowd together to fit in the frame.

What you’ll need:

A tripod and adapter. You can buy a cheap tripod online for as little as $20, and while it wouldn’t be recommended for outside use, for an inside group photo, it will do fine. Or you could pick up a compact tabletop tripod for around $10 to $30. You also may need an adapter to fit the smartphone atop the tripod, which could add another $20 to your tab. Many small tripods come with the adapter included.

Or a stack of books. If you forgot the tripod, you can lean the camera against a stack of books or something similar to keep it upright and steady.

The trick is to make sure the camera is at eye level. If it’s looking up at you and your family after you turned on the timer, you’ll be capturing subjects at an awkward angle and seeing more necks than faces.

Preferred method: Stack a bunch of books high on a table until you reach the eye level of most people. This could include a table tripod on top of the stack or just all books. If you have a traditional tripod, you won’t need the books, just extend the arms as high as they go.

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Next, turn on your phone’s timer to start your group selfie countdown.

On iPhones, open the Camera app 📷, choose Photo and tap the up arrowhead ⌃ at the top middle of the screen. You’ll see five or six icons, depending on your iPhone model, directly above the white shutter button. The timer, a clock icon with a portion of the circle missing, is on the right, sometimes the far right. Touch that icon and set it to 10 seconds. The 10-second setting gives you more time to get into position when you run to the group.

On Androids, the timer is easier to find. On most Samsung Galaxy phones, just open the Camera app, and a similar clock icon is directly atop the screen. It offers settings for 2, 5 or 10 seconds.

3. Chairs are your best friends

The biggest problem with photos of large families is getting everyone into the picture. If you have just four people, it’s easy. A growing brood presents a challenge, especially when you don’t have a photographer helping you.

spinner image Robin and Natalie Cayetano
Courtesy Jefferson Graham

But let’s assume a family member will be acting as the holiday photographer. The tendency is to make two rows with the shortest people in front and the tall ones behind. That’s good in theory. But people in the back tend to get hidden, and you won’t see their faces.

This is where chairs make a difference. They can let you make rows, and the people behind can crowd around the seated folks.

Pro tip: Give grandparents or other VIPs the chairs, and let the kids stand behind them. Because you’ll have the smartphone screen and the timer counting down the seconds, everybody will be able to get into position and confirm that they’re in the frame — and at eye level with the camera.

4. Watch your windows

As good as new smartphone cameras are, they can’t always compensate for the way light streams through windows. When you photograph someone in front of a window, the camera tends to expose for brightness of the window instead of the subject. That turns them into silhouettes.

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Yet the best lighting you’ll find for your get-together will come from a window — soft, even light that will make everyone look great, without any shadows on their faces. But that can happen only if they are facing the window.

Pro tip: Try to take the shot with as little clutter in the background as possible. That way, you can focus attention on the faces, not the mess on the kitchen table.

For instance, in this mother-and-daughter photo of Robin and Natalie Cayetano, we positioned them so they were angled with much of a blank wall behind them, making for a less cluttered image.

5. Go outside to catch some sunlight

Sometimes you don’t have access to window light inside and your available interior overhead light is harsh and unflattering. Solution: Go outside if you can, even if it’s just to pose by the door, to get the available light on your faces.

When you’re outside, open shade can produce the same soft, even light that you get from a window.

But if you stand in direct sun, it could produce harsh shadows on your faces, especially in the eyes. Try to have the sun behind you, not facing you, and everyone will be able to see all your faces without shadows.

spinner image Cayetano family photo on their porch
Courtesy Jefferson Graham

In this shot of the Cayetano family, they posed on a seat on their front porch in the shade. A loving family is one that sits together, right?

Three of the family members fit on the seat while Natalie sat on the arm. She appears to be a little taller than her dad, but she probably wouldn’t complain. Dog Wes is in the shot, too, and there is a secret to getting animals to participate. Just take lots and lots of photos, because odds are the pet will be looking up for at least one of them.

6. Take advantage of new technology

Both new iPhones and Android models have a new Portrait Selfie mode camera setting, which lets you take better-looking self-portraits with a cool blurred background. This works best for photos of one or two people.

Google Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro devices let you swap out individual faces in the AI-driven Best Take editing feature of Google Photos for a better shot of the same person, which it offers up from similar photos. It’s another reason to take several bursts of pictures in the same photo session. After all, you’re not buying film.

This story, originally published November 17, 2021, was updated to include new smartphone settings and technology.

Jefferson Graham is a contributing writer who covers personal technology and previously was a technology columnist for USA Today. He hosts the streaming travel photography series Photowalks on Amazon PrimeTubi and YouTube, as well as the iPhone Photo Show podcast.


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