’Tis the season for taking family photos. Capturing the perfect Christmas card photo—especially if your family includes toddlers, teenagers or pets—can prove challenging for even the most patient of Santa’s helpers. If you want a photo beyond the family selfie, try some of these tips from Hallmark photographers. From what to wear to camera settings, we’ve rounded up some of their tried-and-true tricks for family photos, kids and babies and even pets, plus some fun Christmas card photo ideas.
The family portrait: beyond ‘say cheese’
First, take a deep breath and relax, advises Steve Wilson, a senior photographer at Hallmark. Accept that getting a great photo may take some time and, most likely, some serenity mantras. As a general rule, Steve suggests taking at least twice as many photos as there are people in your photo.
Where to shoot
You can’t beat the outdoors for backdrops. Steve likes to shoot in open shade, such as the shade of a tree. It provides flattering light on people without making them stare into the sun or squint.
Indoors he says to keep it simple. To avoid a lineup against a wall, shoot the group in the middle of the room to create depth. Find a backdrop view that isn’t too busy and doesn’t detract from the focus of your portrait—the people.
Don’t turn the camera to auto mode yet. You can do this. The aperture, or lens opening, is generally marked with numbers, such as 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 12 and 16. The lower numbers (which correspond to f/stops) give more exposure and the higher ones give less. They also control how much is soft or sharp. The smaller the f-number, such as f2.8, the less “focus” there is. Conversely, a high f-number such as f16 provides a good deal of focus.
In a bright house, the camera will have a tendency to underexpose. Hallmark photographer Steve Wilson says you can “trick it” by setting the camera exposure compensation setting to +1 (an extra stop brighter), so the picture is a little overexposed.
Camera setting and timer
Most cameras have an auto and manual setting. You don’t have to be a professional to use the manual setting. For a picture of a family of 12, for example, use a tripod, set the camera to manual mode, set the lens to f5.6 or f8, adjust the shutter setting, and test until you get a pleasing result. That puts the people in focus and everything around the people a little out of focus. Set the lens to f4 for individuals. For couples, do the same, but get in close.
If you are using a self-timer, set the timer for 10 seconds so that everyone is not waiting forever for it to go off. If you don’t have a self-timer, consider getting a wireless remote so you can shoot pictures whenever you’re ready.
Arranging the people
Rather than lining up people, Steve suggests “clumping” them casually. He likes to put the oldest generation in the middle and work outwards from there. He urges people to sit on the arms of chairs, hug each other and overlap as much as possible. This creates a more casual, natural-looking photo.
To break the ice, Steve suggests being a little goofy for a while to make everyone more comfortable. Let the photo shoot go on long enough for people to relax.
What to wear
Keep the clothing simple as well. Solid colors and subtle patterns are better than bold patterns. He tells people to avoid white. He says he also gets better photos when people are comfortable in what they are wearing.
Children and baby portraits: guaranteed oohs and ahhs
Hallmark photographer Jane Kortright has spent many hours on her stomach face-to-face with adorable babies and children. Getting up close and personal is just one of a few tricks in her taking-that-perfect-photo bag.
Before you gather your angelic subjects, make sure you are as prepared as possible. After you have your child front and center, you may not have very much time before her mood shifts or he tries to escape. Try to plan for these contingencies by having favorite toys at the ready to draw their attention. Having a way to confine them somewhat during the shoot also helps.
Give them a fun activity
You have a better chance of getting the perfect shot when kids are doing something that makes them happy. Think ice cream, sprinklers and bubbles, Jane says. Anything that might generate that gleeful expression.
Grab an assistant
Babies and children are moving targets. So have someone help you corral them or focus their attention.
Don’t be afraid to get in tight
Pick the right time
Some of the best photos are photos of feet, hands and even eyelashes. Jane says these kinds of photos can be the most emotional for parents to have later on.
The best time to photograph babies and small children is during their peak happy-times. It seems obvious, but the best time of day for you may not be the best time of day for your little one.
Don’t be afraid to be silly
The best photographers are the least self-conscious when it comes to photographing children. Get down on your belly, make goofy faces, use silly voices. What’s a little shame when a priceless photo is the result?
Pets: sit, stay and smile
A tennis ball and squeaky toy are part of photographer Kevin Hosley’s must-have equipment when photographing animals. Many of the tips for taking pictures of children also apply to taking pictures of animals, he says, because pets are also easily distracted and have short attention spans. Kevin’s main advice is to be patient and have your equipment set up before you start taking pictures.
Pick the right place
You want an environment in which the pets feel as comfortable and safe as possible, Kevin says.
Get pets used to the camera equipment, lights and any costume items by having the equipment or props around several days before the planned shoot. “You can’t just pick up your camera, walk up, and photograph them,” he says. Even a cell phone in pets’ faces can make them nervous. If you want your pet to wear reindeer antlers, get them used to wearing the antlers before you try to take pictures.
Take your time
Be prepared to spend at least a half hour taking pictures of your pet. If you want cats sitting in a specific spot, for example, you may have to pick them up and put them back 75 times before you get the shot you want.
Reward your pets
Give pets a toy or treat when they are doing what you want or sitting where you want. If you are using some kind of costume, reward them when they keep the costume piece on.
Recruit a helper
Kevin says it is hard to do it all yourself.
Every family has its own take on the holidays. For some, nothing says “Happy Holidays” like their kids tangled up in Christmas lights. Others might showcase the family wearing the ugliest Christmas sweaters they can find. Why not capture the moments that scream “Season’s Greetings” as only your family can? Here are some ideas to get you thinking:
Play dress up with your pets for precious photos loved ones won’t soon forget. Think antlers, elf hats and floppy ears; Santa suits, angel wings and mistletoe.
Spell it out
Get the kids in plaid pajamas and poses that spell J-O-Y. Or gather the whole family to deliver your season’s greetings with signs saying, “Ho Ho Ho,” “Naughty and Nice” or “Peace on Earth.”
Little chefs with milk mustaches and a tray full of cookies go a long way in spreading holiday cheer. Kids make the best presents of all, so show them all tangled up in festive lights, dressed up like Santa with bubble bath beards, wearing milk mustaches, bursting out of giant gift-wrapped boxes or gently placed in jolly red stockings (for newborns). Include clever captions for rave reviews.
Capture your most-loved movie moments and holiday jingles in a fun-loving photo. Take a snapshot of your son pretending to stick his tongue to a flagpole or Mommy kissing Santa Claus. Or try making an oversized naughty-or-nice list since it’s certain to be checked...twice.
If Winter Wonderland doesn’t depict your family, share warm wishes from a recent beach vacation—you, the crew and a holiday sandman. Share your year’s happiest moments in a collage with photos of Halloween costumes, sporting events and school plays. Or get your seasonal garb on by decorating everyone in candy-cane colors from head to toe.