I had so much fun coming up with ideas for family Christmas portraits that I decided to do a follow-up article just in case you wanted ideas for the next, you know, 10 years or so. Christmas portraits are a tradition for many families, but some families kind of find themselves a little stuck, taking the same basic photo year after year. And while it is true that kids grow and every photo does look a little bit different as the years pass, why not treat your family and friends to something really unique this year? Instead of just lining up the kids in front of the Christmas tree in their Christmas finery, do something surprising. Keep reading for some ideas.
First, some portrait tips
Just in case you missed the first instalment in this series of two, let’s go over some basic portrait tips. For most portraits, you want to use a mid range aperture of around f/5.6. If you've got a lot of people to photograph and you’re arranging them in rows, you may need to use a slightly narrower aperture to make sure that both rows are sharp. The best way to do this is to take a test photo with your subjects arranged the way you want them in the final shot. Zoom in and make sure that each person in the photo is equally sharp.
Remember to keep your shutter speed reasonably fast—don’t drop below 1/125. Anything much lower that and you may get some motion blur, especially as your kids are shoving each other and arguing. If there isn't enough light in the room to accommodate that faster shutter speed and narrow aperture, consider turning your ISO up. Remember that modern cameras can take very good pictures at higher ISOs, so don’t worry if you need to turn all the way up to 1600 or higher to get good results. Don’t sacrifice things like shutter speed for the sake of a low ISO. It’s always better to have a little bit of noise in your photo than it is to have motion blur.
Alternately, you can also use flash, but don’t use your onboard flash because that’s not only going to completely wash out the scene and create ugly shadows and possibly red-eye (remember that this is Christmas, not Halloween) but it’s going to completely change the ambience of that beautiful Christmas scene. So instead, try bouncing your flash. You need an off-camera flash for this but you don’t have to use it off-camera—an off-camera flash typically has a swiveling head so you can point it at the ceiling or at a wall, which will soften the light, maintain the ambience, and allow you to get a good exposure.
Get in the shot
Some parents would rather not be in it that holiday portrait, and if you’re one of them then you can just keep skip on to the end of this article. But if you do want people to know that you’re the mother or father of those insane children, you’ll need to use a tripod. Set your camera up with a self-timer of about 10 seconds, which should allow you enough time to get into the photo. Make sure you pre-focus on someone who is either sitting in the chair where you’re planning to sit, or is on the same focal plane, and take a test shot to make sure everyone in the frame is going to be in focus. Take care not to move that chair when you get into it, and pay attention to your camera’s cues—most cameras have some sort of flashing light or other hint that tells you when the shutter is about fire. Again, it helps if you select a narrower aperture, that way you’ll increase your chances of getting everyone in focus.
Now that that’s out of the way, here are some ideas for how to make your photo shoot a little more creative this year.
Idea number one: Props
Sleds, trees, that big inflatable Santa you put in the front yard every year—these are all props that could conceivably be included in your family Christmas portrait. Just remember not to clutter up the frame with a lot of different props, instead choose one substantial prop or three smaller ones. Remember the rule of odds—people feel more comfortable when looking at odd numbered groups of objects.
Have your family hold the props, interact with them, or just put them in the background to help create a holiday ambiance. Better still, cycle through a bunch of different ideas. As long as your kids are still game, it doesn’t hurt to overshoot.
Idea number two: reflections
For this idea, you’ll need to go to the store and purchase the largest, shiniest holiday bobble you can find. Have your kids stand in front of the bobble and then angle yourself in such a way so that you’re photographing only their faces as reflected in the glass. Take care not to include yourself and your camera in the image—if you want to be a part of this particular portrait, have a friend or neighbor take the picture for you. Or, keep yourself and your camera in the shot, and position your family around other parts of the frame.
Curious Orion by Flickr user Dylan Parker
Idea number three: mistletoe
I like to recommend mistletoe for couples portraits—it’s really cute to have one person hold the mistletoe over the head of the other for a photo. If you’re a young family without kids, this is always a great idea for a holiday photo.
It can also be pretty hilarious when you use it with kids as well. Have one kid hold the mistletoe and the other one pull a disgusted face. Or, if you and your spouse plan to be in the shot, you could have one person hold the mistletoe and kiss the other, while all of your kids grimace in horror. That’s one great way to get a laugh from your friends and family.
Idea number four: the truth
Let’s face it, most of us want to tell lies in our Christmas portraits. We want everybody to think that our sweet kids get along so well and they never fight. We like to spend hours trying to get that one perfect shot of all four kids, all of them smiling and looking at the camera, which is a total fabrication what their personalities are actually like. This year, consider taking another kind of photo for your Christmas card. Embrace the arguing, fighting, and complaining. If one or more of your kids are crying, use that picture in the Christmas card. That could be a fun way to show everyone you know not necessarily that your kids are misbehaved, but that they’re perfectly normal and you’re OK with that.
Idea number five: outdoors, sans-snow
Not everyone lives in a place that gets snow in December, but Christmas has a lot of enduring symbols besides snow. You can still get a festive holiday portrait outdoors if you add the right holiday touches. How about his idea: take your family outdoors and have them sit or stand in front of a bare deciduous tree. Tie a long string on each of your favorite glass bobbles and then tie those strings to the branches of the tree. Position your subjects in such a way that the bobbles form a kind of a halo or frame around your subjects.
If you live in the southern hemisphere, Christmas is a warm season, and you can take a photo that reflects that. Why not take your family down to the beach for the day, dress them in Santa hats, and take a few warm-weather holiday shots?
Idea number six: words
If you have three kids, consider buying some large wood or cardboard letters so they can spell out the word “joy." If you have four kids, you could have them spell the word “noel.” If you have two kids, you could have them spell … “hi.” Or something. I’m sure you can come up with a festive two letter word, or just have them hold up Christmasy shapes. One of the benefits to this technique, or any prop really, is that when your kids’ hands are full they can’t hit each other. No one can put a price tag on that.
Idea number seven: the Christmas tree farm
If going to a Christmas tree farm every year is already a part of your tradition, consider making your long-suffering children dress up in their fancy Christmas clothes for a photo shoot. Try to time your arrival for later in the day when the sun is low so you can take advantage of that golden hour light. Before you start chopping down the tree, have your kids line up in a picturesque location for a family portrait.
Don’t stress. I know, that’s like saying “don’t be hungry” when you’re at a buffet and you haven’t eaten in four days. That family photo is going to be stressful no matter what you do, but you can reduce the stress level significantly by choosing to mix it up this year and schedule a photo shoot that is different from anything you’ve ever done before. Think of it this way—your kids already know that the holiday photo gets shot in front of the same Christmas tree year after year. If this year you tell them you’re going to do something fun and unique, they might even be more willing to sit still for five minutes and give you a nice holiday photo, already. And that sounds like a pretty good early Christmas gift for you, doesn’t it?
- Portrait tips
- Aperture: f/5.6
- Shutter speed 1/125
- Turn your ISO up if you have to
- Bounce your external flash
- Get in the shot
- Pre-focus on the chair where you will sit
- Use a narrower aperture
- Choose props in odd numbered groups
- Have the kids hold or interact with them, or use them in the background
- Photograph your family's faces reflected in a large glass bobble
- Take care to keep yourself out of the photo
- Photographing kids with mistletoe can be hilarious
- The truth
- Don't be afraid to photograph crying children
- Hang ornaments from the branches of a bare tree
- In warm water, take holiday photos at the beach
- Have your kids hold cardboard letters that spell out festive holiday words
- Christmas tree farm
- Visit a tree farm during the golden hour
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