Matthew Tyler , Aug 07, 2010; 07:02 p.m.
I think this is a great question that you ask! All to often, do we see the typical family in sweaters against a canvas backdrop. Of course, these types of photographs serve a purpose - sometimes, for historical reasons (family history). Future generations will value photographs (regardless of their style) that display families together alongside different members.
So, back to your question - I believe you are asking how to move away from the traditional family portrait. The answer is, do so by capturing the unique personality of the family in either an environment that is native to them, or in situation that brings out their interactive personalities.
Sometimes as photographers, our role in the photograph extends beyond the camera. Wait!? Beyond the camera? The skill or ability to lead a group of people is definitely an art form within itself that requires a variety of different skills and tactics. Try observing their behavior, and asking leading questions. There is no standard set of rules for this style of approach, however, I suggest having your exposure and lighting set before you embark upon this - so you don't miss the moment. It's truly no more difficult than being alone in a crowd and instigating conversation.
If it were myself, photographing a family, I'm assuming that there are one or two parents (or more), plus one or more kids, and maybe a dog. After soft introductions are made, I would try to discover what interests and hobbies each family member has. I would perhaps ask the children what they like to do together. During the leading questions, I would try to consider how the family is interacting with each other. The happy gentle father, the worried mother, the combative daughter, and the son that instigates.
So, perhaps the question could be ..... how do you draw the personality out of the family?