Lifestyle: Couples and Families

Lifestyle: Couples and Families

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photo by Thayer Gowdy

Taking great pictures of couples and families should be a slam dunk for most photographers; we all understand these relationships first-hand, and our personal networks should yield some immediate casting options.

However, buyers complained more about the ‘bad acting’ syndrome in this category than any other. The majority of family and couples work feels staged and dated – two total disqualifiers in the world of stock.

Not surprisingly then, the photographers we interviewed who are excelling in this field cited the following two critical success factors: 1) great casting – finding people who can act naturally in front of the camera and who have chemistry together, and 2) storytelling – setting up a conceptual framework that your models can act within, and that gives buyers a useful context for illustrating their own narratives.

Continue reading below to learn more about breaking free from clichéd family photography — and bringing in the money from stock sales.

photo by Jon Ragel

Families obviously come in all shapes in sizes, and so do couples. What exactly do buyers want to see? There is room for a range of casting here, but here are some guidelines that we discovered:

  • The greatest demand involves families where the children are between the ages of 8-16. There doesn’t seem to be much demand for families with grown children, and any younger than 8 and it’s more about the kids themselves than a family story. The main demand is for ages 8-16, where the family is really the core institution.

  • Couples can be of all ages but the primary demand is for couples in their late 20s, 30s and 40s. (Senior couples are addressed in the ‘Seniors’ section)

  • Ethnic diversity is badly needed across families + couples.

  • ‘Alternate lifestyle’ gay/lesbian casting is also needed.

photo by Thayer Gowdy

It seems like almost everyone had something to add to this category – it was a fun group! We’d specifically like to introduce and thank the following experts, who had the most to say on the subject:




  • Everything looks staged or dated. These are the number one and two buyer complaints in this category. Couples and family members know each other the best and are at their most natural together. Make sure that’s what you capture.


photo by Jon Ragel

  • Tell a story. Resist the temptation to do family portraits – show interactions and activities. Starting with the alarm clock in the morning, plan a shotlist of everyday moments – a couple spending Sunday morning together, a busy family rushing out the door – if you can capture these every day moments beautifully, you will be on your way.

photo by Nancy Ney

  • Stay general. At the same time, don’t get too specific. Think through basic family concepts, tensions, and unifying themes – and shoot those in a way that they could be used to illustrate a wide variety of usages.
“We need lots of day-in-the-life shots: prepping for school, anything with food – breakfast or lunch, lots of shots of barbeques – anything that brings families together. Also, we need more holidays and events. I never look for anything specifically scene-based. Even if it’s a holiday, I don’t want something that is specifically Christmas – it’s a sensitive topic, not everyone celebrates the same holidays. It can be a celebratory feeling without having to be specifically decorated.” – Thu Nguyen, American Express Custom Solutions

  • Be subtle. It’s challenging to show interactions between people in photographs without being too obvious. If you want to show a couple fighting, find a way to imply that tension without having the woman in the foreground with her arms crossed and the man expressing anger in the background. Stay away from exaggerated facial expressions and body language.

    photo by Thayer Gowdy

    • Show a range of emotions. Lifestyle mandates primarily happy scenarios, but buyers are trying to illustrate a range of situations. When you plan your shoot, make sure you allocate some time to get beyond the smiles and capture family or relationship tension as well.

    “For couples and families, the stock imagery always makes them look so happy – but that’s not always the case. We don’t want them looking devastatingly sad, not someone crying – but something in between. It’s really tough to find that emotional middle ground and that’s often what we need.” – Chris Benton, LyonHeart

    • Get a range of set-ups. Make sure you shoot the whole family in activities, but also shoot each model independently, and then in various pairings – mom and dad, mom and kid(s), dad and kid(s), just the siblings. etc.

      photo by Jon Ragel

      • Cast diverse models. When you plan your shoot conceptually, search around the stock sites and see what ethnicities are missing in the topic range that you are planning. Cast models from those missing ethnicities.

      • Shoot seasons + celebrations. As part of your
        storytelling, remember that buyers need to show families/couples
        throughout the day but also throughout the year. Try shooting some
        seasonal scenarios – think about what a family or couple does in the
        spring versus the winter and stage those shots.

      “We have trouble finding family pictures that don’t look stocky and dated. We also have problems finding things that are seasonal – in May we are brainstorming for the September issue so we sit as a team and think about what families do in September. Also, finding teens – ages 10-15-ish, struggling with school or doing things that parents have problems with. But overall, just make sure they look natural – that’s the toughest thing to find with families.” – Susan Hennessy, Family Circle

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      photo by Thayer Gowdy

      • Show parents and teens. Several buyers mentioned that there are not enough images of parenting situations with teens – when parenting can be at its most complex. Think through the good and the bad and capture the range of situations. Again, being subtle and realistic.

      • Casting is king. Casting is so critical to these shoots. If you are casting models, make sure they look and work great together, not just individually. They should look like they belong together.

      “We are missing couples shots that are not over the top. We also want to see diverse ethnicities. We’d love to see the everyday at home shots that don’t look inappropriate – like two people in a bedroom as a nice morning shot versus a nice morning-after shot. There are some decent outdoor young couple shots, but energy is sometimes lacking – there is either sexual tension, or they are just walking slowly. We need couples with energy and having fun – swimming – doing activities.” – Karalyn Leavens, AgencyRX

      Real Simple March '08 photo 7.jpg
      Real Simple, March 2008.

      • Capture energy. Make sure your images have energy. You don’t want to just shoot people lifelessly put together in fake situations. Get an energy-filled shot where people are interacting and having fun.

      • Shoot series. As in many other categories, showing the same models in different scenarios is helpful as a series for buyers who need to put together extended narratives – brochures, etc.

      • Watch your Production Values. Although buyers always want authenticity, they cannot use images that are poor quality technically or in terms of styling, props, and models. Family snapshots will not cut it. You need to cast good models (real people or actual models) and take well-lit pictures.

      Real Simple April '08 photo 12.jpg
      Real Simple, April 2008


      • Casting Casting Casting. Thayer and Jon both have top-notch lifestyle portfolios that capture people in extremely natural looking situations. They both emphasized the importance of good casting as your starting point. As Jon says, ‘You can talk to someone for 48 seconds and know if they’ll be good in front of the camera. Are they comfortable with their body, the way they sit, talk, stand, and look? If you do good filtering, 9 out of 10 times good individual models will be good together – but you need to bring them back and do some casting snaps together – make sure they can find interpersonal chemistry as a duo. It’s like a good meal – start with good ingredients and the meal will taste good.”

      Glamour May '08 photo 10.jpg
      Glamour, May 2008

      “You can cherry pick people through careful casting. There are two quotients: the look, and the delivery. Someone could look beautiful but be a dead fish on the set. You can tell that pretty quickly. No one is going to come alive the day of the shoot if they were no good in the casting.” – Jon Ragel, Photographer

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      photo by Jon Ragel

      • Use real families. While Thayer and Jon both frequently work with models, they prefer to find real families. As Thayer says, “Cast for a family. I did a Dockers ad and we talked them into casting real people because we needed authenticity. It’s just different. You can tell when a kid really hugs his mom.” Thayer recommends finding networks of moms – everyone loves to get great pictures of their families.

      • Use models for couples. Jon and Thayer tend to use models for couples – you can find two people who have never met before but who come together with amazing chemistry – the shoot takes off and you are just getting great stuff. It is rare to find a real couple where they both look great on camera and have the look you are going for. Of course, if you’ve got a great looking real couple, take advantage of it and capture that intimacy. But otherwise, cast models. As Thayer points out – it does actually work, she’s had models start dating after the shoot!

      photo by Nancy Ney

      • Tell a story. As the buyers also pointed out, you need to provide a framework for these shoots. You can get creative within the framework, but either create a conceptual situation or an actual activity for the models to work within. This is especially true with real people – they aren’t actors. You will get more natural shots if you give them something to do. It will also be more fun – make it an adventure.

      “When I shoot I always storyboard it out. Especially when you are dealing with real people, they are probably going to be self-conscious so you need to give them something to do.  Do a mini roadtrip, make stops and go skateboarding, go down to the beach – throw unexpected activities at them. Set the stage and let the people live within it. You can do a mini-version of that for couples, have a lazy Saturday afternoon, or the morning – waking up and reading the paper.” – Thayer Gowdy, Photographer

      • Use natural lighting. Again, this stuff needs to look real. Don’t over-light your shoots. Understand your locations and scout at various times of the day so you can plan your shoot around the best light.

      • Engage in the shoot. Get your models to relax by being
        personally energetic and involved. As Jon says, ‘People need the
        feedback, they need to hear the camera clicking – if you stop or act
        unsatisfied, they will lose energy and motivation.”

      Diversity All You May '08 photo 6.jpg
      All You, May 2008


        • Always get model releases
        • Specify age and age range of the models in your keywords (‘teens’ etc.)
        • Include gender and ethnicity as keywords
        • Include ‘family’ or ‘couple’ as keywords!
        • Indicate the season (summer etc.)
        • Always describe the emotional tone of the picture: sad, serious, crying, happy, surprised etc.
        • Describe the colors in the picture, especially of clothing
        • Describe the story: breakfast, Sunday, morning, etc.
        • Use concepts – family tension, teenage angst etc.
        • Describe the setting – outdoor, indoor – any attributes of the environment

        photo by Jon Ragel

        7. SHOTLIST [download] Here are some ideas to get you started. As usual, just consider these a jumping off point – buyers really want to photographers come up with new scenarios here. As always, consider all of the following scenarios across all ethnicities.


        • Cooking together
        • Hanging around non-sexually – doing everyday things
        • In bed having fun, being intimate/massage/kissing
        • Looking bored/having relationship problems/concerned/fighting
        • Getting ready in the morning- getting dressed, brushing teeth together
        • Driving together
        • Eating breakfast/dinner at home
        • Eating out
        • Watching TV
        • Looking at a computer together
        • Leisure- at the beach, in a hotel, on a balcony, skiing (non-cheesy travel)
        • Overall hugging, holding hands, mostly happy/laughing but some serious variations of each shot are be useful too
        • Couples with pets


        • Parents getting kids ready for school- dressing, making lunches, brushing teeth
        • Eating breakfast/dinner together at home- should be vibrant and full of energy but bright and clean
        • On vacation- packing up the minivan, going camping, on the beach, at the pool
        • Mom and kid, dad and kid- having fun
        • Natural interaction all together in the living room, kitchen, watching TV
        • Activities- board games, video games, outdoor sports- catch, hula hoops, riding bicycles
        • Tension in family during teen years
        • Positive scenarios during teen years
        • Families cooking together and making healthy food choices – preparing fruits + vegetables
        • Series of images – family going through the day
        • Halloween
        • “Lush, magical holiday photography”
        • Family with dog or cat on carpet/rug
        • Family finances
        • Busy families heading out the door
        • Divorce situations
        • Families having fun outdoors
        • Family shopping
        • Mom + daughter arguing over shopping/fashion
        • Families using technology


        photo by Thayer Gowdy

        8. PARTICIPATE

        Are you a buyer or photographer with extensive experience relevant to this category? We’d love to hear from you! Please email us with any additions to the Shotlist, Tips, or any other sections of this article. We look forward to it!

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        This article was written by

        Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter. He co-hosts the "I Love Photography" podcast on iTunes.

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