Here’s How To Take Amazing Family Photos Without Hiring A Photographer

how to take DIY family photos without hiring a photographer

So you saved up all year for that amazing family beach vacation you’ve been dreaming of, and it’s finally here! Everyone has a tan, the kids are in a great mood, and the weather is perfect. What time could be better for a family photo shoot? 

kiddos and family on the beach for DIY photos in different groupings

The thing is this: a family photo shoot at the beach doesn’t even cross your mind until your family is actually AT the beach. I know you’re busy trying to manage last-minute work expectations, packing five million outfits, and trying to search through the attic for last year’s sand buckets and beach chairs. Plus, most people don’t want to drop an additional $500-$1,000 for a beach photo shoot–heck, just saving up for the vacation itself took a lot!

Because I’m cheap (ahem, thrifty), I don’t like paying extra for someone to take our photos when we take our annual beach vacation with my husband’s family. What I DO want are some great family beach portraits with amazing, professional-quality results. With that in mind, I wanted to do a tutorial for all of you DIY’ers out there – so that you too can take great family photos at the beach without having to drop hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on a photographer! Keep in mind, you can also use this setup to take family photos ANYWHERE! Holiday family photos, spring photos, vacation photos– the possibilities are endless.

If you have a DSLR camera, with a few extra additions you easily take your own photos. It may require a small initial investment depending on what gear you already own (versus what gear you might need to purchase), but this setup will pay off time and time again as the years go on.

equipment needed to do DIY family photos without hiring a pro photographer

Items needed: 

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  • DSLR camera + battery and memory card (Don’t have a DSLR camera? See HERE for my recommendations!
  • Tripod (usually the more expensive ones are sturdier, but a less expensive one can do a great job if you steady it by tying a plastic bag full of sand to the bottom hook).
  • Quick release connector plate (that came with your tripod) to connect camera to tripod. (Note: not all tripods have this. Yours may just have a screw mount.  I personally prefer the quick release plates so that I’m not standing there forever trying to screw the camera to the top of the tripod.)
  • 2 pocket wizards, transceivers (or similar radio transmitters). I actually love the older discontinued Pocket Wizards. If you can get your hands on them, they are simple, reliable, cheap, and not nearly as complicated as some of the newer versions.
  • 1 cord to connect Pocket Wizard to remote trigger on camera. The cord varies depending on which camera brand you have. Go to Amazon and type in “Remote Shutter Release Cord Pocket Wizard (and your camera model)” One end will connect to the pocket wizard, and the other will plug directly into the side of your camera.
  • 1 large beach towel or something else to lay in sand (to set your gear down on and minimize sand).

Make a plan

1. Find a spot for taking the photos

I normally walk around the area close to where we’re staying (to make it easy on everyone)! I try to scout the day before I’m actually going to shoot at around the same time I’m thinking of shooting–usually I prefer evening. This gives me a good idea of the lighting at that time of day, and it also ensures that I’m not walking around sweating my butt off right before the photos. I’m looking for a background or angle that won’t have any people, beach chairs, buildings, or tents in the background.

several areas at the beach are ideal for family photos

Pro tip:  usually areas with sea oats, boardwalks, or the ocean in the background photograph really well! Just remember that many areas with sea oats are protected land for sea turtles, so be sure to do the photos in front of the protected area (without walking into the sea turtle hatching areas). 

2. Decide which day you’ll schedule the photo shoot

I would highly recommend not waiting until the last evening to shoot (speaking from experience–ugh!) On our most recent trip, both of our kiddos got very sick on the last day. We had planned to wait until our last evening to do photos, but in hindsight that wasn’t the best idea. Instead, we should have planned for a day or two earlier so that in the case of inclement weather (or puking kiddos) we could have regrouped and done a different night. Lesson learned!

Pro tip: Check the weather forecast and try to schedule your pictures for the first best day of weather on your trip. That way, you’ll have the rest of your evenings free and you won’t have to worry about sick kiddos, looming clouds, or photographing accidental sunburns.

3. Figure out which time of day you want to shoot

The best lighting will be during “golden hour,” which is after dawn or about an hour before sunset. Avoid the middle of the day as the sun produces harsh, overly-bright lighting. In the morning or evening, I normally prefer the sun to be behind my subjects (in this case, shining on the backs of your family) ..BUT off to the side a bit so the camera isn’t looking directly into the sun. If it’s cloudy out, it doesn’t matter which direction you shoot–the lighting will uniform no matter what the orientation. 

Pro tip: If you can’t find an area that will photograph well WITH the sun in the correct place, you can face your subjects into the sun, but wait to do that until the sun is almost down to the horizon. Otherwise, the sun will be so bright that everyone will be squinting and have watery eyes (never a good look for photos–haha!)

Setup

Once you’re ready to actually do the shoot, you’ll need to setup your camera and the tripod/remotes. See below for photos of each step! I typically like to test my setup indoors earlier in the day where it’s nice and cool (without sand and wind) to make sure everything is working correctly. I normally do this after lunch-ish so that if I run into a problem I have some time to fix it. Doing a quick test setup takes about 5-10 minutes.

Here’s how I approach setting up:

  • Make sure the camera has a charged battery, an empty memory card (or one that has plenty of space left on it) and a lens. I prefer to use anywhere from a 70mm – 100 mm lens. You can use a different lens, but range I personally feel produces the best results (Need lens recommendations? See here!
  • Attach the tripod connector plate to the bottom of the camera. Make sure it’s good and tight (but not so tight that you won’t be able to get it undone later- of course NOT that I’ve ever done that before…. LOL)
  • Open up your tripod and snap the connector plate and camera into the tripod. This may vary depending on which model of tripod you have; regardless of model, make sure it is LOCKED in there and cannot fall (mine will make a clicking sound and a pin snaps left- then I give it a good pull to make sure it’s definitely on there solidly).
  • Make sure Pocket Wizards or other radio transmitters have fresh batteries. Attach one Pocket Wizard Transciever into camera via the camera trigger cord. It will plug into the camera/flash port on the pocket wizard and then into the side of your DSLR camera.
  • Make sure both Pocket Wizards are on and on the same radio channel (channel 1 is what I have mine set on for this tutorial)
  • Turn camera on
  • Push the button on the Pocket Wizard, and it should trigger your camera to take a photo. You did it!!!
attach connector plate for tripod
Attach connector plate to the bottom of your DSLR camera
tripod connector plate attached securely
Tripod connector plate attached securely
Attach camera to the tripod securely
Attach camera to the tripod securely. Notice I brought my poor old beat up Canon Mark II instead of one of my newer cameras– JUST in case the sand gets into the camera I’d rather have my older camera for a beach shoot.
attach cord to pocket wizard
Attach cord to pocket wizard- into the camera/flash spot
Plug other end of pocket wizard cord into the side of your DSLR camera
Plug other end of pocket wizard cord into the side of your DSLR camera
Remote trigger cord is now connected properly to camera
Remote trigger cord is now connected properly to camera
Turn on both wizards and camera and test to make sure they are working properly to trigger camera shutter
Turn on camera and both wizards, test to make sure they are working properly to trigger camera shutter

Once  I know everything is working well, I repack everything into my bag to carry down later.

I do leave my lens connected, and I leave my battery and memory card IN the camera so I minimize opening the compartments once on the beach. One crappy thing about the beach is sand can be very damaging to lenses or to your camera. You want to take precautions to make sure you don’t get sand in your camera body (or in your lenses). The precautions I normally take are: putting the camera and gear in it’s bag until I’m at the location, dusting my hands off before handling my camera or lenses, keeping the camera in the bag as much as possible, setting the bag down on a barrier such as a beach towel. 

Once you’re cleaned up and ready for photos, you will want to take your camera out of its bag and set it outside in a safe place where the lens and camera body can adjust to the humidity and temperature change outdoors. You’ll want to do this approximately 20 minutes before your shoot. If you skip this step and bring your camera out from the air conditioning (without letting it adjust), your camera and lens will fog up badly. You may want to bring a little microfiber lens cloth with just in case you still get a little fog on your lenses down at the beach.

Fog on the lens from taking the camera from air conditioning to outdoors too quickly
Lens fog from taking the camera from air conditioning to outdoors too quickly

For the shoot

Head down to your location, put a barrier down on the ground to set your bag on (a beach towel works just fine!) and put your setup together! Make sure everything is turned on and ready to go.

If you want some specifics on settings, here’s what I do:  I prefer to shoot on manual, but you can shoot on program mode or whatever you are comfortable with. If it’s cloudy out, set the ISO at either 400 ISO (cloudy but still pretty bright) or 800-1600 ISO if it’s cloudy but with darker, thick clouds. I would set the aperture at 5.0 so that everyone in your photo is in focus (I prefer a slightly blurry background–see here for more information on apertures). If it’s sunny and your backs are to the sun, set the white balance to shade. If it’s cloudy, set my white balance to cloudy; likewise, if you’re looking into the camera at sunset, set the white balance to sunny.

Now it’s time to have a family member (or a few!) to stand in the place where you want to take the photo. Position the camera 15-20ish feet away if possible, and zoom your lens in to get the crop you’d prefer. Make sure there aren’t any super-distracting elements in the background by moving the camera or by placing your family in front of the distracting element to block it. Focus the camera on them and take a photo. 

test shot of family members on beach
Test shot of family members on beach

At this point, I review the photo. I make sure it’s not too bright, not too dark, and then I zoom in to make sure everyone’s in focus. Make sure they don’t move from the spot you had them stand or it will mess up your focus! 

Now it’s time for YOU to hop into the photo! Hold the second Pocket Wizard in one hand. I like to put my arm around someone next to me in the photo, and I hold the wizard in that hand (making sure to make sure that hand is hidden from the camera). Have everyone look at the camera and then push the button on the pocket wizard. You should hear the camera pop as it takes a photo. Take 5-6 photos to make sure you have a frame with everyone’s eyes open 🙂 🙂 

Finished photo of all family on beach, DIY
Finished DIY photo of all family on beach

Now you can have fun! Try some candids like: “Everyone hug into the middle!” “Give Mom a kiss!” “Everyone hold hands!” “Everyone be silly!” “Everyone jump!” or whatever fun things you would like to do. Just make sure you don’t move forward or backwards, or else you’ll have to stop and refocus the camera.

For a more artistic look, convert your photos to black and white! I love this look!

Before wrapping up, review the photos before everyone heads back to the house–just to make 1000% sure you have what you want. Sometimes the sun can go behind a cloud mid-shoot (or can come out from behind a cloud) and mess up your exposure a little. Of course, if kiddos moved forward or backward, you’ll want to adjust your focusing and try again before you wrap up! 

One last note: when we had itty bitty kiddos (baby-2 years), it was a little hard for them to understand what it meant “to look at the camera.” You can try a few things: recruit a friend or other family member to stand directly behind the camera and be silly, or try setting a stuffed animal or brightly colored pinwheel on top of or below the camera!

Hope this tutorial helps! Leave a comment and let me know what has worked for you. I’d also love to see your photos, post on Instagram using hash tag #RLCBeachPhotoChallenge

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Krista Lee is a Nashville, TN based portrait and wedding photographer. See her work and professional site at www.kristaleephotography.com

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