How to get great family photos (for your holiday cards)

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The task always sneaks up on me: now is the time to start thinking about family photos if you’d like to mail one out for the holidays. I was actually just at the Minted offices this past Monday night and had a chance to preview their new custom holiday cards and ink colors—which are gorgeous—and it really hit home.

So whether you’re planning on hiring a professional, asking a friend to help, or going the self-executed route, these ten tips from San Francisco-based kids photographer Sarah Hebenstreit of Modern Kids Co. will help you capture a family photo worth sharing.

Her expert advice…

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2. Pick the right location(s).
“For more intimate family portraits, I like shooting at the family’s home,” says Sarah. “But for holiday cards, an outdoor location will give you more options.” During a family portrait session, Sarah likes photographing everyone participating in activities together: “I’m based in San Francisco, so we might start out at the Ferry Building and get some macarons at Miette, before heading out to one of the city’s black-sand beaches,” she says. Even a simple activity like going out for ice cream will help everyone feel more relaxed in front of the camera.

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3. Choose your holiday card beforehand.
If you’re planning to use a family photo for your holiday cards, it’s a smart idea to choose three or four favorite card designs and share them with your photographer before the portrait session. “That way, I’ll know to shoot more horizontal or vertical options, depending on the design,” says Sarah. “And if the card has typography up top, then I’ll be sure to frame some shots with enough head room to accommodate the type.” [Ed note. Photos above my own.]

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4. Don’t wait until the last minute.
If you’re arranging a family photo session, schedule a shoot with a photographer by mid- to late-October (i.e. now). “Think of Halloween as your absolute deadline,” says Sarah. “This will give you enough time to get the images back from your photographer and place your holiday-card order with plenty of time to spare.”

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5. Dress comfortably.
Sarah advises dressing your kids in outfits that makes them feel happy and comfortable. “Dress the girls, first, since they tend to have more clothing options,” Sarah says, “then, choose everyone else’s outfits to coordinate with theirs.” Stick to mid-range colors, like soft pastels and grey, and avoid high-contrast outfits and cotton clothing in black, which tends not to photograph well. And don’t forget to coordinate your outerwear! “We’ll be able to get more shots since we won’t have to wait for everyone to put on or take off their jackets,” says Sarah.

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6. Leave the stroller at home.
Try not to bring too many belongings to the shoot. “I won’t be able to get as many candid shots if you’re holding your purse in most of the shots,” Sarah says. “Since you won’t want your bag or stroller in the picture, it’s easiest if you just leave them at home.”

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7. Time it right.
For kids aged three and under, opt for a morning shoot, from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. “They’re usually happier in the morning, right after they’ve eaten breakfast,” says Sarah. Older kids will do well in the late-afternoon. “And if you can catch the sun setting, the lighting will be incredible,” says Sarah. But if a mid-day shoot is the only option, then it’s a better idea to shoot indoors since the sun will be directly overhead, which is not ideal for photos.

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8. Don’t despair if you can’t hire a professional. 
Ask a friend to use your iPhone. “The great thing about a mobile phone like an iPhone is that there are so many excellent apps for enhancing mobile phone images that you could have someone shoot several bursts of your family and then you can do the editing on your own.

“First start by bringing up the exposure, adjusting contrast, adding warmth and so on—before you add any fancy filters. If you do add filters, only add a little bit so the images aren’t overly processed—which could be bad for printing. I use VSCO cam for all of my instagram posts and it really transforms the boring mobile phone images.

“As long as you save the images in full resolution they should be large enough to use on a printed holiday card.” [Ed note. We’ve used selfies on our last two holiday cards (above).]

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9. Let your kids be kids.
The key to getting amazing images? Relax and have fun. Accept that the shoot can sometimes get a little chaotic (messy hair, kids not always cooperating, etc.). “I always encourage silliness during shoots,” says Sarah. “I actually want the kids to make goofy faces, because chances are they’ll flash a real, genuine smile right after their silly face, which is perfect for me.” So, instead of trying to get your kids to smile on command—you’re only going to get forced, cheesy grins, anyway—play with them!  “Your kids will be so happy and delighted with your full attention during the shoot that we will easily capture extra special images full of genuine love and smiles.”

10. Enjoy it! Be in the moment!
On that note: “It seems like such an easy concept, but it’s hard to do! Encourage everyone in your family to view the shoot as a really special and extra fun part of your day—not a to-do to be checked off the list.”

Thank you, Sarah! Visit Modern Kids Co. to see more of Sarah’s incredible work. 

This post is a partnership with Minted. Be sure to check them out—and use the envelope address option (it’s a lifesaver). Here’s our card from last year, and the year before

[Updated with permission from Minted’s Julep blog / All photographs are courtesy of  Modern Kids Co., with few exceptions noted]

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