How to Take the Perfect Family Photo

The adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is familiar to many of our authors. Rare is the LifeTime Memoir that doesn’t abound with photographs of loved ones spending precious time together and making memories to last a lifetime.

 

With the festive season now just days away, we’ll all have the chance to create imagery that can be cherished for generations to come. Both Christmas and Hanukkah go hand in hand with photography. They are energetic, exciting times when it feels natural to reach for the camera. Whether capturing the glow of the menorah, catching kids’ smiles as they unwrap gifts, or snapping the faces of loved ones setting eyes on each other for the first time in months, there is an abundance of opportunity for photo-taking at this time of year. 

Taking a family photo, however, is rarely the easiest of tasks. From strongarming the dog into the frame to choosing which outfit to wear, the process can feel more daunting than the challenge of cooking the perfect turkey! But it doesn’t have to be stressful, and you don’t have to be Ansel Adams to capture something meaningful. Nor do you need a top-flight camera to take a frame-worthy photo. Everything you need is there in your smartphone.

So, grab a glühwein and snuggle up with our tips for snapping memorable family photos this holiday season.

Have fun, fun, fun

Rule number one, and the secret to great festive photography: have a good time! A festive photo without smiles and laughter is as humdrum as a wet day at the beach.

Don’t fret about getting every detail “just so.” Just enjoy the experience and help everyone else to do the same. Promise them something to look forward to—a drink, a mince pie—afterward. Encourage the kids to show off. Play festive tunes, tell cheesy cracker jokes, strike a pose, or grab some props: stockings, wreaths, Santa hats … Do whatever will put a smile on those faces, and be ready to capture their in-the-moment reactions. Your camera will thank you for it.

Zero in on magic moments

What really matters at this time of year? What traditions of the season might you want to represent in your photography? Ornamenting the tree? Eating latkes and Hanukkah gelt? Cooking the meal? Playing dreidel? Mom and Dad’s yearly kiss beneath the mistletoe? Such events are ripe with opportunities for meaningful photographs.

Think about relationships too. Your family may not gather often, and time is fleeting, so make a point of capturing those personal connections. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren … shoot away as people laugh, smile, and look into one another’s eyes. You’ll be glad you did. 

But don’t limit yourselves to people. Homes transform into cozy winter wonderlands at this time of year, and you might like to shoot images of stockings, gifts, decorations, and neighbors who go overboard with outdoor lights …

Document whatever moments and scenes make the festive season special for you

Dress for the occasion

“Clothes maketh the photo,” as the saying goes … or something like that.

For a Christmas photo to be a Christmas photo, it needs a festive sweater, a tree, or a roast turkey in the background—something to state what the occasion is. It also needs your loved ones to look the part. It doesn’t matter whether everyone wears classy red-and-green ensembles or reindeer onesies with inflatable antlers—the thing is to decide beforehand so that you avoid Grandad in his three-piece posing next to Uncle Manoj in a bath robe!

Do candid and posed

Capture the spontaneous, heartwarming moments that happen in the blink of an eye, when people are too busy to pose. Are people writing to Santa, opening gifts, lighting candles, pulling crackers, embracing, sharing a laugh, or nodding off after their Christmas feast? Pick up your camera.

For posed and group photographs, visualize how you want them to look (Pinterest and Instagram are great places for inspiration), and organize accordingly. Find a spot by the fireplace or the tree and check your camera display, working outward from the center and adding one person at a time. No one has to stand in rows, bolt upright as if in the military—instead, mix up people’s positions until their heads are at different levels and you’re happy. Then, decide where you’re going to stand, set up your tripod so the camera lens is just above your group’s level, set the timer, and make a dash!

Remember that, if young ones are present, a little bribery can go a long way. Snacks and toys will turn frowns upside down!

Get close

Don’t stand too far from your subject; get up close and fill your frame. Focus on the eyes and face, minimize headroom and dead space, and your picture will soar. You’ll also intensify the out-of-focus parts of the picture—great for getting that soft, hazy “bokeh” (deliberately blurry) background effect with lights, ornaments, and candles.

Remember—location, location, location!

Backgrounds can make or break festive photographs. No matter how cute or happy your loved ones are or how beautifully your house is decorated, piles of washing or old magazines in the background can really put a dampener on a photo.

A calm but not necessarily plain (Christmas trees and fairy lights are fine!) background often works best. Here, consider your surroundings: is there snow on the ground? Wrap up warm and go outside for a picture. 

See the light

Light is everything to professional photographers, and understandably so. How much natural light is available and how brightly lit a scene is will have a huge bearing on how a photo looks.

The main thing is to keep your subjects away from bright camera flashes in front of them and from bright backlighting behind—by not standing them in front of a window, for example. Light your subjects both from behind and in front.

For best results when using fairy lights, menorahs, or flaming puddings in photos, shoot late in the day, use a tripod, and turn off your flash. Flash photography makes people look like rabbits caught in headlights, whereas pictures lit by the dreamy glow of your fireplace or by the kaleidoscopic colors of tree lights will be warm, ambient, and imbued with seasonal spirit.

Most modern devices handle low-light situations with aplomb. Deploying “night” or “slow sync” mode (if your device has it) will help you to get great results.

Don’t fear the settings

If terms like “white balance” and “depth of field” mean nothing to you, you’re in good company! Most of us stick religiously to the “auto” settings on our smartphones and cameras and, nine times out of ten, that’s fine. Modern equipment usually takes decent images on auto and, with “burst” and “portrait” modes, can fire off rapid shots (maximizing your chances of capturing a great image) and capture faces that pop. The reality, though, is that manual settings aren’t hard to fathom, and when looking to raise your game with a little artistic nuance, white balance and depth of field are where it’s at.

So, try. Practice. Take some test shots ahead of time, and play with the settings. Fiddle with lighting, location, and time of day too, until you find combinations that work for you. The more you experiment, the better your photos will be.

Taking perfect festive photos is rarely as easy as it sounds, but keep these few points in mind and your pictures from the holiday season will burst with warmth and cheer.

To everyone who celebrates Christmas or Hanukkah, LifeTime Memoirs wishes you happy holidays.

Written by Steve Edwards, LifeTime Memoirs senior editor

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