How To Photograph Intimate Portraits of Friends and Family

Learn how to capture intimate portraiture of friends and family in your everyday life with film photographer, Hunter Lacey.

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Every time I eat dinner at my parent’s home, I bring along one — sometimes two — camera(s). It’s usually my Mamiya, typically greeted with chuckles and rolling eyes. “Here we go again,” is the resounding response. My family is used to me wanting to photograph them, but I think they still don’t quite understand why I find them interesting enough to photograph constantly.

To a fellow photographer, this want of mine probably makes sense. It’s not really that I find my family interesting (well, I do, but that’s not the main reason I want to photograph them), it’s that I love them. They’re how I make sense of the world, they’ve informed a lot of who I am (whether I like it or not), and it’s a hell of a lot less scary to ask them for a portrait than asking a stranger on the street.

My Brother Chase, shot with my Canon 5D Mark III. Black and white preset to mimic Ilford HP5 Plus (available in 35mm and 120mm).

My sister Annabelle, shot on Portra 800 (120mm) (also available in 35mm).

Naturally, my friends and family will be more comfortable in front of the lens if I’m the one behind the camera. Every professional portrait photographer will tell you that a successful portrait session starts with making the subject comfortable. And not just in a be-friendly-to-them way but in a seek-to-make-a-genuine-connection way.

I predominantly shoot film and develop in a lab nearby. You’ll notice in this article that I gravitate towards the 800 ISO of Kodak Portra film. I do that mostly for indoor/outdoor versatility. The Portra 400 stock is a favorite of mine, too, though. Available in both 35mm and 120mm.

Photographing friends and family can be a setup for success because you already have a deep connection with your subject. Even still, it’s not that simple.

Making a photograph of someone is a fraught process; the photographer has the upper hand in the power dynamic. My friend may love me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she trusts me to make a flattering photograph of her. The camera might serve as an unwarranted highlight to insecurities, so it's our job to ensure they're comfortable and willing.

Moment kodak 6031678 Professional Portra 400 Film 135 36 Propack 5 Rolls thumbnail

Kodak

Professional Portra 400 Color Negative 35mm Film - 5 Rolls

Looking for the go-to choice of pro film shooters? The 5 pack of Kodak Portra 35mm film at true ISO 400 delivers spectacular skin tones and color saturation

Buy for $64.67

Chase on Portra 800 (120mm) (also available in 35mm).

Chase on Portra 800 (120mm) (also available in 35mm).

My cousins Olivia and Kaiden, shot on Ilford HP5 Plus (120mm) (also available in 35mm).

Olivia and Kaiden on Ilford HP5 Plus (120mm) (also available in 35mm).

Put Down The Camera

Even when it’s my family or a friend, or even when the photos I’m taking are informal (see: photos of my cousins in this article), I never start an interaction with a camera. Olivia and Kaiden arrived with their families about an hour before the sun started setting, but they hadn’t seen me in a while. I knew I wanted to photograph them, but it was more important to me that I bond and play with them. By the time I brought my camera out, the sun had almost set. I had to shoot the photos at a low shutter speed because it was practically dark. I wasn’t sure if the pictures would even come out but what mattered more to me was the experience I shared with my two little cousins.

Making a photograph of someone is not transactional. It is a shared experience, and a time to connect with one another.

One of my very best friends, Rachel, on Portra 800 (120mm) (also available in 35mm).

Rachel on Portra 800(120mm) (also available in 35mm).

Work Together

When the portrait session feels like a collaboration, the walls start to come down. If, for instance, you are photographing your dad, ask your dad where he’d like to be photographed, how he’d like to be posed, if he’s even in the mood to be photographed that day. Toothy grin photographs don’t always scream “art,” but if your dad wants to smile for a couple photos, I say that’s more than fine. Give a little to get a little. He gets a smiling photo, you get a solemn one.

Moment kodak 8127946 Professional Portra 800 Film 120 Propack 5 Rolls thumbnail

Kodak

Professional Portra 800 Color Negative 120 Film - 5 Rolls

In need of a high-speed film with finer grain, higher sharpness, and more natural skin tones? Kodak Professional Portra 800 120 film delivers in a 5 pack!

Buy for $86.99

Rachel on Portra 800 (120mm) (also available in 35mm).

Rachel on Portra 800 (120mm) (also available in 35mm).

Know Your “Why”

Keeping your “why” in mind while making photographs is always helpful. What do I want to say about my sister through this photograph, and why? In the family project I’m currently working on, I strive to communicate how much I love them in every picture.

Olivia (and Kaiden if you look closely) on Ilford HP5 Plus (120mm) (also available in 35mm).

Keep Photographing

The wonderful (and sometimes haunting) thing about photographing your family and friends is that there’s no deadline. If they’re willing subjects (which, sometimes they’re not, and that’s okay!), you get to practice your photography skills on a regular basis. I have photographed my brother and sister SO many times I can’t even begin to count. They’re both so patient with me thankfully and it’s really only been this past year that I feel I’ve made photographs that do them the justice they deserve. Photograph your family and friends as often as they’ll let you.

Moment Ilford 1574577 HP5 35 MM 36 EXP thumbnail

Ilford

HP5 PLUS Black and White Negative 35mm Film

Looking to get a 35mm B&W film that will deliver outstanding sharpness, fine grain, under all lighting conditions? Feed your film camera Ilford HP5 PLUS 35mm

Buy for $6.49

Annabelle on Ilford HP5 Plus (120mm) (also available in 35mm).

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