It’s fall — time to corral your little pumpkins for a festive seasonal tradition known for itchy costumes, shrieks and tears. I’m talking, of course, about the annual holiday photo shoot.
For many families, photo shoots are stressful. I’ve been photographing families (and taking my own family to photographers) for the past five years, and I’ve seen what works and where things go wrong. Whether you’re going to mail actual cards or just post your photos digitally, it’s worth the effort to make the holiday photo more special than all those selfies on your phone.
Following is some advice from both sides of the lens — and some examples of holiday photo fails submitted by readers.
1. Be lively and quick.
Book early and arrive early. Many photographers begin to fill their fall calendars in July and August, and sessions may be scheduled back-to back. Your time starts at the time you agreed to, not the time you arrive. If you have young children, pets or even a reluctant spouse, arriving early will give everyone a chance to get comfortable.
2. Visions of sugarplums.
For my family, a little bribery before the session helps. A trip to the dollar store, going out for ice cream, or even the promise of going to the playground can incentivize my kids to cooperate. Parents have to behave, too: Try not to yell “smile” or “cheese,” and don’t try cajoling your kids unless your photographer asks you to. Pros should expect to work with the kids in front of them, not the perfect kids you hoped they would be as you drove to the shoot.
3. Better not pout.
I’ll be in front of the camera this weekend at my own family’s photography session. My photographer, Jaime Swanson, reminded me that while we all may envision the perfect posed family photo, “It’s nice to look back and see the kids’ personalities shine through in the photos. Having realistic expectations of what your kids’ cooperation level may be at their particular age will lessen the stress of trying to get perfection.”
4. Naughty or nice.
When I’m the one behind the camera, I get pretty goofy. I’ll run up to the family I am photographing and pretend to tickle the parents, or I’ll turn around and act like I’m going to take the pictures backward. My silliness makes the kids laugh and the parents relax, too. This creates a happier photo session and better pictures. And sometimes the best shot is unexpectedly the one you get between the posed images.
5. Festival of light..
If you want to be outdoors, it’s best to shoot within the two hours after the sun rises or the two hours before the sun sets. Look for shady areas, even when shooting during those “golden hours.” The diffused light created by the shade is flattering to all skin types and will help your family members avoid squinting. If you are taking your own photos, keep in mind that it is harder to get the light right outside than in. If you are shooting indoors, make sure you turn all the lights on and try to remove distracting clutter from the scene.
6. Deck yourselves.
Consider choosing one member of the family’s outfit first, and then planning other outfits around it. Even if you are allergic to matching outfits, you may want to have everyone stay in the same color family or at least commit to the same level of formality. If you have your heart set on red velvet but your kids hate dress clothes, you could go casual, try an ugly-sweater card or have everyone in their favorite holiday PJs.
7. Find an elf.
Sure, your camera might have a timer setting, but it can be tough to figure out and then jump into the picture in time. Instead, ask a friend or neighbor to get behind the camera and focus your energy on settling comfortably in the shot.
8. Make a list, and check it twice.
Fresh haircuts? Check. Matching shoes? Check. Bath for the dog? Check. If you’re thinking of putting a funny message on the card that depends on having a certain prop in the shot, you may want to take some with and without it so you have options.
9. Comfort and joy.
A popular rule for photographers is “if it’s bendable, bend it!” A bent arm, an arched back, and a tilted neck all help ensure your photo captures you at a flattering angle. It’s also helpful to think about pulling your chin out a bit as it helps define your neck and jawline. If you plan on sitting down for your photo, make sure that the soles of your shoes aren’t facing the camera. Lastly, stand extra close (and lean in!) to your family members – it might feel a little awkward, but I promise, it makes for a more natural-looking picture.