Better Holiday Portraits

Holidays are a time when families gather, making it an ideal opportunity for family portraits. One of the nicest places for a family portrait is outside, but since winter weather doesn’t always cooperate, it’s often best to keep the shoot indoors. Sure, there are challenges, but shooting indoors also eliminates some of the problems of shooting outside—weather uncertainty, windblown hair, uncomfortable temperatures, variable lighting—all of those things are controlled indoors, and with these 10 tips, you can make the most of your family photos this holiday season.

1. Choose a location with plenty of space.

Look for a large, comfortable living space with distance between the subjects and the background. The more you can separate subject from background, the more you’ll put the focus on the people in your photo.

2. Let Grandpa and Grandma sit down, taking priority front and center.

Allow children to stand around them, with little ones seated on laps or held by other grown-ups. If you can avoid kids sitting cross-legged on the floor in the foreground, you’re off to a good start for a formal portrait. But don’t worry too much about it; if there’s just not enough space for everyone, utilizing foreground floor space is a good way to free some real estate for the rest of the family, and it keeps the kids more comfortable.

3. Casual, natural posing is often more appealing than stiff and formal, though it’s trickier, too.

If you’re working on an informal group shot, where family members aren’t posed symmetrically in a "lineup" format, it works well to think of a big group as several smaller groups. By posing people in multiple groups of two or three per section, composing a large and complicated scene becomes more manageable. The results usually look better, too.

4. For formal portraits, pay special attention to balance.

A group of five adults, for example, may make you consider seating two of them in hard-backed chairs and standing the other three behind. Paying attention to head heights and balancing who sits with who stands for symmetry’s sake will help the formal feel. If your family is just too big and you’re forced to shoot a large group lineup, here’s my favorite height trick: Seat the medium-sized people, stand the short people right behind them, and stand the tall people in back.

5. Use soft lighting to help with shadows.

A flash from the front is almost always harsh. Getting the flash off-camera offers shape and is usually a more interesting and shapely light, but it can create shadows on the faces of the folks in the back row. Split the difference, and try getting the flash off the camera axis and bouncing it off a ceiling or using softening modifiers like umbrellas or softboxes to create more pleasing portrait lighting. It’s okay to use on-camera light, especially if it’s only a subtle fill to fight dark shadows.

6. Let the kids be kids.

If that means they’re silly, smiling, happy and having fun, even if they’re not sitting quietly, it’s okay. Kids having fun makes the grown-ups smile, too. And try to encourage those grown-ups not to worry about the kids; leave it to the parents and the photographer. Don’t let the whole family work on pleasing a child mid-tantrum—otherwise, you’ll end up with a bunch of frames of everyone in the image focused on the kid, including in the single shot where the kid is finally smiling happily and looking at the camera.

7. If you’re shooting smaller family groups, maybe Mom and Dad and a new baby, there’s no need to shoot as wide as you do for the big group.

Yes, we want to see the Christmas tree—but we don’t need to see the whole thing. Getting in close is always good advice, and in this case, holiday decorations subtly sneaking in to the background offer plenty of seasonal context.

8. If you’ll be making prints for the family, maybe even as gifts, plan for your final crop when you’re posing the group and composing the shot.

A large group can become quite horizontal; if you’re hoping for 8x10s, make sure you compose wider than you think necessary to be sure to allow enough room for the final print’s proportion.

9. Would you care to be a part of the family photo, too? If so, you’ll want to utilize a tripod and a self-timer.

Simply leave a spot at the edge of the group for you to get in and out of. Check the LCD to make sure all looks good, and shoot away!

10. Shoot, shoot, shoot—and then shoot some more!

The more people in the family photo, the more frames you’ll need in order to minimize the chances of screaming kids, closed eyes and moving lips. A good starting place is to shoot one exposure per person in the frame. You may want to shoot more for smaller groups, and you may not get the opportunity for so many exposures with larger ones. But it very likely will take 10 frames, for example, to get a great one with 10 people in the shot.

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