12 Rules to Create Awesome Holiday Portraits

One of my favorites is receiving holiday or greeting cards with photos of family and friends. But if you’re taking those photos, getting everyone together is another story.

From selecting what to wear to getting the children to cooperate, the process can be filled with anxiety and pressure. Whether you're taking the snapshot yourself or headed to a professional, here a few tips to reduce stress and get a frame-worthy photograph.

Tip 1: Involve your children in the process.
Getting the kids together doesn't have to be an unpleasant or challenging experience. Allow your kids to be part of the process. Let them pick out something to wear or something to bring. This is a good way to make sure your child's personality is present in the image. After all, you are trying to capture your family at a given year. Another suggestion is to plan a fun family event after the portrait session, so your kids has something to look forward to-which will also help keep them smiling and cooperative for that perfect family shot.

Tip 2: Location, Location, Location ...
If your shooting outside, look at the background for your portrait. It shouldn’t be too busy or distracting. Look carefully through the lens to make sure that there’s nothing behind the main subjects—like a tree or a sign post—that looks as if it could be extending out of someone’s head. Fall and winter are such beautiful times of year in a natural environment. The less distracting the area is, the better. Keeping your background simple is a good rule of thumb.

Tip 3: Lighting is Key!
When taking the photo yourself, the right lighting is key. Figure out where the sun is and make sure your subjects are lit fairly evenly. Try to avoid harsh shadows and overly bright direct sunlight. Most photographers, myself included love the “golden hour”, which is the first or last hour of sunset. The light is soft and warm.

Tip 4: Forget about saying "cheese."
You want natural smiles. By telling family and children to say “cheese”, you actually causing their mouths to go into the “fake dentist” smile ... the thing no one wants in their portraits. When preparing kids for a family photo, talk about it as something fun. Mentioning that they're about to have their pictures taken is OK, but telling kids how they have to smile when asked is not going to help. Tell a joke to get them to laugh, sing a silly song ... or ask them to think about a favorite vacation or gift will give more of a natural emotion. Those are key. Candid moments are the best to capture real personality, so keep shooting even when your kids stop saying 'cheese!' Some people even use an app that has a whole bunch of different funny sounds with silly names.

Tip 5: Coordinate outfits but don't match
You've seen it a hundreds of times: The entire family-from Grandma to the family dog-is wearing the exact same outfit. It matches, but not necessarily sophisticated. So with that, do you want "formal" or "casual". Of course, these are your portraits, so it’s your choice, but I recommend using a more general color scheme. I tell clients to approach clothing as if they were decorating a room. First pick a main color scheme, then add different shades, textures and patterns. Remember, neutrals, such as denim, can and should be mixed in. If you have a pattern shirt, make sure you have a single color pants. When coordinating outfits, avoid anything that will take attention away from the whole point of the photo-the people! The most important thing is to avoid large logos or letters. Just make sure you don't mix too many busy patterns. If you have a striped shirt, wear solid-colored pants."

Tip 6: Hair and Make-up
Hair: A classic hair style can make your portrait be more timeless. Avoid trendy hair styles. Bring extra hairspray to your session or bobby-pins to keep hair in place. Men and boys, do you want clean shaven or a little "stubble"? Make sure you have your hair styled too. If you use hair gel, bring it along.

Make-up: Make-up is vital and necessary, but unless you are going for a fashion look, keep your make-up natural and simple. Mascara and a little eye liner are extremely important. It helps bring out your eyes. Neutral lip shades or gloss are okay. I suggest picking a daytime look with a bit more drama. Wear eyeliner with your day eyeshadow color or a brighter lipcolor. Makeup should add some focus, not steal the show.

Tip 7. Mementos / Props - Personal Items
I don’t recommend bringing props unless them mean something to you or have a memory with them. I tell clients to bring “mementos.” Example, if you play sports, bring one of your equipment (balls, rackets, etc.) If you're interest in music, bring a radio or an instrument. For the children, bring one/two of their favorite toys. Do you love flowers?  Bring a bouquet. And ... for the 4-legged members the family, bring one of their blankets, toys or treats. You can include these objects in one or two of your shots ... You want your photographs to be personal and individual, not sitting around a bunch of “random” items.

Tip 8. Cloudy days for flattering portraits
An overcast day is great for portraits. With no harsh sunlight, you can softer images. You can still use the camera's flash it helps your subject stand out from the background. Be sure to work within your flash's distance range. If you're too close, your family will appear washed out; too far, and everything will be dark.

Tip 9: Be creative.
Photograph your kids from a variety of angles and distances. Don’t be afraid to try a bird’s-eye view, such as from a tree or the top of a staircase, where you photograph them from above. Or a worm’s-eye view, where you photograph your subject from down low, such as lying down on the ground or sitting down. This is especially good for toddlers and pets. You’re at their eye level. Look at taking a portrait through leaves or fabric (such as lace). The shapes and colors will had spark and individuality to your portraits.

Tip 10. Stop judging and relax.
Once you're in front of the camera, relax and enjoy the experience - and let your family do the same. People are overly critical of themselves and their kids. When sending your card to family and friends, they going to be "thinking of how big Susie got, or what a fun image you captured. They are not looking to see if you are five pounds heavier or if Bobby is wearing shoes."

Tip 11. Take a lot of pictures.
If you're dealing with problem picture-takers-for example, someone who blinks a lot-follow the pros' lead and take a lot of pictures. Take five (5) or more of the same pose. One will turn out perfect and the other go to the “trash”. These digital days you don't have to worry about running out of film!"

Tip 12: If all else fails…consider leaving it to the professionals.
Search around for the right photographer. When hiring a professional, make sure to first view their website to see if you like their style and vision before contacting them. Every photographer has a different style. Some photographers shoot outreach, offering a relaxed and natural setting. Others offer perfect studio lighting but regular, common poses. Some photographers capture those journalistic moments. After you've selected your photographer, collaborate. Discuss location, wardrobe, best time of day for shooting, and any specific ideas you might have for props or poses. Don’t be hesitant to express your needs. But also remember you’re hiring a creative person who might want to shoot portraits that are “outside of the box”. Be willing to trying a few new ideas.

Remember, your portraits, whether you take them yourself or hire a professional are about you and your family. They are artwork you will celebrate, treasure, and admire for a lifetime. Your portraits are celebrating memories and highlighting this moment in your lifetime ... so have fun and enjoy the experiences.