How to Photograph Your Family this Holiday Season

It's that time of year again! The holidays are here and it's never too late to take that sought-after holiday photo of the family you've always wanted. If you're planning on sending a holiday card this year, you'll want to share a photo of the whole family. If you aren't planning on having a professional photographer take your photos, here are some ideas on how to photograph your own family portraits this holiday!

Choose A Setting

The first tip to creating better holiday photos is deciding on a location. Whether it's in your own home, at a studio with props, or outside, make sure you have a setting in mind. Once your location is set, it's much easier to plan out outfits and what you want to photograph.

When taking photographs of your own kids, most of the time you'll be in or around your home. Find areas of your home that showcase your holiday decorations, but keep in mind you might want to keep the area simple and free from clutter or distractions.

family playing in the snow

Outside locations are nice because you have more available light to work with. Some popular holiday outdoor locations include a tree farm, snowy mountains, fields with fall leaves, or a holiday-themed activity. We recommend trying to go when there aren't as many people. Typically, early mornings are best.

Taking your own family photo means you'll need to be in the image. Make sure to set up your camera on a tripod to eliminate any camera shake and set your camera on a timer. If your camera has Wi-Fi you can use a wireless remote or even your smartphone via an app. Make sure to be mindful of your family's height level. If you have small children, sitting together can help guarantee that everyone is in the frame.

Working with Ambient Light

One major factor in choosing the best location is lighting. When photographing in your home, scout out places near windows or find areas with the best ambient light. One tip to help ensure you have enough light on your subject's face is to have them look up. Since you'll be working in low light situations, you'll have to push your ISO a bit since we still want the whole family in focus with a smaller aperture. 

little girl sitting by christmas tree

One popular place to photograph would be around the Christmas tree. To get the best image of the tree lit up, turn off any overhead lights and have your main source of light coming from the Christmas tree itself. To make sure you have enough light, use multiple strands and position your subjects as close to the tree as possible to help light their faces. Don't be afraid to crank ISO and even position more lights close to their faces to help add a glow.

If there still isn't enough light, you might want to look into adding light through strobes or on-camera flash. Try incorporating as much ambient light as possible and integrating just the right amount of flash so that it has a more natural look. Using a tungsten filter on your flash can help match the warm look most holiday lights give off. Once you've found your lighting, the hard part is keeping your kids engaged and ready for the photo. Try adopting some of these tips in your process:

  • Give them something to look at
  • Set up an activity
  • Give them something to play with
  • Center activity around food
  • Have parent get in the frame
  • Pair kid with another kid/pet
  • Have fun and make it a game

Make sure to have low expectations when it comes to your kids sitting still. Keeping a low-pressure mentality helps create more organic and candid photos. It's best to let your kids be kids but also since kids can be unpredictable, it's a good idea to keep a treat handy. Since movement is inevitable, so make sure to use a decent shutter speed, 1/125th of a second is a good starting point.

Incorporating Color

Be intentional with the color palette. Color can help guide the viewer through the frame and crate emphasis on the subject. In some cases, color pops like a red coat on a white snowy background can help isolate the subject.

Color also helps create balance. Be mindful of the colors you use in your entire frame. One example of intentional color placement is a specific object matching a piece of clothing, like cream curtains matching with a cream dress both located on opposite sides of the frame. Keep in mind, repetition helps create balance.

Family Photo Inspiration

When coming up with family photo ideas, we recommend forgoing the look-at-the-camera, posed photos. Instead, try to capture more candid moments like making Christmas cookies or decorating the house. For outside photos, playing in the snow, mailing their letters to Santa, picking out a tree, or capturing holiday lights. All of these tell a story and provide more depth to the image.

boy making gingerbread cookies

For further inspiration, look to remake scenes from old holiday films, Norman Rockwell posters, or even vintage magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. Play to the nostalgia of holiday traditions like capturing the first snowfall, making holiday cookies, riding the train, visiting with Santa, or waking up on Christmas morning. To make it easy, write a holiday shooting list.

Try to add creativity and uniqueness to your holiday photography. Use framing and layers to add depth. Like we mentioned above, when incorporating kids in a scene take a shot from the top down to get a different perspective. If you're baking cookies, try to set up the scene prior to and take the shot once they are rolling cookie dough or eating cookies. 

Another option would be to use holiday lights to add bokeh in your images. Play with light placement whether it's close up or far away and even try double exposures. Check to see if you camera has a double exposure setting in the menu. Most Nikon's and Canon's do. If you want to add color to your image, the Nanlite Pavotube would be a great accessory to use. 

Telephoto vs Wide-Angle Lenses

Depending on the shot you want, you'll want to decide whether to use a telephoto or wide-angle lens. The most common focal lengths used for taking your own family portraits include 24-70mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm. If you're looking for versatility, the Tamron 35-150mm F2-2.8 is a great all-around lens.  Typically, the benefits of using a telephoto lens are:

  • Shallow depth of field
  • Helps Isolates subject
  • Minimizes distractions
  • Dreamy atmosphere
  • Large bokeh

Some reasons why you would want to use a wide-angle are:

  • Environmental portraiture
  • Confined spaces
  • Storytelling lenses
  • Birdseye view
  • Greater depth of field
  • Versatile

The most important thing in regards to holiday photography is having fun. That's the whole point of the season, spreading holiday cheer. The simple formula to great photos is when you can capture your family laughing and enjoying their time together. When you've accomplished that, you know those holiday photos will be cherished for years to come.


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