3 simple lighting techniques for better family portraits

Lighting techniques for shooting family portraits

Portrait lighting is an area that even the most confident photographers struggle with, but using it to get professional-looking family portraits is much simpler than it may first appear. Like most areas of photography, it’s simply a case of taking it one step at a time.

In the following tutorial we will break the different areas of portrait lighting down and examine how each light affects the final result, as well as where to position them in your home photo studio.

We start by shooting with a single light, before moving on to a fill light that softens the shadows, and then introduce a light to illuminate the background.

These are all 3 very simple portrait lighting techniques that you can use at home when shooting your own family portraits. Use these techniques and soon you can transform your family portraits from looking like this

Family portrait lighting tips: good and bad lighting

to looking like the portrait on the bottom – thus saving you a small fortune from getting them shot professionally.

This tutorial will also hopefully give you the confidence to experiment with more complex lighting set-ups that will quickly improve the quality of not only your family portraits, but other genres of photography you like to shoot. So without further ado…

Family Portrait Lighting Technique No. 1: One light set-up

We start this tutorial by positioning a Bowens flash unit to the right of where we’re shooting from. To soften the light from this flash we bounce the flash into an umbrella (see No. 4 below).

Family portrait lighting tips: using a one-light set-up

In manual mode, we set an aperture to f/4 to get a shallow depth of field, and a shutter speed of 1/200sec to prevent motion blur from any ambient light. We then adjusted to head’s power to get a good exposure (in this case 1/16th power).

We start with our subject, Henry, sitting on a chair, so that he doesn’t move around too much while his father fires off a few frames to get a feel for how this simple portrait lighting set-up works.

There are several shots in which the back of the chair is visible, and when Henry inevitably faces away from the flash unit, there are too many shadows on his face. But despite these limitations, a single light works well.

Family Portraits: one-light set-up Family Portraits: one-light set-up
With just one light we’ve done a good job of capturing expressions, but there are some noticeable shadows across his face, and the background is quite dark.

It helps that the room is mostly white, as it softens the light by bouncing it back into the shadows. To soften the light further, we also try using a reflector to bounce light back into the shadows, but this needs an extra pair of hands, so we decide it’s time to add another light.

Family Portrait Lighting Technique No. 2: Adding fill light

Henry is doing a great job as our model, but he’s understandably getting a little bored, so we decide to give him a break while we set up the next light. The second light we need is used to lighten the shadows created by the first light. For this we fit a softbox to one of our flash heads, and place it above our shooting position.

Family Portrait Lighting Tips: adding fill light

This flash unit is half the power of the main light, so 
we set it on the same 1/16th power to give a lighting ratio of approximately 2:1. This simply means that the first light we used (called the key light) is around twice as bright as the second light (called the fill light).

This set-up also lights a larger area, which is ideal when shooting kids because they don’t stay still!

With the new lighting in place, we decide to do without the chair and let Henry loose a little. This gives us the opportunity to shoot several different crops, from the classic close-up portrait to full-length shots.

This presents a much greater challenge than the previous sitting portraits because we have to frame the shot, focus, and capture Henry’s best expressions. But we manage to master all of these disciplines, and capture some great shots as Henry pulls poses like a seasoned model.

Family Portraits: adding fill light Family Portraits: adding fill lightHere the poses are much more fun and dynamic, but the background could do with more light

Family Portrait Lighting Technique No. 3: lighting the background

Now that we’re getting good results from the two lights, we need to take a look at the background. We set up one of our lights on a low-level stand, and point it towards the white backdrop we’re using. Unlike the other two heads, this one doesn’t have any light modifiers fitted to it, so even on minimum power it’s much brighter than the existing lights.

After taking a quick test shot we decide to increase the power of both the key light and the fill light to balance the exposure between these and the background light. This means that we have to reduce the aperture to f/7.1 to compensate for the increase in light.

The depth of field is less critical with this set-up because the brighter, over-exposed background means that any distracting marks and creases on the material are already less visible.

Again, we let Henry roam free with this set-up because the usable area lit by the two front lights is big enough for Henry to move around in. This proves to be a good idea, as he poses for us without too much prompting.

We still have our work cut out for us, though, in keeping up with the movement, and on a few of the shots some of the light from the background spills onto the side of Henry’s face, but even these are successful and produce some modern-looking high-key portraits.

Family Portraits: lighting the background Family Portraits: lighting the background

With things going so well we decide to try one last change to the lighting set-up by putting a snoot on the background light, creating a pool of light behind Henry. But trying to get Henry in the right position and with 
a natural-looking expression proves to be a challenge too far, so we decide to call it a day while we’re still ahead, and Henry can have a well-deserved rest.

Family Portrait Lighting Technique No. 4?

Using flash modifiers

Can we squeeze in a 4th? Technically this isn’t a lighting technique, but it’s very useful to know (and own) so we thought we should include it. There’s a vast array of accessories available that can change the quality of the light from your flash unit to give your family portraits a range of different effects. Here are three of the most useful that we can recommend…

Lighting tips for family portraits: use an umbrella


There are two types of umbrella: reflective ones that bounce flash onto the subject, and translucent ones, which you fire flash through. Both types soften the flash light.

Lighting tips for family portraits: use a softbox


A softbox is attached to the flash and the flash is fired through layers of diffusing material. This produces a very soft light, but unlike umbrellas, it’s easy to control where the light falls because the sides prevent the light from spilling out.

Lighting tips for family portraits: use a snoot

A snoot is an attachment that 
is used to produce a narrow area 
of light. This is particularly handy if you want to highlight specific areas of your subject. However, this accessory can produce very harsh shadows, because the flash is pointing directly at the subject.


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