Getting A Good Holiday Portrait

Now that Thanksgiving is over and you’ve started to deflate back to your normal size it’s officially festive season. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa chances are you’ll be wanting a nice family portrait to send out to relatives and friends. If you’re planning to take this most important of photographs yourself here are a few tips to help you out:

1. Give it a little forethought. Like many things involving this festive time of year this a task that requires a little bit of thinking ahead. If you just grab the family without any warning, tell them to “say cheese!”, and press the shutter chances are you won’t get the portrait you’re after. Choose a time when everyone has at least an hour or so to spare and consider getting your subjects to wear similar coloured clothing, or bring some reindeer antlers or Santa hats along for them all to wear. Have at least a vague idea of where you want to put your subjects to pose and what kind of shots you want to get. Don’t over plan though or you’ll end up barking orders and stressing over the details and no one will have any fun.

2. Use the right equipment. If you’re going to take the portrait inside turn on the red-eye reduction feature of your camera and, if you can, set up the flash to bounce by angling it so it’s aimed at a white wall or ceiling that won’t included be in the frame of your shots. Alternatively you can diffuse the flash by taping wax paper over the bulb. A mid-range telephoto lens (anywhere between 85mm and 135mm) is probably the best bet for a small group portrait but for larger groups a wider angle lens is likely to be needed. Fish eye lenses can create a cool effect and add a little creativity to your portrait but make sure you distort the background rather than the people on the edges of the group or they likely won’t be happy with the photo!

3. Thing about the arrangement of your subjects. Standing several people of the same height in a straight line doesn’t tend to look great. Try to vary the height of your subjects by having some stand and some sit on a stool or some kneel and some sit. Another idea for larger groups is to have half the group angle themselves so their right shoulder is toward the camera and the other half angle so their left shoulder is toward the camera. This has the added bonus of being slimming for your subjects! Try and avoid empty spaces between your subjects, it makes them look a bit like they don’t really like each other!

4. Don’t forget to include yourself! A tripod and a self timer are all you need to get in the shot (and you can even make do without the tripod) so don’t be left out!

5. Keep it fun. You want happy looking people in your shots so keep them happy while you’re shooting. Don’t boss them around too much, let them try out their own poses (if you’re using a digital camera you can delete any terrible shots later anyway) and don’t ask them to stand in one position for too long. Remember kids will likely get bored of posing quite quickly so do any poses you really want first and then be willing to go along with what they want to do. Give them some say in what they wear and if they’re particularly reluctant to join in try inviting a beloved doll or teddy to be in the photo too. If you know you’re child isn’t a fan of the camera choose one of their favourite places as the location for the shoot so they’ll at least be comfortable with where they are.

6.Take lots of photos and choose the best later. There will always be someone who blinks or makes rabbit ears behind their neighbour’s head. Take several shots in each pose and make it the aim of your shoot to get lots and lots of photos. The more you take the better the chance you’ll get one where everyone looks good. Try several different poses and angles and include candid shots of your subject between poses. You might not want to use the candids as the family Christmas card but they may well be the photos you like the most when you’re looking back on them in a few years time.

7. Don’t leave it until the day before the Post Office deadline for Christmas post. Give yourself time to do any post processing and get the photos printed. Check USPS, Canada Post, Royal Mail, or your country’s postal service for mailing deadlines. And remember international mail deadlines are coming up soon!

If you have any holiday portrait tips let us know in the comments.


  1. Item 4 is usually difficult, unless you have subjects who are accommodating enough to maintain their composure while you make all those adjustments so that you can be in the frame. I have done this myself on my last trip to Paris with my family. New with my DSLR, I had a couple of misfires and had to adjust the shot twice before I got it the way I liked it. Thankfully, my family was very accommodating and had the patience to let me do it my way. Once one has done this type of work a fw times, it should be come easier.

  2. Number six is so important. I always try and stress to people that if you taking a family portrait, you need to take several shots because you never know when someone will look away, look down, frown, squint, or close their eyes.

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