If you’re like many family photographers, shooting Christmas portraits is the bane of your existence. It's the post-Halloween horror that haunts your nightmares. Nothing is quite so impossible as rounding all the kids up, expecting them to put on their Christmas finery, stand within a few inches of each other, and, (god forbid) smile. Not just a "say cheese!" smile, but the sort of genuine smile that will actually charm the friends and family who see the picture on the front of your Christmas card.
If that sounds like an exaggeration, it’s because you’ve never tried to shoot a family Christmas photo and you’ve never had this experience for yourself. Shooting a family Christmas portrait is probably one of the most challenging things that you’ll do all year, unless for some reason you are lucky enough to have the sort of family that only exists in a 1950s television sitcom.
The first challenge: getting everyone to do all of the above
Before we can even begin to talk about creative ideas for family Christmas portraits, that one big hurdle must be tackled—you must somehow manage to convince your kids that the family portrait is in their best interests. And things like "Grandma can't wait to see this photo!" and "Just give me one nice photo, pleeeeease" totally do not work.
Personally, I like bribery. Giant candy bars often do the trick, or if you want to stick with festive, you could also give your kids a plate full of Christmas cookies to tear into like starving wolves at a caribou carcass. If you’re not into junk food, think creatively—a Christmas movie night is always fun, or you could use the standard "Santa is going to skip this house if you don’t give me a nice photo, already."
Seriously though, no one knows your kids better than you do, so you’re setting yourself up for success if you choose a time and place that’s most likely to be conducive with good behavior. If your kids are usually pretty calm in the morning or right after lunch, pick that time. If they need to get outside and burn off some energy first, make sure they do. If you have to employ a helper—someone to stand behind you and make faces, for example—work that into your plan as well. And yes, a little reward doesn’t hurt either.
Sometimes the anticipation of those glorious holiday photos can be so overwhelming that you forget simple things like aperture, shutter speed and focal length. Remember that ideal portrait settings are generally a mid-range aperture like f/5.6, and a faster shutter speed of at least 1/125 (faster if you think your kids will be punching and kicking each other or moving faster than a walk).
A good focal length for portraits is somewhere between 50mm and 125mm. If your focal length is much wider than that, you'll start to get some distortion in your subjects' features. And a longer focal length may also change the look of your subject's faces a little, so stick with something in the middle for the best results.
Idea number one: naughty and nice
Now most parents will tell you that one of their kids tends to be a little more on the naughty end of the scale than the other, or others. That’s probably true for you and your spouse as well. For some extra fun, try shooting a "naughty and nice" version of your family. Have the naughty one stand back to back with the good one, and ask each side to adopt the appropriate expression. The naughty child can fold her arms and look angry, and the nice child can put her hands on her hips and smile sweetly. You can also decorate the image in post-processing with some red devil horns and a halo. Title it "naughty and nice" and you've got a unique holiday portrait that stands out from the regular shots that usually appear on the front of the Christmas cards you do every year.
Idea number two: cover your kids with a string of lights and put a star on top
If your kids are older, try wrapping them up in a string of holiday lights. Remember that this particular portrait works best if the light is a little low, or you won’t really be able to see the glow of those lights in the final image. Make sure you use a wider aperture and don’t be afraid to turn up your ISO if you have to—take a test shot first and then choose your settings based on your results. You’ll want to make sure you’re getting a good exposure on your subject’s face, and that you’re also able to see the glow in that string of lights. And remember that this is an activity to enter into with extreme caution. I never recommend doing this with an infant or toddler as it is too easy for that string of lights to get wrapped around someone’s neck, and then you’ve got a dangerous problem. So try this idea out only with older kids, and make sure you’re ready to unplug the light string should anything go awry. (Hint: dogs also look pretty cute like this, but make sure you’ve got an amicable dog.)
For another take on this idea, you could have your kids wrap you up in a Christmas garland and hang ornaments all over your clothes—if you can, try to adopt a miserable-looking expression, although if you’re cracking up that can make for a fun photo as well. Again, you’re going to need a helper to really pull this one off, or you could use a remote release hidden in one hand and fire off the shot yourself.
If you use this idea keep in mind you have to take great care to get your focus correct ahead of time—have someone sit or stand in the spot where you plan to be and choose a narrower aperture to account for the fact that your kids are going to be moving around a bit during the shoot (that increases the chances that they will be in focus). Use a fast shutter speed of at least 1/250 to avoid motion blur and check your screen often between shots to make sure that your settings are right, or you risk getting through the entire shoot and then realizing you don’t have anything usable.
Idea number three: mountains of wrapping paper
Everyone knows that Christmas is all about presents. Or at least, that’s what kids know— birth of whom? Anyway, surrounding your festively-dressed children in mountains of ripped-up wrapping paper is a fun exercise, albeit an expensive one. Try purchasing some wrapping paper down at the dollar store and remember this isn’t something you’re going to be able to use for your family gifts after the photo shoot is over, unless you’re into the distressed wrapping paper look. Crumple up the paper and surround your kids with it, and maybe rip up a few pieces and have them toss it into the air, sort of like piles of leaves in autumn. Remember that for action shots, you have to use a faster shutter speed, so choose a well-lit location so you can achieve a shutter speed of at least 1/500. Hint: if you’re indoors you may have to turn up your ISO to accomplish this, or consider bouncing flash off the ceiling to add a little extra light.
Idea number four: family baking
If baking is a part of your family‘s tradition, try setting your kids up in the kitchen production-line style—one with the bowl, one with a spoon, and one sneaking pieces of dough. Cover their faces with flour and put chefs hats or Santa hats on each one of them, and then let them have some fun. Of course keep in mind that if your kids are like most normal kids this particular activity will fairly rapidly dissolve into fistfights over who gets to be the one eating the dough, so make sure everything is perfect before you turn them loose. Pay attention to background—you don’t want dirty dishes or other clutter competing with your subjects for your viewers’ attention. And add a few festive details such as a string of colored lights far enough in the background to create bokeh, and other little touches such as pine branches and Christmas-themed dishes.
Idea number five: bokeh
Bokeh is cool—we all love bokeh. Even if you’re not sure what the word “bokeh" means, I promise you that you love it. Bokeh is that beautiful orb-like quality that bright points of light take on when you place them in the background and shoot with a wide aperture. Holiday portraits often include bokeh and it’s easy to see why—it’s beautiful and festive and gives your images a professional-looking quality.
To capture bokeh, all you really need is a subject and a string of holiday lights. Use a wide aperture, but be aware that you will lose some depth of field so you may not need to go as wide as f/1.8 if you’re using a prime lens or other lens with a very large maximum aperture. Make sure your subject is some distance from the background, focus and shoot. That’s really all there is to it.
You can go one step further with shaped bokeh—try using an aperture attachment (you can buy these online for about 10 bucks), or you can simply make your own out of a piece of black paper. Cut the paper into a circle the same size as the end of your lens, and then cut a holiday shape out of the center. You could choose a star, a Christmas tree, a bell, a cross, anything that you think represents the season. Shoot your portrait with the paper on your lens and any bokeh will take on the shape of the cutout.
Remember you have limited time to get a great photo—kids are notoriously unwilling to cooperate, especially if it means having to stand too close to HER or HIM, and “Mom, they’re so ANNOYING can we stop now??” I don’t envy you. But make it fun for them and you might get a few extra minutes of shooting time and who knows, maybe even a great picture. And a silent night. A silent night would be awesome.
Also make sure to check out More Family Christmas Photo Ideas
- Get ready
- Offer a reward or incentive
- Choose a time when your family is in a good mood
- Recruit a helper
- Portrait tips
- Aperture: f/5.6
- Shutter speed: 1/125 or faster
- Naughty and nice
- Pose two kids as an angel and devil
- Wrap them up in a string of lights
- Make sure you get good exposure on faces
- Make sure you can see the glow of the lights
- Don't try this with toddlers and babies
- Mountains of wrapping paper
- Crumple up inexpensive wrapping paper
- Have kids sit in it or toss it into the air
- Keep your shutter speed up and your ISO high
- Family baking
- Set kids up in the kitchen
- Include festive touches like santa hats and light strings
- Put a string of lights in the background
- Use a wide aperture to capture bokeh
- Consider using a shaped bokeh attachment
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