Cherokee Marsh on the North Side of Madison

Finding a location for your family photos can be a daunting task, especially if you are not originally from the area. As a non-native Madisonian, I was pretty overwhelmed with finding new and interesting locations for my families, year after year. I am pretty picky about my locations, however, I pride myself in being able to find great backdrops in the everyday world around me. Plus, Madison and many of the surrounding towns have great green space and really quaint urban backdrop settings as well.

I use a criteria for finding new locations. These four things have to be present for it to go on my “Great Locations” List. Some good locations have 2 or 3 of the necessary things, and depending on the family, time of day, and a few other random factors, I will use those, as well.


First, of course, the background has to be pretty. It doesn’t have to to be perfect nature, but it has to be aesthetically pleasing, with not a lot of extra visual noise (stuff) in the background. I prefer to have backdrops that are not just one color (aka, only green trees), and I like to be able to see the sky. That is not always possible, because a visible sky can bring harsh shadows, depending on the time of day.

Some locations have a lot of versatility as well. It is always great to have a park that has more than one or two areas for nice backdrops.

Some backdrops are used seasonally, as well. Some locations look better in the fall than the summer, or better in the winter than the spring.

Open Shade

Second, it’s best to have open shade available during the session. Open shade refers to an area that is shaded from direct light, but still has enough light surrounding it. This does not mean the same thing as ‘shaded’ areas. The two are not synonymous with each other. Shaded areas are just areas that provide shade but often either has sunspots shining through, or there isn’t enough light. An area with “open shade” is an area that is still brightly lit, but doesn’t have random sunspots shining through.

When taking photos in areas that do not have even shade, you get a couple of bad photo issues. My favorite, raccoon eyes! This is when there are harsh shadows under the eyes, making dark circles surrounding them. Or, if the sun is shining in your subjects eyes, you get washed our colors and squinted eyes from trying to not look into the sun.

Full Sun Raccoon Eyes

Fun fact: The best time of day for outdoor family photography is an hour or two after sunrise, and an hour or two before sunset, referred to as The Golden Hour.

Golden Hour at Token Creek


This is a must for most of of my sessions. If my families have to walk half a mile in their pretty outfits and high heels, photos will not be as easy. Pit stains and glistening foreheads don’t make for great photos.

Space to Play

As most of my families have young children, a place for them to be able to play and run around is often needed during photo sessions. If there is no place to play, kids can get grumpy and restless. Plus, a fun playground can also make for a good incentive. Sometimes kiddos are just not in the mood to smile for the camera. During those times, we can get those really great expressions and natural smiles when they are playing.

With those four factors considered, here are a few of my favorite locations in and all around the Madison area. Some locations have photographer fees, but many don’t. I am always happy to shoot at locations with fees, but I also try and offer up some free locations as well.

North & East Side & Surrounding Areas

Village Park in Waunakee

This park has really beautiful stone bridges that look great in photos. There is an adorable meandering brook running through the park, which is a nice addition to the aesthetics. Plus, there is a giant playground that kids can play on.

Token Creek in Deforest

Token Creek has absolutely everything a photographer could want for taking family photos, and it's my #1 location for fall photos. The bold colors of the maples, paired with the reds of the sumacs make for a variety of color year round.

These nine images below are located at the first parking lot, and just in the fall! There are about 10 different locations in this park, and each location offers a variety of gorgeous backdrops.

Burke Park

Burke Park is another favorite of mine to photograph families, especially in the winter, spring and early summer. There are so many textures at this park. If you are looking for a great location for senior portraits, start here!

There tends to be a lot of photographers here during the peak season. Because this is one of the best free parks in the area, it is always being utilized for wedding and bridal, engagement, family, and senior portraits.

Plus there is a perfect playground for big kids and a separate one for littles.

Central Madison

Olbrich Gardens

Olbrich Gardens is a great location, despite the $40 photographers fee. The price is low compared to other places, and it is totally worth it. The drawback is timing. They close well before sunset during the spring and summer, and there are not a ton a locations with open shade. But, a good photographer can work around the sun and shadows and still get great images.

Vilas Park

Vilas Park is another amazing downtown location. It is just outside the zoo, which can be a good incentive for smiles. There is something pretty awesome about hearing a lion's roar while you are getting your photos taken!

It has a beach, a beautiful forest with trails, a classy stone bridge, marshy water spaces with tall pussy willows, a great sunset spot, and a rustic pier. The arboretum is right in the background as well. A great location for seniors, graduation, and family photos.

South Side

Lake Farms Area

This area is also one of my favorite places to go. It is very versatile and just gorgeous all around, from the bike and hiking trails to the dog park close by.

McKee Farms in Fitchburg

This park is perfect for young kids because it has a dream park and a super fun splash pad. Perfect for summer and fall, but this park is really pretty all year round.

West Side & Surrounding Areas

Lakeview Park in Middleton

This park is nice because it has a lot for kids to play with and explore. There is a really pretty pond and a nice wooden bridge tucked around in the back forested area. Plus an abundance of weeping willows in the background. And when I say I don't want a lot of green in the background, I make an exception for weeping willows.

Don't plan to go to this park in the summer without promising your kiddos a play in the incredible splash pad and playground!

Pope Farms

Pope Farms has a beautiful sunflower garden that is just incredible for summer photos. But, there is very little open shade. And at sunset, be prepared to share the space with the many photographers wanting to get that perfect sunset shot!

No matter what side of town you are on, there is always a great place for your family photos. There are a lot more options around, but these are my favorites.

Let me know if you have other locations in mind. I am always happy to try new places, as long as it works out. It is easy to find the magic in everyday settings, backyards, and busy streets.