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Thanksgiving Family Photo Tips

Make the most of this ultimate American holiday to get great pictures of posed family groups

If your family is at all like mine, you take advantage of annual gatherings to make family photos. For many years at Thanksgiving, one tradition has been to use a particularly photogenic corner of my grandfather’s living room to photograph family groups. If you’re more interested in commemorating the holiday in pictures rather than heated discussions of current events, read on for four tips to help make the most of family photo opportunities that arise at Thanksgiving.

Try The Table

What’s the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving holiday if not a festive family dinner? To that end, the supper table becomes a great opportunity to capture a family photo. Not only does a set table offer a compositional aid that makes it easier to see smiling faces, but you can also accommodate quite large groups this way. For instance, by composing from one corner of the table and shooting toward the other end, you can have a handful of people seated around one end of the table and another handful or more easily standing behind them.

If you’re able, try my favorite group photo trick of seating a third of the group, then standing the shortest third of the group immediately behind those seated. Lastly, stand the remaining third—which will be the tallest of the bunch—in back. This way, you can naturally tier all those bodies without much trouble and make it easy to see everyone’s smiling faces. This tiered trick works great whether you’re posing a large group at the table or anywhere else.

Use The Couch

For smaller family groups, a couch can work in a variety of ways as a compositional device. A group of four can, for instance, sit shoulder to shoulder for a simple, straightforward linear composition. If two of those kids are small, they can sit on laps and tighten the composition while bringing their heads closer together. If the group is bigger than four—say, you’re adding grandma and grandpa or all of the aunts and uncles to the shot—another tier or two of people can stand behind the couch and sit or lean on the ends for a great way to accommodate a group of any size.

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You can also get creative with couches by turning the group around. If your room is laid out such that the couch can be viewed from behind, consider turning everyone around so they are kneeling on the couch and looking across the back. This is a great approach especially for groups of three to six that include small children. The natural lean that occurs when kneeling and facing the back of the couch brings the group naturally together in a casual and fun way.

Keep The Lighting Simple

If your living room has a tall ceiling with large north-facing windows, you’re in luck: You’ve got just about the most beautiful light source anyone could ask for. If the photographer can position herself with her back to bay windows, you’ve got big, beautiful and soft frontal light—the most flattering illumination you can get, and good and even for the largest of groups. If the window is at the side of the frame, you’re going to have strong directional light that’s unfortunately uneven—brighter on one side than the other. In this scenario, I suggest using an on-camera flash for fill. It can be aimed up at the ceiling for soft and consistent illumination or, in a pinch, it can be aimed straight at the family so long as the output is low to prevent the “bucket of light” look that on-camera flashes are famous for.

What if those windows are big and perfect but you’re having dinner after dusk or what if you don’t have big windows at all? In these situations, you’ll need to provide the illumination yourself. It’s true you could utilize ambient light from ceiling lighting and room lamps, but I find this is usually too inconsistent for flattering group illumination. The bigger the group, the more even I want that lighting to be. You could certainly set up a strobe on a light stand and umbrella, but that light stand may prove impractical in a crowded living room. Instead, I’d suggest going back to the flash on camera and tilting it up at what’s likely to be a white ceiling. This will provide even, frontal illumination that should minimize unflattering shadows on faces and all but eliminate glare on eyeglasses. If you can balance that flash with a hint of ambience—by lengthening the shutter speed or upping the ISO—even better for a natural, flattering look.

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Get In The Picture Too

You may be the photographer, but you’re also part of the family, right? So how do you get in the shot too? You’ve got a few options, but all of them start with the same thing: a tripod. Mount your camera to the tripod at or above eye level and then pose and compose the group—making sure to leave a space for you to fit in. (I suggest making that spot on an end since you’re likely to have to get to it quickly after releasing the shutter.) If your camera has a self-timer—and it likely does—set it to 10 seconds and when everyone is ready press the button. It will beep and a light will blink, signifying that the timer is counting down. As it gets closer to the moment of truth, it will likely beep faster to give you a heads up to ready those smiles.

While all of this is happening, of course, you as the photographer are scurrying to your spot while offering encouraging words like “get ready” and “everyone smile!” Doing this more than a few times is a real challenge, of course, so if your camera has an auto-bracketing feature, you can get three shots per shutter release, tripling your productivity. The best approach, in my opinion, is to use a wireless cable release or smartphone camera app. This way, you can hold the trigger inconspicuously in your hand and fire at will until you’re confident you’ve got a great shot. With a smartphone camera app, you can even view your results without stepping out of place. For sure, this kind of group photo is easier than ever thanks to all of the digital advantages modern cameras and apps provide.

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