Taking a Family Portrait for your Holiday Card


Taking a family portrait is a very rewarding and yet challenging endeavor. The memories may last a lifetime, but at that moment when the kid’s are fighting, the baby is crying, the dog isn’t listening, or your favorite shirt looks terrible all of a sudden, it can feel like that lifetime is playing out right in front of the camera. 🙂 This is the reason that most families are only brave enough to tackle this feat once a year, typically around the holidays. Today I’m going to offer some tips on how to take a better family portrait, one that you will be proud to send out to your family and friends and one that will not land you in the Awkward Family Photos Hall of Shame. 🙂

*The first feat to tackle is equipment. We all have cameras on our cell phones, but that will not cut it for this portrait. A quality camera is key and with the availability of consumer type digital cameras out there, there are many options ranging in affordability and style. Choosing a camera with a self-timer and getting a tripod is also great so that you can be a part of the portrait as well.

*The next thing to consider is location. Many times when I arrive at a family’s home for their portrait session they will allow me to look around and choose the location that I think will best suit their portrait. This is great because I look at several things: environment, natural light, and background.

  • Environment: Choose a spot that is going to be comfortable for all involved in the portrait. If it is -2 degrees outside, you might want to reconsider an outdoor portrait.
  • Light: Unless you have off-camera strobes, natural light (not direct sun) is your best friend for a group portrait. The little flash on your camera (even the little flash on the BIG digital cameras) really is not ideal for group portraits. Finding some nice natural light, North facing windows on a bright day or South facing on a cloudy day, are great. You always hear us pros talk about the Golden Hour. That is the hour after sunrise and before sunset and is usually the nicest outdoor light.
  • Background: Choose a background that is not cluttered of distracting. You don’t want to be able to see into the kitchen where the breakfast dishes are sitting in the sink or be able to see your massive DVD collection, unless you are reeeeally proud of it. 🙂 Outside locations with natural backgrounds are great or a space in your home that is not too cluttered. Avoid areas with mirrors in the background because you might get some surprising reflections. 🙂

*Consider the layout of the card design you want to use. Does it require a horizontal or a vertical picture?

*Give everyone a snack before getting them in to their “portrait” clothes. This will help prevent anyone getting hungry (and cranky) right when you start taking your pictures. It also avoids spills on the nice clothes.

*Bribery works. Some say it is cheating, but in the world of family portraits if cheating means we get a great shot of everyone, then I’m willing to do it. 🙂 My favorite tip is from a wonderful mama who during their family session would let her boys pick one jelly bean at each change of location. It was perfect! A small treat that was not messy and the boys had something to look forward too. 🙂

*Tell a joke. Simply saying, “Smile! Smile! Cheese! Smile!” only works the first one or two shots. Telling a joke and getting people (kids & adults!) to laugh will produce a more natural smile than “Smile! Smile! Cheese! Smile!”

*Take more than 1 shot. Actually, take about a dozen. Eyes will be closed. Heads will be turned away. The dog will not look up. By taking enough shots you will have options when you look for your favorite.

*Keep your cool. It’s easy to lose your mind when you want something to be perfect and it’s just not happening that way. I tell all of my client-parents that sessions can be stressful, but the more they let me handle the situation, the better. If you need a break, take it. When you come back together things will likely go smoother.

*And finally, when in doubt, leave it to the professionals. 🙂 Don’t let the challenge of taking a family portrait discourage you from doing it at all. Contact a professional portrait photographer and let them help you capture some beautiful family memories in time for the holidays. Many family portrait sessions for the holiday start taking place in the late Summer and go through early December. Book early and mark a big thing off your holiday to-do list!

This Friday Devin and I have our annual holiday card portrait session. We put a lot of thought and planning into our portrait session just so it will go smoothly and so that we will get the results that we envision. Even though I am a professional photographer, I work with another professional photographer for our family portrait. My friend Kelly is a professional pet photographer and so long as I keep Devin inline, she handles our fur babies, Cora & Leisl. 🙂 It makes things so much easier working with a pro!! Here is the front of our card from last year.

 Have a great holiday season everyone! Be well and Smile Often, Kathleen




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