Go behind the scenes with these four photographers and explore their methods for taking intimate family portraits—even when the models aren’t related.

Previously, we shared interviews with four contributors that explored their methods for showcasing genuine affection in photos of couples and families. These photographers faced the special challenge of shooting the unplanned, natural moments of tenderness and hilarity between loved ones.

This time we share experiences from photographers on how they work with models to create images of family life and loving couples that look genuine. Using models takes the guesswork out of working with people who have history together, but then photographers need to build familiarity and authenticity between people who have never met. Here are their insights on creating believable intimacy between strangers.

1. “I want them to forget about the camera and being watched and become their most natural selves.”

Bernard Bodo

4 Photographers on Taking Authentic Family Photos with Models — Relaxed Atmosphere

Image by Bernard Bodo. Gear: Canon 5D Mark IV camera, Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art Lens. Settings: Exposure 1/400 sec; f1.8; ISO 250.

What’s the story behind this photo?

The model in the role of the dad was incredibly tall, so we had to try all kinds of poses to make sure the entire family fit naturally into the frame. At some point, I challenged the girl to try to climb up her “dad,” and what followed were some of my favorite family photos to date. In this very shot, she began to fall down and both “parents” quickly tried to catch her, which ended up looking very natural and spontaneous.

This family is a combination of professional models and my personal friends. I honestly don’t prioritize professional models over causal models (or vice versa). It is their collective energy and charisma I care about most.

Pictured: [1] Image by Bernard Bodo. [2] Image by Bernard Bodo. [3] Image by Bernard Bodo.

What tips would you give other photographers about making authentic pictures of couples and families at home?

I believe the location plays an incredible role in my photography. I always use it as a starting point when deciding what kind of set I’d like to go for, and I always make sure the ambiance conveys the emotion I want to convey to the viewer.

After choosing the location I concentrate on finding the most suitable models, making sure their energy corresponds with the desired atmosphere. If it’s a couple, things tend to fall right into place quickly. All I have to do is give them a role and explain what kind of situation they are finding themselves in at that given moment.

From my past experience, the authenticity often comes from repeating the same interaction just enough for it to become funny and even absurd to both me and the models. There is always this one specific moment when they tend to naturally give into the laughter and forget about the camera. This is where the real fun starts and my most spontaneous photographs originate. My goal is always to make sure the models don’t feel like there is a wall between them and me. I want them to forget about the camera and being watched and become their most natural selves.

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

As I have already mentioned, the location serves as my main inspiration for each shoot. Once I’ve seen a spot I like, I go on with my daily routine–like running, for example. It is during such activities that I begin to explore the scene in my head by adding and subtracting various elements and imagining what kind of story could play out. Usually, by the end of my workout, the puzzle pieces have come together and I go home to make arrangements.

2. “Spend time with your subjects before you get anywhere near taking pictures of them.”

Darren Baker

4 Photographers on Taking Authentic Family Photos with Models — Professionalism

Image by Darren Baker. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Canon 70-200mm F2.8/L lens. Settings: Exposure 1/80 sec; f5.6; ISO 250.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This picture is one from a great sequence of images shot with this amazing couple, who had been recommended to me by other models I had worked with. Although this was actually my first time working with them, they were in a relationship in real life and had also worked together a lot in the past. I didn’t need to try and create a rapport between the two of them. That was already there, and fortunately we “clicked” immediately, which meant that working with them was an absolute joy.

We sorted out wardrobe and props, and like a director would with actors on a film set, I talked them through the various scenarios I wanted them to portray. Working with models who are also actors, which these two are, is a huge help when it comes to creating authentic-looking “scenes.” Actors are used to interacting with other people and improvising as a shoot progresses, which means you don’t get a stop/start progression but a lovely and smooth flow of ideas coming from both sides of the camera. As a bonus, this also means that it’s much easier to shoot video at the same time as stills because you are not getting your models to pose in a rigid setup. Instead, you’re creating an active scene from which you can grab “candid” moments that look truly authentic.

My long-lasting memory from this day is what a great laugh we had from start to finish, and I think the pictures reflect that. Also, the greatest testament to our working relationship is the fact that we have worked together multiple times since this first day, both on stock and commercial work. Every time was an absolute blast, and the results have, without exception, been amazing.

4 Photographers on Taking Authentic Family Photos with Models — Practice

Image by Darren Baker.

What tips would you give other photographers about making authentic pictures of couples and families at home?

I think the key to making authentic-looking pictures of couples and families is to create a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere on set. If the people you are working with feel uneasy or unsure about what they are doing, it will undoubtedly come across on their faces and in their body language. Spend time with your subjects before you get anywhere near taking pictures of them.

Find out about them, what they’ve been doing, what their interests are, and what they like. This way, you will have things you can talk to them about while you’re working, creating a rapport and allowing them to relax and not feel self-conscious about what they are doing. This is especially true when working with children in family groups; getting them to relax and be themselves is tough but vitally important for authentic-looking family photographs. Remember: real emotions create real reactions. Alfred Eisenstaedt once said, “It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.” That’s a doctrine to live by.

If you are trying to create a family or couple “vibe,” it’s always better if you can have people who already know each other and have worked together before. They can be real couples or families, but that’s not essential; you can get great results with people who are friends or have shared professional experience. It is, however, a real challenge if the situation is something like, “Hi Anne, this is David; David, this is Anne. I know you’ve never met before, but I want you to hold hands, kiss, and walk down this path looking like you are madly in love with each other…” Good luck with that!

Be confident in yourself while you’re shooting. Your confidence will give your models confidence. If they feel like you know what you’re doing, they will feel safe in your hands. Show them pictures on the back of the camera as the shoot progresses; that way, they will feel more relaxed and sure about themselves because they’ll know that what they are doing is looking good.

Finally, take breaks during the day. Again, this will give you time to chat without the pressure of performing. Time spent drinking tea, having a biscuit, and looking at the pictures you’ve shot for the past couple of hours is not wasted time; it relaxes everyone and means you can all go into the next phase of the day happy and full of confidence.

This applies doubly to children in family groups. Most children will struggle to work for multiple hours on end; they lose focus and become tired, distracted, and uncooperative, resulting in poor pictures—something nobody wants. Keep the atmosphere light, fun, and productive so everyone can go home happy at the end of the day.

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

I have always been inspired by the work of great photographers across a very broad spectrum, from Russell James, Albert Watson, Anton Corbijn, and Annie Leibovitz to Peter Lindbergh, Bruno Bisang, and even Robert Capa. I have a house with shelves full of books by photographers from every era, and I’ve spent many evenings looking through them and just absorbing the way they work.

I’m also hugely inspired by film and television. In fact, a lot of people have commented on my work by saying that it looks very cinematic or televisual in its framing and composition. Looking at how cinematographers frame people and couples on screen is a fantastic way to find ideas for your own work. Next time you’re watching a classic romantic movie, look at how they shoot the couple. There are some real master classes up there on the screen just waiting to be studied.

3. “It is important not to ask for anything that is out of their comfort zones; otherwise, they will lose their confidence, and the shot will look staged.”

Zsolt Nyulászi (StockLite)

4 Photographers on Taking Authentic Family Photos with Models — Chemistry

Image by Zsolt Nyulászi (StockLite). Gear: Canon EOS 5Ds camera, Sigma Art 50/1.4 lens, 5 studio strobes. Settings: Focal length 50mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f3.5; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

Well, just because you work a lot on a shot doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be authentic-looking. In this shot, you see two professional models, Sophy and Adam, who aren’t a real couple. They already knew each other from other modeling jobs. Even though we had worked with both of them before, this was the first time they worked with us together, so we started the session with “office life” and business-themed images.

There was some chemistry between them, so we quickly jumped to the optional shooting plan: a couple at home. The story was quite simple. The environment was our own studio, and we carefully selected the furniture and props. All the lights are artificial here—several flash units. What I remember most is the hat. When we started the shoot, we totally loved the results, but then I remembered I had this blue hat that I’d bought for myself on vacation. We gave it to Adam, and that was the moment the images became perfect for me.

Pictured: [1] Image by Zsolt Nyulászi (StockLite). [2] Image by Zsolt Nyulászi (StockLite).

What tips would you give other photographers about making authentic pictures of couples and families at home?

The ultimate trick is to work with real couples and families, but of course, this is not always an option. When they are regular people or professional models who don’t know each other yet, I am very careful about what I ask of them.

It is important not to ask for anything that is out of their comfort zones; otherwise, they will lose their confidence, and the shot will look staged. So, avoid asking for too much intimacy!

Put them into real-life situations instead. For example, they can be “a family cooking together” or “a couple watching TV on the couch.” That way, they can act with confidence. I never plan intimate shoots with people who have never met before. I usually bring them together for another session first, where they can do a scene like “people working at the office together,” and I let them have the time to get to know each other better.

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

Life is always the best inspiration. I keep my eyes open, and when I see something touching or interesting, I try to analyze why I like it so much and figure out how I can reproduce it later. I try to avoid copying the photos of others. And even though I usually have a plan, I let the models act and live in the situation, and I assimilate. Sometimes I drop the plan and we just shoot what happens naturally.

4. “With new models, I try to get them out of their own worlds. I talk about other things, make jokes, and create a fun atmosphere where they feel comfortable.”

Antonio Guillem

4 Photographers on Taking Authentic Family Photos with Models — Fun and Relaxed

Image by Antonio Guillem. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon 135mm f/2L lens, white cloth reflector. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec; f4; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This shoot was in October 2016, when I decided to take some winter-themed photos indoors. I used the natural light from the studio window as the main light and a white cloth reflector on the opposite side. As usual, I worked with my two models, Laura and Mario (the names of the models are pseudonyms, used to protect their privacy).

With them, it is easier to get images that transmit joy and happiness. I am fortunate to work with great people in a positive environment. For me, making work fun always creates great results. For this shoot, in particular, we worked with postures and body language, and as usual, I ended up making some nonsense jokes that made them laugh. The rest was easy—just shooting.

4 Photographers on Taking Authentic Family Photos with Models — Collaboration

Image by Antonio Guillem.

What tips would you give other photographers about making authentic pictures of couples and families at home?

Whether they are models or a real couple, there has to be some chemistry between them. If they feel uncomfortable with each other, it can make it more difficult for them to relax. For example, it won’t be easy to photograph a couple that has been fighting recently or is in the middle of a difficult situation.

With new models, I try to get them out of their own worlds. I talk about other things, make jokes, and create a fun atmosphere where they feel comfortable. They forget that they will be posing as a couple. In most of my photos, I work with the same models. They already know each other, and there’s a great sense of collaboration between them and with me. That makes everything much easier.

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

Part of my inspiration comes from what we all basically have inside us. We all want to be loved and to love someone. We have all been in a relationship that made (or makes) us happy, at least in a certain way. It is easy to imagine that perfect couple situation, or to remember it, although it’s quite different when you’re finding a way to represent it in a picture.

Other than that, the two models I usually work with inspire me. I love them as if they were my kids, and they are already part of my family. Although they are not a real couple (they both have their partners outside of work), the affection we have is in and of itself my biggest inspiration. Working with them makes everything much easier and more fun.

Top Image by Bernard Bodo.