How to Photograph Impromptu Familly or Friends Gatherings and Vacations

Family Vacation Impromptu Portrait
Family Vacation Impromptu Portrait

Whether you’re going on vacation or headed to your family’s house this holiday season, chances are if they know you love photography someone will ask you to use your crazy good skills.  My sister has already hit me up for their Christmas pictures.  The good news is this gives amateur and not so amateur photographers a chance to build their portfolio without the fear of disappointing a client.  Family is usually a little more forgiving if all your photographs come out with a hue of blue because you left your white balance on auto.  This tutorial is not for the overly prepared photographer, this is more for the: “Hey, while you are here and since you have your camera in the car, would you mind doing our portraits… for free?” situations.

If you’re anything like myself, you probably keep your camera and a spare tripod in your car.  I don’t keep any flashes, reflectors, backdrops, etc. in my car for the impromptu portrait session.  I like to travel light and to be honest, I’m more of a landscape and abstract photographer than a people person photographer.  Here are some tips if you’re using your camera with or without an on-board flash and only a lens or two.

Flash or No Flash

Flashes can be harsh, especially your on-board flash if you’ve got one.  I’d recommend pushing your ISO (if you’re not sure how high you can go read this article) before resorting to your flash and if you have to use your flash try to reflect it away from blinding your subject in the eyes.  This helps to soften the light and gives you more natural lighting.  If you decide you don’t want to soften the light and you want to light your subject with the light of a thousand suns then remember to watch out for harsh shadows (like the dark shadow the chin puts on someones neck).

If you are adamant that you are going to use a flash then I highly recommend keeping a diffuser in your camera bag to cover these situations (If you plan on doing a planned portrait you’ll be happy you have one).  If you’re not sure what diffuser to get Fododiox makes a $12 diffuser that works with most flashes from most cameras.

Fotodiox 6″x8″ Softbox for Nikon, Canon, Vivita, Sunpack, Nissin,Sigma, Sony, Pentax, Olympus, Panasonica Lumix Flash($12)


You will want a fast lens, especially if you’re not using your flash and going for a more natural look.  I recommend the Nikon 50mm f1.8D if you’re using a Nikon or the Cannon 50mm f2.5 Macro (It’s Cannon’s sharpest lens and has the added benefit of being able to be used for anything you’d use a 50mm lens for as well as Macro) if you’re using a Cannon.  If you’re using another camera just Google search the best 50mm prime lens for your make and model.  The reason 50mm is the money length is that anything longer than that may push you into a wall or another room.  The problem with the longer lenses indoors is that you are likely to cut off your subjects torso and only be able to get their faces.  The 50mm gives you some working room so you can capture multiple people without having to knock out a wall.  If you’d like to frame just their faces then all you have to do is walk forward.

Zoom lenses work too but you wont get the quality you would with a prime lens.  Prime lenses are really cheap and the quality makes them indispensable.  Also, do you really want to walk around a house with a giant zoom lens protruding from your face like an elephant’s trunk?  You can forget about getting any candid shots of folks being natural.

Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro Lens  ($270)

Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor Lens for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras ($125)

Camera Settings

If you are quick on the draw with manual settings then I’d recommend these for the best control of exposure and white balance.  If you’re not as comfortable with your speed then throw your camera into aperture priority (some would say shutter priority but I like the ability to play with my aperture to add or reduce bokeh as needed).  Watch your shutter speed if you use aperture priority, especially if you’re not using a tripod.

If you’re on the fly then I doubt you have a grey card with you and if you’re at a party or on vacation it’s going to be hard to get people to stop and wait for you to zero in your white balance.  My recommendation is to visit each room of the house you think you may take a picture in and play with your white balance to give you an idea of which white balance setting would be best in each room.  Since the walls in most houses are painted different colors from room to room one white balance setting does not fit all.  Auto white balance is out unless you are shooting RAW and want to spend an hour or so adjusting your white balance in post processing.

Helpful Links

Quick Guide to Using Your Camera in Manual Mode
How to Use Aperture Priority Mode
Nikon 50mm f1.8D review

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