Make A Beautiful Family Portrait This Holiday

holiday photography, portrait photography

Whatever your family’s traditions, consider taking advantage of a holiday gathering as the perfect opportunity to make a family portrait. In warmer parts of the country you may be able to comfortably make portraits outdoors in late fall and early winter, but for the rest of us, a holiday photo shoot means working indoors. Use these tips to make the most of this unique opportunity to create a long-lasting family memory.

Pick The Perfect Location

The same reason that makes holidays a perfect time for a big family photo makes them tricky as well: Everyone is home! If your family fills up the house, it can be tough to find the ideal location for a big group. Generally, the bigger the space, the better. If everyone is hanging out in the living room, it’s likely the perfect space for the photo. But it may also be the worst space, depending on the size of your family and the size of the room. If you can gather everyone around a few chairs, or even a couch, with space behind, you can begin to pose everyone layered around the couch in a way that will look great. If the room is simply overcrowded, consider any open area you can find—on the stairs, in the basement or even on the back porch. A wide-angle lens may be a necessity to capture a large group, particularly if you’re working in a confined space. Ideally, you would have enough room to use a normal or not-too-wide lens, but working in a home with a large group may require a 28mm, a 24mm or even a 20mm or wider lens. The wider the lens, the more distorted the group will appear, however, so bear this in mind when choosing a location.

Seat The Elders Front And Center

Put grandma and grandpa front and center, seated, preferably in hard-backed chairs, which will prevent them from slouching. A couch may work in this scenario, as long as it’s not the kind of thing everyone sinks into. With the elders in the center of your composition, put small children standing around them with the littlest on laps or held by their parents. Don’t worry too much about letting big kids sit cross-legged on the floor. If the group is big, this likely will be a necessity. If the group is small—under 8, let’s say—you can probably keep your portrait a little more formal without the kids on the floor. With the family elders in place, you can naturally build the rest of the group around them.

Consider Casual Posing

The easiest way to photograph a large group of people is in three rows: the front row is seated in hard-backed chairs, like those from the dining room. The second row is the shortest people standing immediately behind the chairs, and the third row is the tallest people standing in back. This ensures everyone is easily seen and the portrait looks formal and rigorous. The problem is, this formal approach can sometimes come across as a bit too sterile for a family portrait.

Instead of this lineup approach, try more casual posing. Break your big group into several smaller groups, and pose them three at a time, paying attention to head heights so they aren’t all in a level line. Think triangles: If you can make a pleasing triangle of the three heads you’re working with, then repeat that with the next group; eventually you’ll have what amounts to a more natural portrait with everyone’s face still visible. Anything goes in this type of posing, so feel free to seat people on chair arms, kneeling on the floor, standing behind others and so on. Small stools, apple boxes and anything else of varying height may be helpful to get everyone positioned without simply lining them up. Bear in mind that if you’re shooting on the actual holiday, your group may not have unending patience and you may be better off with a faster and less formal approach. If there’s room around the dining table, tell everyone to pile around one end and make only the necessary tweaks to ensure there are no major issues, then click, click, click, and resume the festivities.

holiday photography, portrait photography
If you’re photographing a holiday card, take advantage of nature’s studio (especially with a big group) and head outside. An outdoor shot in fall makes for a great holiday portrait.

Play Photojournalist

If you’re trying to photograph everyone during the actual holiday celebration, you simply may find that a single posed group is impossible. It may be because not everyone wants to do the group photo, people are too tense or excited, or the party’s momentum simply won’t allow for it. Or maybe you simply don’t have the space to reasonably photograph a couple dozen people at once.

Instead consider photographing your family with a photojournalistic approach. By making candids, not only will you capture authentic smiles and great moments, you won’t stop the party. Instead of attempting one group of 24, for instance, make eight different small groups of three based on where people are sitting. Better still, simply snap away and include wide shots of multiple family members as well as close-ups of a face or two that really capture facial expressions. These closer images that isolate a single element create a stronger center of interest and tend to make for better photographs, too. A fast telephoto lens will be immensely helpful for the kind of close-ups that isolate facial expressions, while a medium telephoto zoom is a great way to switch from small group candids to close-ups. Instead of using a flash for these photos, try to use only the ambient light. Crank up the ISO as needed and maybe even consider setting your camera to Auto ISO. Then use a fast shutter speed of at least 1/250th coupled with the maximum aperture of your lens (hopefully, ƒ/2 or even wider). This way you’ll create the shallow depth of field that helps to isolate people from the background and makes for more appealing portraits.

For A Big Group, Pay Attention To Balance

Group photos usually succeed or fail largely based on balance. If you have three people dressed in red out of a group of 10, those three better not be bunched together. You’ll likely want them distributed evenly throughout the group. Likewise in a group of five adults consider seating two and standing the other three behind, paying attention to head heights, outfits and family groups so the finished picture is naturally balanced. (Try to keep spouses near one another, and do the same with parents and children. In this way, your picture will have the natural balance only family members will recognize.) Beyond that, the real goal is to ensure no one sticks out like a sore thumb, and that in the end there’s not one person or subgroup in the picture that throws the whole thing out of whack. Sometimes that’s due to a bright outfit, or someone a head taller than everyone else, or simply because they didn’t get the memo to come dressed in nice attire. The trick to preventing this is simply to take your time, step back and really examine the group before you click the shutter. Reposition people as needed, understanding that the back row is a great place to hide all sorts of unflattering inconsistencies.

holiday photography, portrait photography
Take a photojournalistic approach and look for nontraditional ways to create a portrait. You don’t always need a Santa hat, tree or menorah in your photos to have them represent the holidays.

Light It Up, But Softly

If you attempt your group photo with a flash on the camera, two things will happen. One, the photo will inherently look like a snapshot with a bucket of light thrown on. Two, anyone wearing glasses is likely to have an eyeful of unappealing reflections from the flash. True, you can always utilize bright window light, if available, but I wouldn’t try a very large group with ambience from tungsten ceiling lights and lamps. (In this scenario, not only are they likely to produce a fairly low exposure, they’re more likely to cast unappealing shadows on the faces of the subjects.)

Instead, light up the scene with a flash, but one that’s not on the camera. You can position a strobe high and to one side of the scene, as far back as the camera or even farther to make its illumination more even across the group. That strobe should be modified with a softbox, ideally about 2×3 or 4×5 feet in size, to ensure soft, flattering light and minimal shadows. A collapsible umbrella also works as a diffusing modifier, and in this situation, I’d prefer one with a silk on the front (a “brolly box”) or a simple shoot-through design. This strobe is the key light and should be on one of its higher power settings in order to produce an exposure somewhere around ƒ/8 for sufficient sharpness and depth of field in the group. If you’ve got a second strobe, position it with a softbox or umbrella just above the lens and at the camera. This strobe should be at a much lower power setting than the key, maybe even half-power. This is the fill, and its job is simply to prevent overwhelming dark shadows on faces, particularly in people positioned immediately behind others. If you don’t have softboxes, umbrellas or even off-camera strobes, you still have one saving grace: the ceiling. Tilt your on-camera flash (or even that off-camera strobe) to aim it at the ceiling in front of the group and let that large white ceiling become a diffused key light, providing even illumination for the entire group.

Warn The Parents About Their Kids

Kids are kids. They giggle and play and look away just when we want them to smile at the camera. That’s how it’s always been, and that’s how it’s going to be in this family portrait as well. Sometimes kids having fun makes the grownups smile. When this happens, click, click, click away. The best way to handle kids is before you start shooting. You’ve got to warn the parents—not to keep their kids in line, but to largely ignore their children’s hijinks. You see, the moms and dads naturally will turn to their toddlers who aren’t cooperating, only to have the toddler smile and look at the camera, at which point the photographer takes the picture. And what’s the result? The toddler looks fine, but mom and dad are staring at the kid instead of the camera. So you’ve got to warn the parents and the adults in the general vicinity of the little kids that their job is to maintain smiling eye contact with the camera at all costs, and let the photographer work to get the kids’ attention. Even if the kids never come around, that picture looks a lot better than the one with three adults staring awkwardly at the kids as well. So get parents onboard ahead of time.

holiday photography, portrait photography
If you’re photographing young kids, keep shooting through the giggles and silly faces. At some point you’ll likely end up with a calm moment like this one—but don’t try to force kids to be still if they don’t want to be.

Get Closer

True, for a big family group you’re likely to need a wide-angle lens. But for smaller groups—like two parents and a couple of kids—you’ll be better served with a lens that provides a tighter angle of view. For small family shots of three, four and five people, try a 50mm or 70mm lens that lets you make a close-up and eliminate much of the background. You can still incorporate a hint of holiday décor, like a bit of Christmas tree, for instance, or holiday lights. It doesn’t take much to provide an appropriate holiday feel, so you can have the best of both worlds with just a little holiday décor creeping into the frame and a tighter, closer shot of the family. This is bound to be inherently more interesting than a wide angle of view.

Shoot For The Crop

These days more and more people just want their pictures as digital image files they can share on social media. But no matter how online-oriented we get, people do still like having prints of their family photos. Not only does a framed 8×10 make a great gift, but simply having printed pictures stuck on the fridge, propped on the desk or tucked into a wallet will never go out of style. So while you’re composing your family photo, make sure you consider the crop that will be necessary to make prints.

With smaller groups, verticals might seem like the more natural composition, but make sure to keep head heights in mind so you won’t have a face at the bottom of the frame after cropping to, say, a 5×7 or an 8×10. The 8×10 is a much squarer format than the 4×6 native proportion most cameras produce. This is especially problematic with large group photos. If you let the group get particularly panoramic in shape—i.e., long, left to right, and narrow, top to bottom—it won’t crop well at all. And when you try to crop to an 8×10 you’ll chop off the ends and still have too much empty space at the top and bottom of your frame. The best way around this is to arrange the group with the ideal crop in mind, and then widen out the composition just to be safe. The extra space in a wider composition simply gives you more versatility when it’s time to crop. If you’re really having trouble visualizing an 8×10, get an acrylic LCD protector for the screen on the back of your camera and draw an 8×10 crop guide on it. Then check your composition against it via Live View or the image playback.

Get In The Picture, Too

There’s a major challenge with taking the family photo when the photographer is part of the family, too. How do you get the photographer in the picture? The easiest approach is to arrange the group and compose the photo, leaving a space for yourself in front or near one of the edges. Then you can use the camera’s 10-second self-timer to trip the shutter and run to your position. Better still, use a wireless trigger like the Canon LC-5 or Nikon’s Wireless Remote Adapter Set. With what amounts to a wireless cable release you can compose as normal, then calmly take your position and trip the shutter remotely. This is a great way to fire multiple frames without ever leaving your position.

Shoot Enough And Then Shoot Some More

The bigger the group, the more frames you’ll need to shoot before you get one where everyone is smiling, looking in the correct general direction and not blinking, sneezing or scratching their nose. A good rule of thumb is at least as many frames as there are people in the photo, and then shoot a few more, for good measure. When you think you’ve got it, shoot one more still. In the end, this increases the chances of the perfect frame, and it also gives you more options to work with should you decide to work some digital magic and swap heads or body parts with Photoshop in order to construct the perfect family photo in post.

Plan Ahead And Shoot Early

Perhaps the most popular use of the holiday-themed family portrait is for Christmas or Hanukkah cards. Well, if you shoot the portrait while the family is visiting for the holidays, you can’t exactly send the picture in this year’s card. Instead, you might consider planning ahead—well ahead—and shooting the holiday-themed photo earlier in the year.

There are several benefits to this approach. First, with better weather in autumn, for instance, you can take advantage of the outdoors as a much more user-friendly location for your photo. Secondly, of course, you can use that photo on cards that are sent out in early December, well in advance of the holiday. And, third, and perhaps most importantly, you avoid any particular worries about the portrait session when the actual holiday arrives. Holidays can be stressful, and that doesn’t always lend itself to an ideal situation for a family photo. So if you want to avoid the issue altogether when the big day comes, shoot your family photo well in advance. In much of the country, you can take advantage of an outdoor setting well into November. With a little cooperation from Mother Nature, you can photograph your family on a walk in the woods perhaps, or even surrounded by pine trees at a Christmas tree farm. There are a lot of good reasons why it makes sense to take your family photo on the actual day of the holiday, but plenty of other great reasons to take care of it well in advance. Plan ahead for whatever will work best for your family.

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