Tackling a DIY Family Portrait

‘Tis the season—for making merry, family and friends, and the annual family portrait session. While it’s always a nice treat to enjoy a fabulous session with a professional photographer, sometimes—because of schedules, timing, or finances—it’s not feasible to squeeze it in. If that sounds like your family this year, tackle your family portrait in DIY style. Also, don’t save the family portrait for the holidays. Any time of year is a great time of year to take a family portrait, and with all the practice you have you’ll be ready to capture the extended family, too!


No running to get in the picture! The shutter remote is in my left hand, and the tripod is about 20 feet away.

1. Location and Time of Day

A huge benefit of taking your own portrait is flexibility. No need to reschedule if someone is cranky, a late meeting pops up, or your hair isn’t cooperating. Pick the time of day that works well for you. The “golden hour”,—that yummy golden light about an hour before sunset—is ideal, but don’t discount early morning or afternoon. If your family is best just after breakfast, make it happen, Mama!

Picking a location can be nerve-wracking. Don’t over-think it and make it easy on yourself. Choose a local park, the side of a cool building, or even your own living room or backyard. Be mindful of what is behind you, though, and choose a backdrop that complements and enhances your images instead of detracting from them. Please remember that it is illegal to shoot on railroad tracks and private property. Get permission if you have any question about the legality of your shoot location. Some spots also have a photography permit or fee required—be sure to investigate those requirements.

Some beautiful locations around San Antonio:

  • Botanical Gardens
  • Landa Library
  • The San Antonio Zoo (yes, seriously!)
  • Brackenridge Park
  • Japanese Tea Gardens
  • Hardberger Park


I practiced a ton with my shutter remote and ended up with some keepers!

2. The Gear

Point-and-shoot or DSLR—Get to know your camera and its settings well before your session. I recommend the camera you have—if you know it well, it will perform for you. If possible, practice in the lighting and location you want to shoot in, try different settings, and get to know the self-timer function very well. I can’t tell you what your settings should be because every situation is different, but as a general rule, a fast shutter speed and smaller f-stop (e.g., a bigger number) can help make sure everyone is in focus.

A tripod—This isn’t the time to try propping the camera up on a ledge or stack of books. Invest in a tripod (or borrow one) that is compatible with your camera. Familiarize yourself with the up-and-down motion of the legs to make quick changes during your session.

A shutter remote—I’ll totally admit to using the self-timer function All. The. Time., but that also means I can tell you just how much easier a shutter remote makes taking pictures with you in them. A shutter remote is inexpensive and worth its weight in gold. You’ll be surprised how often you find yourself using it!

3. Places, Please

Arrange your family in your fantastic location and prepare for your first shot. Take a few test shots from behind the camera to be sure you like the focus points, the background, and the camera settings. If you have busy little ones, have a stand-in or an older child be your test subject before bringing everyone into the shot.

Try a variety of poses—sitting, standing, close together, spread out a little. Hold each general pose while making small changes (tilt your head, come in closer, hug someone, “everybody laugh,” or “everybody look at Daddy!”), and fire the shutter with your remote a few times. You’ll be amazed at the difference these small changes can make.

Scour Pinterest for posing ideas that are reasonable for your family. My husband is a big guy and really hates sitting on the ground for pictures, so we drag a bench or stool with us, take most of our images standing up, and if I have to get one lower, he “takes a knee” or squats. Point being, as much as I love sitting on the ground poses, they just aren’t realistic.

Remember that it’s easier to shoot “wide” and include more and later crop it out than it is to shoot “tight” and then have so much of the frame filled you don’t have flexibility to work with the image. If you have an idea of what holiday card you might want to use, you can arrange and plan your images around its layout. Do you need horizontal or vertical images? Does the card you like have a text overlay that might go over someone’s face? If you aren’t planning around a holiday card, then try hard to “crop in camera”—that is, set the image how you want it through your viewfinder instead of on the computer later.

4. Make It (Somewhat) Fun

Try to make the process enjoyable! Stay relaxed (you can always try again another time!), be sure everyone is fed, and offer a fun treat after pictures are over. I like to attach something small to the top of my camera—like a Pez dispenser or a small stuffed animal—to direct everyone’s attention. An iPhone propped on top of the camera sometimes does the trick, too—either with the front camera on so that you can see yourselves or, in desperate times, a favorite cartoon, show, or song!

SLC 329

Don’t save family selfies for special occasions! We took advantage of the snowfall to grab a “winter wonderland” shot in Salt Lake City. Another win for the shutter remote!

5. This is Real Life

Remember to embrace the “realness” of your family. One of my favorite client images from last year is of a family of five. Mom and Dad are sitting (and totally cracking up), Big Sis is lying in Dad’s lap pouting while Baby Brother is crawling out of the frame, and Toddler Brother is crying in Mom’s lap. Totally not the wall art-worthy image Mom was hoping for, but it made the Christmas card with a hilarious note about their perfectly imperfect and wonderfully full life. It’s OK if you’re not airbrushed or there is a hair our of place. It’s OK if everyone isn’t coiffed and still neatly pressed. This is your crazy, beautiful life—and most importantly, you’re in the picture and you’re there.

Enjoy tackling your family pictures. I hope they are a cherished record of your amazing family!

A fifth-generation San Antonionian - who happened to spend her formative years in Austin - Amanda loves the SAT from the confetti in her hair to the bluebonnets under her feet. Never one to miss a reason to host a party or decorate for a theme, Amanda revels in the 'mas Fiesta' attitude of the city. She's mom to Vivi (2012) aka #HurricaneVivi, Mac (2020) and wife to Francois, whom she met at Texas A&M (FTAC '05). She has a Masters in Early Childhood Education and a Doctorate in Making it Up As She Goes - which means she's a sometimes-fun-mom. You can find her on Instagram . She loves confetti, croissants, and a cold Ranch Water. Favorite Restaurant: Piatti's Favorite Landmark: Johnson Street footbridge in King William Favorite San Antonio Tradition: Fiesta Medals