Leah O'Connell

families, for photographers

How to capture natural expressions in family photos

capture natural expressions in family photography
I'm Leah!

I’m obsessed with stories of family, creativity, and simple joys.  A nostalgia nerd, educator, wife, and mom of 3, I believe life’s most fun when you’re dreaming big and having kitchen dance parties. 

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Lifestyle family sessions require gentle, creative direction in order to capture natural expressions that are also flattering. When my clients look back on their images from a session with me, I want them to feel something about that season of life and themselves in it. The photos should feel genuine, not forced.

But it can take a lot of work to make something feel effortless!

playful father and daughter pose in outdoor family session, charlottesville va

There’s a very fine line between being confident and in control vs annoyingly bossy. 

I don’t want to be annoyingly bossy. I do want my clients to feel amazing and trust me enough to let loose and be themselves.

So much of this depends on the energy and tone that I bring throughout a session, no matter what other factors are at play.

Here are a few rules of thumb I lean on in every family session to capture natural expressions.

poses for family of 3 by charlottesville va family photographer

1. Set the stage 

When I was in school to become a teacher, I would often think of myself as an actor on stage when I stepped into the classroom. No matter what was going on in my personal life, I had to shake it and become the teacher my kids needed.

I think of a photoshoot like this sometimes, too.

It’s not only my job to step onto the stage with confidence, but to prepare my clients to know what show they’re seeing. In other words, preparing your clients beforehand to know what to expect is KEY in a successful approach once you’re all together.

It sets them up for success to respond without shock when you begin to do your thing.

natural expressions and poses for outdoor family photography session


Encourage, encourage, encourage. Most people are not used to being in front of a camera for more than a second, so kids and parents alike need tons of encouragement to loosen up. The very first time they naturally laugh or you see something through your lens that really works, RAVE about it.

“Oh that was amazing! You look so happy! Oh my goodness, you guys are the sweetest! Wow, that was magical!”

Make your clients feel like a million bucks – if it feels like too much, it’s probably just right.

The more you encourage early on in your session, the more they will begin to understand realize “I’m doing it right!” and engage more like that on their own.

movement based direction for natural expressions in outdoor family photos
family photos in charlottesville va with a beautiful view

3. Give prompts, not poses

Instead of telling them to “stand here, put your hands like this…” I use games, actions, and conversation starters.

Sometimes these start with poses and directions, like arranging families on a blanket or standing in great light, but once I have the building blocks, I’m free to push the limits so it will fall apart.

The magic happens when the pose falls apart.

Other times, like with couples for a maternity session, I’ll have them tell me about how she shared the news about baby. Sometimes, giving a topic starter and giving them space will allow for the tender shots to unfold.

One of my favorite prompts to use with families is something I call “the bear hug” – I ask the kids to stand closer to the camera and have parents to take a few steps behind them. I tell them to sneak up and surprise bear-hug the kids. It always gets everybody close, embracing, and for-real-belly-laughing.

Of course, the best initiator for play and capturing natural expressions is movement. Swing, dance, run, roll, sway, squeeze… watch people forget stiffness and come alive with movement.

natural mother daughter poses and prompts for family photo sessions
natural expressions and poses for outdoor family photography session

4. Watch your language

This one is an extension of the previous tip. You have to be careful about not only what you say, but how you say it.

There’s a huge difference between “Do that again!” and “I love how you just leaned your head on his shoulder, that was so beautiful!” The second approach is encouraging and says, “you’re doing a great job, we want MORE of that!!” without a bossy or directive tone.

Even if something’s not working, I’ll keep the positive vibes flowing and just subtly pivot with either my words, angle, or whole set-up altogether.

I will never say “oh that wasn’t what I was going for,” or “that’s not working, let’s try something else,” because it immediately stirs up self-consciousness.

I always want my clients to leave a shoot feeling confident and beautiful

prompts to capture natural expressions during outdoor family photos

5. Show don’t tell

If I want a radient mama to flip her hair over her shoulder like a shampoo commercial, I’m going to do it myself first, no matter how silly it feels, because:

  1. Seeing someone else do it makes it more fun and less awkward.
  2. It’s way easier to show which way to turn, how fast to spin, how to turn your shoulder, etc. than to explain and troubleshoot it.

I’ll get down on the blanket and show dad how to sit before we pile kids on top of him.

I’ll demonstrate “freeze face” vs. “relaxed face” if they’re getting hung up on cheesy smiles.

Showing is always the most efficient means to communicating the vision in your head and breaks the ice way better than words alone.

poses for parents in outdoor family photos that capture natural expression

6. Stay calm and set the tone

Remember how your favorite teacher was the one who was fun but also firm? You have to find the balance between keeping the session engaging while also staying in control of the room.

A cranky kid can turn the attitudes of everyone else pretty quickly if you let it, so it’s your job as the photographer to provide quick pivots and keep calm no matter wht happens!

Kids are unpredictable, but clients will naturally feed off of the confidence and attitude you project.

That’s why it’s imperative to make sure you’re not flustered, even if things seem to be derailing. Remember that everything is an opportunity for creativity ; adjust and roll with the punches.

prompts for natural family photos with family of 3

Capturing natural, yet flattering expressions is a challenge, but it’s the photographer’s responsibility to create the environment and energy for that vulnerability.

I hope these tips help take your next session from stale to vibrant and help you capture natural expression, connection, and energy for your clients.

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3 Fun prompts for outdoor family photos

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Hi, I'm Leah.
Family photographer, writer, educator.

I’m  one of the first to meet your newborn baby, the one who won't judge your clothes baskets and unmade beds, and the one who can capture the way your husband looks at you with a twinkle in his eye after 12 years of marriage. I believe in honoring people and telling stories.

I believe art has the power to light up the world in dark places, starting at home.