3 Games for directing fun outdoor family sessions

Lifestyle sessions are always going to be somewhat contrived – you’ve chosen outfits to coordinate, a prime location, and timing for optimal lighting. Yet, the goal is to create photos that feel natural, playful, and celebrate who you are as a family.

So that’s where the job of a photographer goes from taking the picture to making the moment.

Some photographers call this posing.

I call it directing because “posing” feels so stiff.

So what’s the key to making photos that feel natural when the circumstances are not natural?


Play is the best way to get people who hate getting pictures taken or who are “awkward” in front of the camera to let loose and be themselves.

Little games can lead to interaction and interaction leads to those little sweet moments where you’re doing your secret handshake or your head is thrown back in laughter as your kids pile on top of you.

Those are natural moments. But we have to make them unfold as organically as possible, otherwise, kids will not buy in.

These are just a few of the simple directions and games I use in almost every outdoor lifestyle family session I have. They are practically foolproof and even though it is the same basic instruction or activity, it always yields different results based on the family and their personalities.

1. The sneak + tickle / hug

Ask one person (or more) to stand in a given spot and then ask everyone else to go behind them a few steps. When you give the signal or secret wor or signal or whatever you decide, the people in the back are to run forward and bear-hug/tickle the people in front. It’s silly, yes. That’s the point.

The bonus is that this can be adjusted with any combination of people. They can go big or gentle. It’s all based on the people and their vibe.

  • One person in front and 3 in back.
  • Mom + kid 1 upront and dad + kid 2 in back
  • Parents up front and kids in back
  • Wife up front, husband in the back.

Literally, a million ways to play. Ages, number of kids… works all around.


You might notice that one person is making a really scrunched face when they grab the person in front or they’re poking out at an odd angle. With repeat tries, you can give subtle direction like

“That was amazing!! This time we’re going to try it again, but Sam, can you try to tickle dad on this side this time?!


So SO good guys, but oh my goodness you almost completely knocked over mom and dad!! This time, we’re going to do butterfly hugs instead of monster tackle hugs, okay? Can we try it!?”

Next level

The trick is to give the subjects a “test run,” and then do it like… 2 more times. The more they sneak and gain confidence that they’re doing it right and it looks awesome, the more they’ll buy-in and the better/more playful it becomes.

2. The spin-move

Nothing gets a toddler giggling like some spins. Try it with just one parent or within the family pose. If the kid being held is being wiggly or upset, get everybody into position and then tell mom to just twirl or dance in place with the kid and freeze back at the front!


If mom’s face is scrunching when she spins or she’s looking down at the spinning kid and creating some un-flattering angles, encourage her to toss her head back and laugh while she’s spinning!

Next level

This move is not only fun for kids, but it will create movement in clothes and hair. If parents can really embrace the fun of this move– which is by-the-way, something they probably do often with their kids for fun anyways— it’s likely that everybody else will naturally look at what the spinner is doing and smile.

If you didn’t know, smiling’s contagious. 

3. Cloud shapes

I usually pull out this pose when I want to reign the kid energy down a notch or simply get a shot of everyone together with some variety. I just tell them all to lay down in the grass or pile on dad or literally however they will lay is fine in my book. Usually, a little one wants to be on top of mom or dad. Cool.

Then, I just ask them to look at the clouds and talk about the shapes they see.


No clouds? Play who can spot the first plane or star. Sky is completely bare or they’re not into that idea? No biggie. Pick somebody to draw a letter in the sky with their hand and see if the rest of the family can guess what it is! Or even (this has worked before, I promise!) play the quite game and be as quiet as can be… they might just turn in for the sweetest cuddle.

Let the play unfold however it needs to for that family.

family of 5 laying in grass and laughing for fall family photos

Next level:

The key to making this look good is by getting heads close together – in armpits and around others wherever possible. When the moment’s over, the most natural variation/transition from here if it feels right for the energy of the family is to use the cue:

“now everybody tickle whoever you’re touching!”

aaaaand you have a big yummy pile of giggles. 

Ready to play!?

I hope this little behind-the-scenes peek at some of my outdoor family session games and tricks is helpful to see that love-soaked, personality-filled photos don’t always (okay never) come from perfection, holding a position, or even intentionally smiling.

We can create true magic when you commit to having fun and enjoying your session as an experience and allow me to do the rest!

Who’s up for a family session in Charlottesville that’s less stiff and more fun?

Awesome, me too. Reach out here to tell me more about your crew and get the ball rolling!

Not ready yet but still kinda interested? Sign up for the Firefly tribe to get updates on new offers, first dibs on prime season weekend dates, the latest blog posts and more.

Want more? Try these:




behind the scenes, families, for photographers




3 Games for directing fun outdoor family sessions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.