It’s that time of year when, if you’re anything like me, you’re suddenly scrambling to come up with a holiday card to send to your friends and family. If you don’t hurry, your cards won’t be ready before the New Year. Since it’s crunch time, you need to come up with a concept and execute it post haste.
If you were smart and planned ahead, you’ve got the perfect family photo on hand from a shoot back when the weather was nice. But for the rest of us who, like me, didn’t plan ahead, never fear! I’m here to walk you through the three easy steps I took to go from “I need to make holiday cards!” to “I finished my holiday cards!” in just one day. Here’s how.
Step 1: 5:07pm—Get The Shot
I would generally suggest starting earlier in the day, of course–especially if you’d like to take advantage of natural light. But we had the kids dressed in their Sunday best for another event, so we took the opportunity to photograph them after arriving home. Since time is short, how do we make a great photo quickly? Simple: just do it, do something easy and don’t overthink it.
You could always shoot a close-up of some festive decoration or a lovely winter landscape of the snowy view outside your window, but I recommend giving the people what they really want: pictures of you and your family. Whether that’s solo selfies, group photos or pet pictures, your friends and family want to see the people they love. Since shooting other people is faster and easier than including yourself in the photos, I recommend photographing your kids if that option is available.
With my kids camera ready (which mom handled while I set the scene) we picked a location that would both work well after dark and provide a festive atmosphere. In our case, it was the living room Christmas tree, but it could just as easily be in front of any holiday decor or, in a pinch, put up any old string lights to make a twinkling light background. Put your subjects at least a few feet from those lights and shoot with a wide aperture to create a bright, festive background even if your home isn’t decked out for the holidays.
Because I was shooting after dark, I knew I wanted two things: a bright background of glowing lights and the subject illuminated by diffused light from the front. This way, I could get the best of both worlds: an ambient exposure for the background and a bright strobe exposure key to ensure the faces were bright and sharp. I put a strobe in a softbox on a lightstand in the middle of the living room and sat my daughter on the edge of the couch for some test shots. After dialing in the exposure and adding a bit of fill I posed the kids together and fired off a dozen shots, then refined the composition and exposure (adding more ambient by increasing the ISO and slowing the shutter speed) and repositioned the strobe as necessary.
One bit of advice here: be sure to shoot some horizontal and vertical compositions so you can have flexibility when it comes to choosing card layouts. Finally, I decided I wanted the kids right up next to the glowing light in hopes of getting some spill from the background, more directly tying the scene together. So, I moved the whole setup right next to the tree and voila, the shot came together. Sixty-three frames in total, the time was 5:50pm and I had gotten the shot.
Step 2: 7:15pm— Process The Pictures
After tearing down my lights, putting the living room back together and downing a quick dinner, I got to work downloading and editing the photo for the card. I knew which shots had looked best in camera, so I quickly jumped to them in Lightroom and starred a half dozen favorites, then showed them to my wife for her input. We quickly decided on a favorite and I got to work editing it in Lightroom, where I added a bit of sharpness, dialed in the white balance (having photographed a color checker chart due to the mixed lighting) and put in a bit of a vignette around the edges. Then I opened the shot in Photoshop and did some light retouching on their skin. They’re kids, so they’re much easier to retouch than adult faces, and the cleanup only took a few minutes of basic spotting and stray hair removal.
I also took down a bright spot in the frame that kept catching my eye simply by choosing a nearby dark tone and painting it in with the brush mode set to Darken. Bright spots do that–they draw the eye–so if you don’t want the spot in question to attract attention, darkening it with a low-opacity paintbrush and a neighboring color really works wonders. Less than an hour from import to output and the shot was ready to go.
Step 3: 8:34pm— Design And Print The Holiday Card
There are a lot of ways to go about printing holiday cards. Do-it-yourselfers may enjoy the process of choosing cardstock, designing a layout and printing the cards, but I’ve found that what I enjoy–and what seems to be most efficient during this busy time of year–is using a service to order and print cards. There are dozens of them, from chain pharmacies to photo labs like BayPhoto and Mpix. I use Minted, an online printing company, because I like their designs. And they–like most of these services–make it easy to come back year after year since you can upload an address list so the cards arrive with pre-addressed envelopes–another big time-saver. Anything that makes it easy to get the cards out the door is fine by me, so my advice is to find a service that you like, upload your addresses and stick with them to take full advantage of their benefits every year.
With Minted, I uploaded my photo, chose my design (again enlisting the assistance of my spouse to narrow down to a handful of favorites) and then made a few preview cards to determine what looked best. Here’s another piece of advice: Don’t fall in love with a design without first seeing how your photo works with it. Sometimes a great photo and a great design simply don’t work well together. In our case, we liked two of these previews best: a full-bleed photo with big, glowing text and another with a geometric frame. We made a few tweaks to fonts and colors, and ultimately decided what we liked best fairly easily. When in doubt, go with your gut. One more tip on choosing a design: Favor a layout that works with your photo rather than forcing a design that simply doesn’t fit–either format or vibe. And if you’re having trouble narrowing down among several options, just choose between two at a time.
It’s this designing and printing part of the process that’s the reason for the rush. If you start thinking about your holiday cards around now but drag your feet and do your photo shoot next weekend and then order your cards the week after that, it’ll be Christmas before your cards arrive–if you’re lucky! (Ever wonder why some folks send Happy New Year cards? This is why.) And because online card printers are busiest from Black Friday through December, you really need to get your order in early to beat the rush. Turnaround on my order will be about two weeks, so you can see how it might be important to act quickly and try to get everything done in one day. Plus, this added time allows me to view a digital proof and approve the layout, design and spelling all before committing to purchasing the printed cards.
So here we are. It’s 9:46pm and my wife and I are pleased with our mockup. We place the order and have one of the most daunting annual tasks of the holiday season complete. Our cards will arrive in time to be signed, stamped and shipped, all in advance of the big day. If you want to savor the process a little more, plan ahead for next year. Put a note on your calendar to take the day after Thanksgiving to shoot and order your holiday cards. Or better yet, shoot the photo in the summer for a real head start so then you’ll be sure to beat the holiday rush.