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8 Tips for Taking Your Family Holiday Card Photo
Updated on
November 9, 2023

8 Tips for Taking Your Family Holiday Card Photo

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8 Tips for Taking Your Family Holiday Card Photo

Whether you’re mailing out hundreds of foil-embossed cards or sending your holiday greeting via email, you want photos that capture the heart of your family. A holiday photo shoot—with or without a professional at the helm—can be both a fun holiday tradition and a way to make sure you get nice photos of your family each year.

In the age of Instagram’s emphasis on aesthetics and filters, it’s easy to feel pressured to be perfect, but we’re here to let you in on a little secret: the best family photos (and moments) come from the most imperfect, in-between times, when belly laughs and wiggling bodies—and maybe even a tearful pout—showcase how truly unique your family’s dynamic is. So dare to wrangle the kids (we know it’s tough!) for an unforgettable photo this year. We have the insider secrets for getting your magical memories caught on film. Bonus: after the shoot you can turn the best ones into sweet photo gifts.

Celebrity lifestyle photographer Vanessa Tierney—whose work has appeared in Vogue and Martha Stewart Weddings, and whose client list includes Julianne Hough, Daphne Oz and influencers-turned-entrepreneurs like Summer Fridays co-founder Lauren Gores Ireland and Cupcakes and Cashmere creator Emily Schuman—is a pro at eliciting candid snaps that families cherish forever.

From coordinating clothes to keeping kids focused, read on for all of her tips to take your favorite photos yet.

📷 Tip 1: Location, Location, Location

The right location is key to any photo shoot. Tierney suggests finding a place that feels authentic to your family and rolling with it. “I love family sessions that incorporate some element of fun or something that you typically do as a family. If you’re doing an at-home session, have a pancake party and cook in the kitchen together. Or maybe everyone snuggles on the bed for a tickle attack,” she says, adding that outdoorsy types or urbanites may want to incorporate their surroundings or cityscape. No matter the location, make sure it’s someplace with limited distractions. “If there’s too much going on, it can be hard to get little ones to focus on the camera.”

📷 Tip 2: Dress for Photo Success

Once you’ve settled on a location, you can turn your attention to outfits. “If you’re shooting on the beach, think about wearing whites, creams, blues and tans. If you’re shooting in the desert, pick earth tones and add in pops of moody colors or muted florals,” Tierney suggests. If you want to wear matching family pajamas, go for it, but don’t stress about matching everyone exactly. Tierney says the clothes also can be “friends, not twins.” If you’ve already chosen a pattern for one person, use that as as building block and “try to have everyone else in solid colors so there aren’t too many competing elements.”

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📷 Tip 3: Timing is Everything

Of course you want to harness the best light for your photos, but when you’re shooting with kids, “at the end of the day, their moods will determine how your images will turn out,” Tierney says. So choose a time when you know they’ll be happiest. Natural-light photographers, like Tierney, love shooting outdoors in the early morning or during the “golden hour” before sunset when the light is softer, and typically avoid shooting mid-day when the sun is highest. But, “if your kids are best at that time, just pick a location that offers a good amount of shade coverage,” Tierney says, noting that there’s much more flexibility indoors, as long as direct sunlight isn’t shining on your photos.

📷 Tip 4: Toy Story

As all parents know, it’s important to have an arsenal of toys and snacks at the ready. But Tierney suggests using those things judiciously. “I always like to start a session with no toys or snacks. Then, if we are having a hard time getting a little one to focus, we can slowly add in a toy or a ‘bribe’ to keep them entertained and involved.” The caveat? “You can easily lose the shoot because of your child needing their favorite toy. So make sure it’s a toy you are comfortable having in the shot.”

Older children may not need distractions, but offer them a pep talk instead. “I strongly suggest having a conversation prior to the shoot to help your kids understand how much it means to you and how much you’d love their cooperation. If they do a great job, take them for a treat or somewhere they love.”

📷 Tip 5: Going Pro

If you’re thinking about hiring a professional this year, there are a few key things to look for. Photographing children is its own art, so try to find a “family” or “lifestyle” photographer who is experienced with kids. “Emotions can change instantly, so you want someone who is used to working quickly. In some sessions you might only get a little one happy for 10 minutes. Most family photographers know how to navigate that to ensure you get great images in that time,” Tierney says.

Now is also the time to put your Instagram-stalking skills to use. A photographer’s account can help you get a feel for their aesthetic. Don’t be afraid to ask questions from there. Tierney suggests requesting a full photo gallery to give you a complete picture before you hire someone. “It’s easy to get ONE good shot to post online, but a full gallery will help you see how they navigate a photo shoot and if they are able to capture all those special moments.”

📷 Tip 6: How to DIY Your Photos

If you’re planning on taking your own family photos, try these tips for taking your pics to the next level:

  • Timing the photo:
    • If you have a good quality camera, consider purchasing a remote trigger to use instead of a timer. “It’s truly difficult to get a photo that’s not overly posed when using a timer,” Tierney says.
    • Think about enlisting an extended family member or friend to get the shot, or keep kids looking at the camera.
    • If you do use a timer, she suggests getting everyone else in place so you can easily jump in and out of the shot.
  • Posing:
    • Go for a photo where everyone is interacting instead of looking at the camera—it’s more attainable!
  • Lighting:
    • If you’re shooting indoors, choose a room that’s relatively bright (think: the one with the most windows) and then turn off all the overhead lights, which can add yellow tones to your pictures.
    • Your best bet is to stand with a big window either to the right or left of you (or both!). But avoid having your back to one, as it can make it challenging to get a good exposure (your camera can get confused when there’s light behind you).
    • Phones are really good at adjusting to a little less brightness, and you won’t run the risk of ending up with orange skin in your photos!

And a general rule to keep in mind: The easiest way to get a winning photo is to take a bunch of them at once in burst mode and make sure you’re standing and smiling the whole time (or whatever you want to be doing in the photo). Eventually your child will look at the camera or do something cute, and you want to make sure the grownups are ready when that happens! You won’t want to sacrifice your photo by trying to cajole your little one, and then be caught mid-sentence when the camera goes off.

If you don’t have a camera, an iPhone or Android can work as well, though the quality may not always compare. Tierney says apps like Adobe Lightroom (a program many pros use) are great for editing photos and are user friendly. Others to try: Retouch, Snapseed (iOS or Android).

📷 Tip 7: Embrace Imperfection

“The perfect smiling family photo is great, but I love those in-between moments that really show who you are as a family,” Tierney says. You don’t need everyone looking at the camera to get a great shot. In fact, Tierney often begins her sessions with the opposite: no one looking at the camera. She cites The Beatles’ Abbey Road artwork as an inspiration.

“Whenever I feel stuck or the kids need a break, I orchestrate a shot that doesn’t need smiling faces and shows real family dynamics. This could be everyone posed but with a tickle attack, or everyone walking away from the camera holding hands—which is helpful if you have a little one crying.”

Pets can also add a fun dynamic. After all, they’re part of the family too. “Pets make for some fun and authentic moments for the kids!”

Vanessa Tierney Photography 020B4222 Photo credit: Vanessa Tierney Photography

📷 Tip 8: Give Yourself a Break

Even with the best intentions, sometimes you just can’t get photos taken and holiday cards out on time. And that’s okay! If you’re pregnant and your due date falls around the holidays, or if you’ve just had your baby, consider combining a birth announcement with a New Year’s greeting. Or simply focus on taking a beautiful black-and-white photo of your baby and letting that shine as an elegant centerpiece for your correspondence—even if it’s just a social media post.

Whatever route you take, try to have fun and hold onto the joyful spirit of the holidays. That’s what it’s all about.

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