No matter how much effort you put into arranging great family photos, if your camera settings are wrong, you won’t get the results you’re looking for.
Beautiful scenery, carefully-chosen outfits, and the best direction in the world still won’t make for good pictures if your aperture, ISO and frame rate are off.
The settings required for professional-looking, candid family photographs will be different from those needed for single-person, posed portraits.
There will be multiple people in the frame, and if you’re trying to capture authentically candid shots, there may be some movement as well.
Here are the best settings for capturing candid family photos (see also “The Best Settings For Childhood Photos“), including the ideal focus settings, shooting mode, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and more!
1. Manual Shooting Mode
Cameras these days have a lot of different shooting modes, but it’s best not to use an automatic setting.
If you want to get great family photos, you should aim to have as much control as possible and not have the camera take over.
Because of this, we recommend keeping your camera in Manual shooting mode for the duration of your family photoshoot.
The only exception to having your camera in Manual mode is if you have a lot of movement in the frame, which can easily happen when photographing excitable children. In this case, it can be helpful to use Aperture Priority rather than Manual.
Aperture Priority mode allows the camera to control the shutter speed somewhat, while still leaving you in control of the aperture.
This way, if the camera detects a lot of movement, it will automatically increase the shutter speed, but it won’t adjust the aperture automatically, so you can still decide what to do here based on the lighting conditions where you’re shooting.
Now, if you do have your camera in Manual, you might struggle to adjust all the settings while keeping the camera pointed in the right direction, so you don’t lose your frame.
This is why we would also recommend using a tripod to ensure the camera stays perfectly still while you make the necessary adjustments.
2. AF-C Or AF-S
Using an autofocus setting can really help while trying to get candid family photographs.
There’s nothing worse than spending hours taking what you think are great pictures, only to realize later on that they’re actually not quite in focus, or focused on the wrong part of the frame.
The autofocus setting you choose to use will depend on whether your subjects are relatively still, or moving around.
AF-S (single) is ideal for still family portraits, but AF-C (continuous) is best if the subjects are moving around. Again, if there are children involved in the photoshoot, this will be your best choice.
If you want to get a lot of variety in your photoshoot, you may have some still images as well as some that include more movement.
You can change your settings to allow for Back Button Focus if you want to be able to switch between the two quickly and easily.
This will mean that you won’t have to use the shutter release to change the autofocus. Instead, you can just push a button at the back of your camera.
3. Single Spot/AF Eye Focus
While we’re on the subject of autofocus, we need to talk about focus modes. Ideally, whether you’re taking pictures of one person or a group of family members, you’ll want to keep the focus on the eyes. After all, the eyes are what show genuine emotion and engagement.
Therefore, it’s important to know how to get your camera to focus on the eyes while taking photographs. Depending on the type of camera you have, this might be very easy, or it might take a bit more work.
While newer camera models tend to have a built-in AF Eye system, which will automatically focus on eyes detected in the frame, older cameras probably won’t have this feature.
What older cameras are still likely to have, however, is Single Spot. This is a type of autofocus that you can position in the frame manually before taking a picture. In this case, you would move the Single Spot autofocus to the eyes before you start clicking.
Now, this tends to work best if all the family members in your photograph are on the same level. This way, you can position the focus in the center of the frame on the shared eye line.
4. Base ISO (100)
At this point, you’re probably wondering what ISO you should use for candid family photos. Luckily, this one is easy. Ideally, you should use your camera’s base ISO if you’re shooting in natural light.
Generally speaking, we recommend shooting in natural light for candid family pictures because it helps the shots to look more authentic.
If you’re not sure what the base ISO is on your camera, you can just use ISO 100. The only time you’ll want to boost your ISO higher than this is if you’re shooting outside, and it gets cloudy, or if you have to shoot indoors and there isn’t much natural light.
In this case, your images will be clearer if you dial this setting to anywhere between 400 and 1000. Usually, you won’t need to go as high as 1000, however. 400 is usually optimal for cloudy outdoor conditions, whereas indoor situations with minimal light may only require 800.
This will be unique to the lighting conditions you’re dealing with, however, so take your time to figure out how much ISO you need to get bright, clear photographs.
If you are using a high ISO, bear in mind that you may need to adjust your aperture and shutter speed as well.
If you have a really high-end camera, this may not be necessary, but most cameras will require either a wide aperture or a slowed-down shutter speed to avoid grainy images.
How you choose to go about minimizing grain in your pictures at high ISO will ultimately depend on what’s going on in your frame.
For example, if there are children in the frame who are prone to moving around, you’ll want to increase the shutter speed to avoid the image blurring, but in this case, you should use OCF to balance the lighting, since this is the best way to use low ISO and high shutter speed simultaneously.
5. Centered Weighting Or Spot Metering
You will also need to think about metering mode when taking candid family photos(see also: The Importance Of Candid Family Photos). Most modern cameras have this setting, and it’s a way for the camera to assign aperture and shutter speed based on light conditions.
Now, you might be wondering how this works if you have your camera in Manual mode.
Don’t worry. You can still use metering when in manual mode, it’s just that using metering will help to give you some guidance for adjusting your settings when presented with varying lighting conditions, and it will help you to get the focus right. You can still override all of this in manual mode, however.
When it comes to family photographs, you have two main choices for metering. You can use centered weighting, or spot metering.
Centered weighting is preferred by many because it helps you to get the right level of exposition, as long as the family members are either filling the frame, or in the center of it.
Spot metering also helps with accurate exposure, and it works best when you have positioned the focus of your camera really accurately.
As long as your focus point is in the right place, which you can easily do in Manual mode, perfect exposition of that spot will follow.
On the other hand, if you don’t have your focal point set properly, or your subjects are not either centered in or filling the frame, neither of these metering modes will yield very good results, so it’s important to have these fundamentals in place first.
6. Faster Shutter Speed
Do you find that your hands shake quite a lot when trying to take a photograph?
This is a common issue, and the main reason why the general rule of keeping the focal length inversely proportional to your camera’s shutter speed doesn’t work for everyone.
The idea of the rule is to reduce blurring, but even the slightest movement of the hands (or the subjects in the frame) can still cause issues.
This is why, especially for candid family photography, and particularly where there are children involved, we always recommend a faster shutter speed, as we’ve touched on a couple of times so far in this guide.
If necessary, you can go all the way up to 1/400, but in many cases 1/250 will be sufficient.
When you turn up the shutter speed this high, more light will enter the sensor to allow for optimal exposition, which means you will also need to widen your aperture.
This is one example of why we recommend using your camera on Manual, because you will probably have to change the settings around a lot.
Note, however, that if you’re shooting with the flash on for whatever reason, the shutter speed settings become less important.
You can usually get away with adjusting the shutter speed to match the flash sync, which is usually 1/250, or sometimes 1/200.
Anything higher than this will mean that your shutter speed won’t be in sync with the flash, and your images will suffer as a result.
7. Adjust Aperture For Desired Detail
Your choice of aperture settings will mostly rely on how much detail you want in the background of your frame.
If you want the focus to be entirely on the family members in the photograph, with minimal impact from background details, you can stick with a wide aperture.
Around f/2.8 should be perfect for this kind of shot if there are only a couple of people in the frame, although if there are more family members in the shot, you should try using f/5.8 or something in that region to make sure all the subjects are in focus.
Now, if you would like to get more of the details in the background of your shot in focus, you can simply narrow down the aperture further. However, the more you do this, the less clear the actual subjects of your photos will be.
Sometimes, this can have an artistic effect when it comes to candid family photos, but most of the time, you will want the majority of your focus to be on the family members themselves.
Nonetheless, it can be good to experiment with different levels of detail and focus, so go ahead and adjust your aperture now and again to see how it adds or takes away from your images.
8. Prime Lens
We know that a prime lens isn’t technically a setting, but depending on the settings you choose to use on your camera, you are likely to get better results if you use prime lenses as opposed to other kinds of camera lenses.
This is important to mention because if, for example, you’re shooting in low light, you can benefit from the fixed focal length offered by these lenses.
Prime lenses can work with faster shutter speeds and wider aperture settings, both of which may be necessary if you’re shooting freehand or your subjects are moving around in the frame.
This isn’t to say that you can’t use other kinds of lenses for candid family photography, but we tend to find the results turn out better when we use prime lenses.
A lot more goes into taking candid family photos than most people think! Not only do you have to be able to give your subjects good direction and have a good background to work with, but you also need to have mastered the settings on your camera.
The most important thing is to keep your camera in Manual mode so that you can adjust the ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and focus depending on movement and lighting conditions, as well as your artistic goals.