Relationship Images DO SELL

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by Don MacGregor

Years ago I thought that relationship images were awesome.
I loved them in competition but sadly I struggled with doing them on sessions with clients because I did not believe clients would invest serious dollars in wall decor if it looked too “candid.”  I was so wrong, clients love this style of portrait… IF DONE WELL.

Today we see a lot of the emerging photographers doing relationship images and sadly most look like candids that clients can do themselves. It is very difficult to command respect and professional compensation if clients think they can do what you are doing.

Successful images (that sell) still must contain key professional elements. Strong lighting that showcases the beauty of the people (and the environment) and dynamic composition are the tools we have to create relationship images that stand out. As always, you must make every effort to insure every person is shown equally unless you are hiding a weight issue. No one wants to pay for a portrait where they are a bobbly head doll sticking out from someone else’s  shoulders.

The key to a relationship image is defining the story you are going to tell (planned during consultation). Most commonly, you have the family interacting with each other or with another element (e.g. pointing to something). Once you start down this journey you will surprise yourself and your clients with ideas (family BBQ, skiing together, etc.).

After the consultation with the family in the image left, I learned that they all loved the lake and so many of their activities are on the lake. The small sailboat is dad’s passion. They love to have refreshments on the dock and chat about their activities. That planted the seed. Notice that compositionally, each person has their own space and equal representation in the image. This is handheld from a boat that is bouncing around… we had to crank up our shutter speed to insure a sharp image. Flash on-camera was added because it was overcast and threatening rain.

The couple below live around a vineyard and love taking their “girls” for an evening walk.

Notice that we are using the rule of thirds and everyone is showcased (not bunched up into a sardine can style of posing). The subjects are in powerpoint position 4 yet still stand out from a spacious background. Technically this was fun… the couple practiced walking at a slow speed and I practiced along with them (walking backwards and shooting). An assistant, to the left of the camera, was also walking backwards while catching the setting sun (silver reflector) and bouncing light back to the subjects.

After working with this family (above)for a while, I could see a wonderful tight knit relationship between them but in the same breath, a unique father/son and mother/daughter relationship. A sensitive photographer is always watching his clients to capture an insight into their personalities. Remember we are not creating road maps of faces … we are telling stories. This is a sunset image created with totally natural light. Separating the gals and guys was intentional to portray what I had seen and to give each one an activity. Again note they are all showcased, no one is hidden and people project from a background that has a lot of depth.

Walking and talking is considered the “classic” relationship image (above). This is backlit, camera is tripod mounted and an on-camera flash is used for fill. With the zoom lens, I tracked them and used the auto focus capabilities (continuous focus) of the camera to insure sharp subjects. I demonstrated the speed to walk and we practiced. You must “coach” the clients to talk and interact with each other. You also have to project your voice and your enthusiasm while shooting to create that fun atmosphere, remember as a photographer you are a technician, comedian, director, lighting grip and all manner of things. The most important of these is your ability to use your personality to bring out the best of the subjects … naturally.


The young family in front of the fireplace (above) were celebrating the first birthday of their twins (significant event in Chinese culture). They had just bought a new home and not moved in (totally unfurnished save one couch). It is VERY important in that culture to celebrate the exact day of the first birthday. In the consultation, I discovered they liked to read to the children and I conveyed my vision of this image (through interpreter) and we have an outstanding story that will be a powerful memory as the kids grow up and the reading stops. Technically this was a challenge. They had no wood for fire in the stove. I put a Canon 580 (warm gel on flash) inside stove and feathered towards them. Once I had that image, I photographed my stove at home and “shopped” the fire into it.

Don MacGregor is from Vancouver, B.C., but is a true Texan at heart. He has been an instructor for many years at the Texas School of Professional Photography many times. Don opened his studio in 1974 and specializes in wall portraits and weddings.