"Just keep snapping!"

By Katy Kiick Condon
November 16, 2020
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Credit: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

To help you get the best Christmas-card-worthy shot, we asked the experts for tips on capturing your family’s good side (no Photoshop required!) Learn how to set up the shot, take the perfect photo, and how to get even your furry family members camera-ready. We'll even dive into one of the most important aspects of quality family photos: the outfits.

Family photos can be stressful. Take these expert tips and take the stress out of making your annual holiday card. And if you really want to capture the spirit of 2020, keep it casual, snapping a front porch photo of the family to commemorate the year we've spent at home.

1. Preparation Is Key

Professional photographer Michelle Rose Sulcov shared everything you need to keep in mind before the big photoshoot to capture your family members at their best.

Pick a Card

A little work behind the scenes ensures you’ll end up with better results—and happier subjects. When you choose your template first, you can focus on getting a shot that will fit its format (vertical, horizontal or square) and have space for graphic elements like text or borders. Knowing where the text will lay over your photo will help you stage the family just right.

Know Your Tech

Read up on the features of your camera or phone, and practice using them. This goes double if you plan to take advantage of seldom-used tricks like the self-timer. You don't need to go out and buy a fancy camera for this year's photo: Smart phone cameras are so advanced now that no one will be able to tell that you used an iPhone shot for the holiday card.

Tidy Up

A clean and simple “set” lets your stars shine. “The worst is when you notice that you have the garbage can in the background or a lamp sticking out of someone’s head,” says photographer Michelle Rose Sulcov. Her advice: Once you’ve got the set ready, but before you bring in The Talent, snap a picture and examine it closely for anything uninvited.

2. Framing Can Be Everything

Angles

Be direct: Aim squarely at the subject, not the background (a line of trees, the couch, etc.), and don’t let a group of people trail diagonally away from the camera. Have everyone group together by height (tallest family members in the back, children and animals in the front) and stand facing the same direction.

Camera Height

Keep the lens near the subjects’ eye level, whether they’re standing or sitting. If you're using the self timer, consider balancing your phone or camera on a bar stool or tall shelf to get the perfect height.

Rule of Thirds

If you’re trying to catch a picturesque view or leave room for text, imagine your viewfinder divided into thirds and keep your subjects in the first or last third. This is especially helpful if you're trying to fit text over the photo: If the top or bottom third of your frame is empty, you'll be able to add text without covering anyone's face.

Crops

If you want a full-length family portrait, plan for a little extra air around all four sides. This will allow you to crop the image later without cutting off anyone’s head or arms. For a tighter arrangement or a small group, Michelle says a natural crop is at about elbow or chest height.

3. Make Sure You Know Your Lighting

Inside

You want as much natural light as possible. “Open the curtains and turn off overhead lights,” Michelle says. “To avoid shadowy backlighting, position your subjects facing windows or to the side of them, not right in front.”

Outside

Shoot in the morning or late afternoon, ideally an hour or so after dawn or before sunset. “If you’re lucky, you’ll have an overcast day so no one will be squinting.”

Shadows

Avoid high-contrast shadows. For instance, don’t seat your family on the couch if it’s half in, half out of bright midday sun. Outside, look for a shady spot with no stark shadows.

Including Your Four-Legged Friend

Jennifer Freeman, D.V.M., PetSmart resident vet, shares her strategies for getting a pooch to pose.

1. Have Props on Hand

Use your pet's favorite toy, treat or sound to get their attention and help them sit still for the photo. Try withholding their go-to toy for a day or two so that they’ll be extra excited to see it when it's time to sit for pictures.

2. Wear Them Out a Little

Have a 5-minute play session before you start snapping photos. An active dog is a happy dog who is likely to flash a huge smile after settling down. They'll also be more likely to sit still for a few minutes after a game of fetch.

3. Bribe Freely

As you shoot, give treats to your pet to let him know he’s doing a great job. Keep the treating up after a great pose or smile, and reward him after your photo session concludes. If you anticipate needing a lot of treats, start with healthier treats (like veggies that are safe for animals) and move toward sweeter treats.

Foolproof Ways to Nail Your Look

Fashion stylist Liz Teich of the blog The New York Stylist shares her approach to dressing for family photos. The big idea, she says, is to coordinate, not match.

1. Brainstorm

Start by making a mood board. Stylist Liz Teich pulls together favorite photo examples, plus images of the location and various outfits and props to see how they look together. She likes the clothing to reflect the venue and the season: The beach in summer is great for chalky pastels; a park with changing leaves lends itself to deep jewel tones. Choose a tone—not necessarily a single color—and have everyone stay within it.

2. Pick Battles

Kids can be picky about what they’ll wear, so Liz starts with options they’ll be sure to like and then pulls in coordinating outfits for adults. If, come picture time, they refuse to change out of the Batman costume? “Let them be the kid that they are. There’s something really cute about a kid wearing what he wants, and it’ll help you remember these phases,” Liz says. You can bargain for a few shots in their pick, a few in yours.

3. Preview

Think you're ready? Gather everyone’s outfits and snap some pictures. Study them for anything that stands out or matches a little too closely. Check for variation in texture, fabric and pattern so the photo isn’t solid-solid-solid. Before shoot day, try everything on to check for fit and stains or rips (and don't forget to check the armpits.)

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