How to get great family photos (for holiday cards)

Holiday Sunset Hither and Thither Christmas

Are the holiday cards arriving, with yours still on the to-do list? The task always sneaks up on me: two weeks ago was the time to start thinking about family photos if you’d like to mail one out for the holidays. But, in the midst of gift shopping and holiday decorating, here I am on the 20th of December writing this post for you. It may be too late for your holiday cards to arrive to your loved ones before Christmas this year, but that’s the magic of holiday season: it isn’t really over until the New Year comes around.

And with that in mind, it is still not too late for you to snap a picture of your sweet family and send it off before the 2020 ball drops. In fact, you may be better off for it with everyone already gathered around in one-place.

The truth is getting the perfect holiday card picture can be overwhelming: the dog isn’t loving the Christmas sweater you wiggled on him, one of your kids is insisting on wearing their Elsa-from-Frozen dress and refuses to take it off (cough-cough), and your partner is one long sigh away from retreating back into the house.

But there’s hope!

And these ten tips from San Francisco-based kids photographer Sarah Hebenstreit will help!

Her expert advice…

1. 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. Snapseed is another great editing tool.

“As long as you save the images in full resolution, they should be large enough to use on a printed holiday card.”

We’ve also used a tripod and a self-timer remote, which I talk about here! And I’d bet you have lots of great photos on Instagram that you could use for a collage.

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.

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.

Last-minute printer options include choosing a digital template at Etsy and printing yourself, or running to a local photo print kiosk—like the one at Costco!

4. 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! “You’ll be able to get more shots if you don’t have to wait for everyone to put on or take off their jackets,” says Sarah.

But also feel free to be natural—pajamas on Christmas morning! Jeans and sweatshirts at the morning game of pass! (Did you see the SNL holiday clothing skit?)

5. 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.

6. 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.”

7. 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.”

8. Okay and, finally, (try) not to wait until the last minute.
I say, writing this on the eve of the holiday. However, if you really want to do things right (without the time pressure), schedule a shoot with a photographer (or your tripod) by mid- to late-October. “Think of Halloween as your deadline,” says Sarah. “This will give you enough time to get the images back and place your holiday-card order with plenty of time to spare.”

Thank you, Sarah! Visit Modern Kids Co. to see more of Sarah’s incredible work. If you do hire a professional, Sarah’s tip: “Make sure your photographer enjoys shooting kids. If you still have last year’s batch of holiday cards, go through the stack and pull a couple of favorites, then ask your friends who their photographer was. Word of mouth is really the best recommendation.”

[Top photo by Thomas J. Story]

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