How to take fabulous family photos this holiday season

One of the most popular traditions around the holidays is the family photo. While you certainly could go to a professional portrait studio to have a photo taken with your nearest and dearest, sometimes that's just impractical (not to mention expensive). But too often, a family photo taken at home means a poorly lit, blurry, or boring mess that just gets stuck in an album and forgotten.

But with advances in digital cameras making it relatively easy to take great pictures, there's no excuse for a terrible family photo. Just follow a few simple guidelines, and you'll be able to create holiday memories you'll be proud to display.

Plan ahead

If your goal is to get a photo with all the aunts and uncles and cousins who are coming over for Thanksgiving dinner, be sure to let everyone know ahead of time. That will give them the opportunity to make sure they've done their hair, put on a bit of makeup, and chosen the pants without a hole in the knee. People appreciate some warning for these sorts of things!

Depending on the number of people and their willingness to go along with your ideas, you might even want to ask everyone to wear coordinating outfits. Don't make everyone wear exactly the same thing — there are no outfits that look good on everyone — but you might ask them to wear, for example, jeans and a blue shirt. That way, everyone can choose something that suits them, but you won't have that one uncle who always wears bright orange throwing off the color balance.

The how, the when, and the where
Plan your photography session for as early in the day as possible. Not only will everyone look fresh and awake, but there's less chance the turkey dinner will end up on someone's tie in the interim. Shooting in the daytime also lets you take advantage of natural light and maybe even stage your photo outside.

The more control you have over your background and environment, the better. If possible (weather and physical limitations permitting), try to find somewhere outside to shoot your photo — a local park, playground, or even the backyard will do in a pinch. Going outside makes it feel more like a fun adventure than a family chore, and most people relax when they're outside the house. Look for a location that will provide a background that isn't too distracting. A field of grass, a wide set of stairs outside a building, or a gazebo can all be great settings.

Don't forget to include yourself! Use a tripod and your camera's self-timer to set up the shot, and don't forget to leave yourself a space to fit into once you've pushed the shutter button.

Work with what you have
Even if you can't go outside to take advantage of natural light, you can make the most of what you do have to work with. If you're taking a photo inside a house, try to eliminate distractions in the background as much as possible (without necessarily going so far as to take down wall hangings and such).

In general, do what you can to avoid having to use your camera's flash. If there are windows in the room, open the curtains as wide as possible and arrange your subjects so that they're getting as much light as you can find. Taking the lampshades off table lamps and moving the lamps just outside the photo can provide extra light. Photographers often use a trick called background light that involves putting a light behind and below subjects, casting a gentle glow that helps separate them from the background and create a sort of halo effect with their hair.

If you do end up needing to use your camera's flash, try gently taping a thin tissue across it to diffuse the light a bit.

If you're photographing a large group, position people at different heights to get everyone in the photo without looking crowded. Stairs are great for this, but you can also seat some of your subjects while others stand or kneel. Don't fall into the boring old family portrait trap of always putting the kids at the bottom and the adults at the top — try mixing it up a bit, and have the younger folks standing while Mom and Dad sit in front of them.

Bring some humor into the mix
Humor is a great way to get everyone to lighten up and look relaxed. You might start by asking someone to tell a funny story about a family memory. Just be sure it's amusing and not hurtful — you certainly don't want to bring up old arguments! Playing a game is also a good way to get everyone to relax. Don't be afraid of action shots, either; a photo of the whole family walking down a path together in the park can be a lovely image.

Sharing your photo memories

While it's perfectly well and good to get a nice 5" x 7" print to hang in a frame on the wall, that gets a little boring after a while. Folks with larger families might even run out of wall space! But don't fret — online photo printers offer much more than enlargements these days. Instead of including a photograph tucked inside your holiday cards, why not put the photo on the card itself? You can get family photos printed on mugs, calendars, and even aprons and blankets. You could even start a new holiday tradition by ordering an ornament printed with your family portrait, giving one to each branch of the family. Snapfish, Smugmug, and Shutterfly are all great options for printing your photographs on interesting and unusual objects.

Whether your family is small or large, local or scattered to the four corners of the earth, getting everyone together for a family portrait is a warm way to celebrate the holidays. Keep track of milestones and memories this holiday season by capturing the moment to remember in years to come.

[Image credits: Gabe McIntyre, Kevin Rawlings, Bruce Guenter]

This article was written by Katherine Gray and originally appeared on Tecca

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