Holiday Family Photo Tips

Tartan Tissue Turtleneck (Here’s the girls’ version!) / Cozy Jeans (THE BEST. So warm and soft!) / Black Pumps (Ridiculously cheap today. It’s unreal. Leopard version here.) / Long Cardigan / Girls’ Blackwatch Plaid Dresses / Mitch’s Checked Shirt

Now through Sunday, everything at J.Crew Factory is 50-60 percent off! Read my complete guide to shopping the site here.

Guys, I’m here to set things straight.

Your holiday card photo doesn’t need to include all members of your family; it’s fine if no one is looking at the camera. It doesn’t have to be taken with a “real camera.” Heck, it doesn’t even have to exist in physical form! (Ah, modern technology.)

The bottom line is that it doesn’t need to be perfect. In fact, it’s better if it isn’t perfect. (Honestly, the best cards I’ve seen this year are the funny ones, in particular these. 😆

Still, I’ve personally always felt compelled to get a jolly snap or two every holiday season. It’s a weird want, but it’s also a deep motherly need, if you will. I’m not going to pretend to understand it or attempt to analyze the compulsion. But I said it, and it’s true. I have to at least try for the pic. 😜

Over my four years of parenthood, I’ve learned a thing or two about what increases one’s chances of success in this arena. And while I can’t ensure success with these steps, today I’m teaming up with J.Crew Factory to share them in case you’re on a mission this week!

Btw: Now through Sunday, everything on the J.Crew Factory site is 50-60 percent off!

Here we go:

Women’s

Men’s

Girls

Boys

Now through Sunday, everything at J.Crew Factory is 50-60 percent off! Read my complete guide to shopping the site here.

Pick out/buy outfits

J.Crew Factory is where it’s at for this. Nine times out of 10, when someone asks where something the girls are wearing is from, my response is “Factory.” They’re exceptionally good at making miniature clothing—for both boys and girls—that sparks joy and prompts questions like “Does that come in my size?” 😂 Similarly, the men’s and women’s departments are spot on. The best part, though, is that there are several holiday shops that make everything ridiculously easy, for women, men, boys and girls. (Also, did you catch my complete guide to shopping the site? It took so long but I’m so proud of it!)

Anyway, look for outfits that…

  • Are seasonally appropriate. Listen, I would have loved to have worn beautiful sleeveless Christmas dresses for these photos. (For the girls and me, at least.) But when we took them, it wasn’t 75 degrees outside and that’s a no-go for everyone. Kids will cry, everyone will look tense, and you’ll likely throw in the towel pretty quickly. If you live in the south, by all means: wear those dresses! But if you live in the arctic tundra like I do, embrace seasonally appropriate clothing. Did you know that J.Crew Factory has a matching outerwear section of their site for families?! Few people enjoy taking photos in dresses in freezing temps, but what if you did red and green coats?! Adorable! (And natural.) This is actually my plan for next year!
  • Complement each other and “pop.” There are several ways to do this. First, you could pick a theme. We obviously went with plaid for these photos, because I’m obsessed and it’s perfect for the holidays… but you could also go with a bunch of coordinating Christmas colors, like navy, dark green, gold and especially red. (Splashes of red always make pics pop.) Want to make things even simpler? Go with one color. In family photos of Ocean City trips past, everyone just wore white or navy and it looked fantastic! (And as if we tried really hard, which we did not. A 10-minute shoot!) Either way, check out J.Crew Factory’s Matching Holiday Plaid section here for families all about the tartan. Finally, consider accessories. Festive scarves alone could make a photo. As could adorable headbands, barrettes and hair ties (especially this velvet bow!); or in 2020 style, plaid masks.
  • Are timeless yet something your family would actually wear. Avoid super trendy looks in favor of more classic clothing. At the same time, don’t force your spouse or children into wearing stuff that isn’t “them.” Age-appropriate clothing is always preferred since we don’t want to embarrass our kids… and again: when in doubt, go simple. I also advocate for giving them choices. Very few people enjoy being told what to wear—even teeny people. Come up with a few options per person, and frame it like you’re giving them a gift. They’ll likely be thrilled! (Emma was, at least.)
  • Don’t break the bank. No one needs to go broke for the sake of a cute Christmas card. It’s easy to fall victim to the idea that the pricier the clothing, the nicer the photos will turn out. But this just isn’t true! Since outfitting an entire family can add up quickly, opt for a brand like J.Crew Factory, which prides itself on classic styles at affordable prices. Also, don’t think that everyone needs to be decked out in head-to-toe new stuff. Consider what you already own, and then fill in holes and add in some festive pieces.
  • Are comfortable. I distinctly remember my brothers crying about their turtlenecks and ties when we’d take Christmas photos as kids. It was only when my mother gave up on those things that we got good pics. ;) Aside from the fact that you don’t want your subjects to be (and look) miserable, you also want them to be able to freely move around in their clothes! Also consider J.Crew Factory’s matching holiday pajamas section for indoor pics. I mean… what kid isn’t thrilled to spend his or her day lounging in pajamas? And who isn’t happier and cheerier when they’re comfy?! Seems like a sure thing for me.
  • Are wrinkle-resistant. Choose materials that don’t wrinkle easily, or patterns (like plaid) that’ll disguise them if they appear. Linen is the absolute worst, btw… with heavier sweaters being the easiest to photograph. Regardless, be sure to steam and lay everything out in advance. If you leave it to the day of, you may never get to the actual shoot. Do it the day before and lay out everyone’s outfits so getting ready is quick and easy.

Consider timing

  • Respect the nap schedule. I’ve personally found the most success with family photos when I either take them first thing in the morning or right after naps. Of course, this can be very, very tricky when naps don’t align—but try to schedule around whichever kids is most dependent on the nap. (For us, that’s Lucy!) While temper tantrums are often inevitable, there are ways we can reduce their likelihood.
  • Don’t put yourself up against sunsets. This time of year, there’s just nothing like heading out at 2:30 p.m. thinking you have time only to realize that she sun’s started sinking behind the trees, the houses, the horizon—AHHHHH! Do it as early as possible. No need to make things harder on yourself!

Select a location

I place a lot of importance on backgrounds, as they can make or break a photo. I’ve found success when I:

  • Shoot outside during “golden hours.” Outdoor photos almost always come out better than indoor ones. The lighting is more flattering and you don’t need to rely on flash, which can have a harsh effect. The easiest time to shoot is during the “golden hours”: in the early morning, before the sun is blazing, or an hour before the sun sets. If this timeframe doesn’t work, try to shoot on an overcast day. Everyone should be in the same lighting, too; if one person is in the sun and the other is under a shadow, you’re going to have exposure issues. I look for locations that are slightly shaded. If I can’t find them, I shoot into the sun so my subjects are backlit and not in harsh, direct sunlight.
  • Choose a location that’s close to home: Organizing family photos takes time and effort, and the last thing everyone wants to do is pile into the car and embark on a mini road trip for ’em. Instead, I think creatively about what’s near our house, and try my hardest to pick somewhere that we can walk to.
  • “Think within the frame”: Who cares if there’s literally a dumpster and an abandoned lot next to a bunch of gorgeous evergreen trees? No one needs to know that. Some of my favorite shooting locations near our home would look absolutely hideous if I “zoomed out.” ;) Think more deeply, and consider locations that you otherwise wouldn’t have. Frame the photo in your head, and don’t worry about what’s outside it!
  • Aim for a spot that isn’t crowded: It’s unfair to expect strangers to recognize what you’re doing and steer clear, but there’s nothing worse than random people innocently and accidentally ruining your shot. Don’t shoot in a super public place!
  • Choose evergreens over dead trees and plants: Your photos will look a zillion times better without dead branches in the background. Evergreen trees and plants can be difficult to find–especially if you’re in the city like I am–but put the extra time in and find them. I think I know every single evergreen within 10 blocks of our house. 
    😂
  • Include twinkle lights: They look beautiful when blurred out in the background. If you can’t find any, though, you can always bring along your own battery-powered ones. (I also love the look of string lights!) Just make sure you have permission if necessary.
  • Shoot while it’s snowing: SO MAGICAL! This rarely happens, but if there are flurries in the forecast, take advantage. Shoot with a high shutter speed to capture ’em. More on that below.

Have some tricks up your sleeve

  • Plan a fun family day. This is a little more challenging than it used to be, but put a little effort into making sure that your fam has a great day. Whether it’s getting ice cream, going on a scavenger hunt, safely visiting a park—make sure they’re excited and having fun.
  • Think about not telling the kids that holiday photos are not being taken. Expanding off the last tip, you don’t need to make a big thing of it and tell them that you’re taking photos. If they’re older, they’ll catch on very quickly. ;) But if they’re younger, they likely won’t notice at all.
  • Embrace toys, games and props. BUBBLES, people. Young children love them. And bubble-blowing photos are not only beautiful but downright adorable. Besides that, new holiday stuffed animals, Santa hats, twinkle lights, Cozy Coupes with trees on top—anything, really, to keep everyone smiling (while adding some depth to the photos as a bonus). Tip: Simply search “holiday photo props.” So many ideas: Wrapped presents; giant wrapped boxes that kids can stand inside; Christmas crackers (capture their surprise as they go off!); battery-powered lights, but do NOT wrap babies in twinkle lights; faux snow (have them throw it up into the air); Santa hatsclassic Christmas booksblanketssignswreathsgarlandornaments and mistletoe.
  • Tell the kids to laugh wildly, scream, or jump. I’ve been shooting for the better part of my life at this point, and I still have to tell myself that candids are better than posed photos. I definitely like them better when I see them; it’s just that when I’m taking the photo, my inclination is to get everyone to look at me and smile. Fight that urge! Candid > Posed. Hugging and high-fiving make for some pretty cute shots, too.
  • Give yourself several opportunities—if not days—to take photos. That sounds nuts. But what I mean is that if you have ONE DAY to capture a holiday photo you like, you’re going to be stressed. If you have a whole weekend, though, or even a week, you’ll be more relaxed and therefore more likely to get one! You’ll also probably end up with several “framers.”
  • Have a zillion jokes at the ready. They’re extremely helpful. Giggling children are just the best.
  • Bring food. Who doesn’t get hangry? PACK THOSE SNACKS! Just make sure to pack snacks that don’t stain. I highly recommend goldfish and the like.
  • BRING BRIBES. A tiny toy, a bit of candy—bring it and don’t be afraid to use its power! I promised the girls M&Ms if they took a photo with Mommy and Daddy, and everyone was happy at the end of the day. Just look at Lucy loving those M&Ms! (Note that chocolate can wreck an outfit very quickly and it’s probably best to reserve chocolate treats for after the photos have been taken. Christmas sugar cookies are my favorite because they double as props!)
  • Accept help. Granted, there’s a pandemic going on. But if a family member you see regularly or a masked and gloved photographer running by with his dog offers to help (#truestory), graciously accept his or her offer and then pay it forward! It’s 2020, after all. (All the family photos in this post were taken by a super kind masked and gloved photographer who offered his assistance!)
  • If no help is available and you really want a group photo, use a tripod/remote. If you don’t have the remote, you’ll have to run… which totally works! It’s just a little more stressful. This is the tripod we currently use, but we used to have this ultra-affordable one, and it’s great, too.
  • If all else fails, use a selfie stick. Kids love seeing the photos in real time, and they love it even more when you let them take turns clicking the button. Make it a competition to see who can take the best photo, and I’d be shocked if you didn’t end up with a bunch of keepers! (Also, newer iPhones allow you to digitally adjust the aperture after you take the pic, which is a game-changer! You don’t need a fancy camera to get a good shot.)

Learn how to get the blurry background

Let me preface this by saying that iPhones have come a LONG way, and some of my favorite photos are those I’ve taken on my phone. You also don’t need a fancy camera in order to get that blurry background we all know and love! Simply set your iPhone to “Portrait Mode,” stand farther back from your subject, and shoot. The results tend to be impressive as long as the lighting is good!

But if you’re not using an iPhone…

The out-of-focus background is called “bokeh,” and it’s achieved by changing the aperture settings on your camera. Using a fast lens with wide aperture capabilities (f/1.8 to f/3.2) is preferred, but don’t worry if you aren’t working with one. The majority of cameras allow you to control the depth of field to some degree. If you’re a newbie, simply set your camera to “aperture priority,” and go with a wide aperture. The camera will do the rest for you!

Btw: A wide aperture = low number. Kind of counterintuitive, but f/3.2 is wider than f/5.6, for example, and therefore f/3.2 will give you more depth of field. Keep in mind that if your aperture is too wide, getting your subjects in focus can be challenging. For example, when I shoot people at f/1.2, I often find that their noses are in focus but everything is else is blurry. It’s a cool effect when shooting objects close up, but it’s too much depth of field for portraits. Instead, I normally shoot people between f/1.8 and f/3.2. Find your sweet spot!

Learn how to capture moving children and pets

Young children and pets are particularly difficult to capture, as they have trouble sitting still. But that’s okay! As I mentioned, my favorite photos are the candid ones; the ones that are more true to life. To capture the girls’ quick movements, I use a fast shutter speed, which is another term for “exposure time.”

Think about the shutter as a curtain that’s in front of the camera sensor. When you click the button, that curtain is pulled back for a certain amount of time and then closed. The longer it’s open, the blurrier that moving subjects will be. If it’s opened for a very short amount of time, you likely won’t have much (or any) motion blur.

When shooting the girls (and/or Noodle), I ideally go with a shutter speed between 1/500 and 1/8,000 of a second, and then snap as quickly as possible so I don’t miss great moments. Of course, shooting with a fast shutter speed is difficult to do when in low-light situations, as a quick shutter = less exposure time and therefore darker pics. So I make up for that with a wider aperture (which is great, since that achieves bokeh!) and a higher ISO (or the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light). Doing so brightens the photos back up.

Again, if you’re a newbie, simply select “Shutter Priority” and set the shutter speed. The camera will handle the aperture and ISO settings for you! Just make sure to snap as quickly as you can, so you don’t miss any of those smiles or cute moments. There will likely be 100 photos you end up trashing, but a couple of gems that you’ll treasure forever.

Consider composition

Again, photos do not need to be completely posed, with faces smiling at the camera. But do a quick Pinterest search and notice how the best group shots usually have the tallest people in the middle with shorter subjects surrounding them or slightly in front of them. This can translate to babies being held; kids on stools, boxes or crates; or kids hugging parents’ legs or holding their hands. Save a few favorite Pins to your phone for inspiration in case you get stuck!

Keep it quick

Do not torture your subjects! A photoshoot should take no more than 10-15 minutes, so know which shots you want ahead of time, and bang ’em out quickly. I aim to shoot in order of difficulty, with most challenging first.

  • Group family shot: Mommy, Daddy, Emma, Lucy and Noodle (if she’s with us)
  • The girls with Mommy
  • The girls with Daddy
  • The girls with Noodle
  • The girls together and alone
  • Mommy and Daddy together

(Don’t think for a second that I get all of these shots. If I get one or two, I’m happy!)

Select a holiday card that fits your photos

Don’t shoot for the card! That only adds to the pressure of it all, and makes you feel like you have to get a certain type of photo. Instead, analyze your photos and then select a card that speaks to them.

  • The gallery: Great when you have a lot of good photos but none that you absolutely adore, or when you have too many you adore. If you go with the gallery, there will probably be a good photo or two of everyone in the family, no matter what! It’s also nice for people to see the family dynamics at play. Mom and Dad together, siblings together, kids with Mom, kids with Dad, kids with dog, etc.
  • “We tried” and other hilarious options: I didn’t end up going with one of these, but I kind of wish I had! (If not in 2020, when?!) But these work really well for photoshoots-gone-wrong. ;) Or photoshoots gone well! Any photoshoot, really.
  • Kids-only: I realize the irony behind this statement, but I don’t love having my photo taken. And perhaps you feel similarly. There’s nothing wrong with just having the kids in the pic; it’s actually almost expected!

Have a backup plan

If things don’t work out, cut yourself a break and consider using an old photo! Seriously, I’ve never looked at a holiday card featuring a photo taken over the summer and thought to myself, “LAZY.” 😆 It’s been nearly a year since you sent your last holiday card, which means that you have at least a year’s worth of photos on your phone that you didn’t use last time!

Be okay with imperfection

Walking away from the experience, remember that there are likely a handful of photos that will work–no matter how poorly the shoot went. ;) Honestly, I didn’t think that this shoot went particularly well, and I was so surprised to see how many keepers I had on my camera card! Like I said before, you don’t need a perfectly posed photo. You don’t even need a photo of everyone together! Embrace the collage holiday card or the humorous one.

No person is perfect and no family is perfect—and therefore no photo of a person or family will ever be perfect. All that matters is that some feeling shines through. ♥️

Anything that’s worked extraordinarily well for you? (Or didn’t work, because everyone could use a good laugh these days!) Let me know in the comments below!

Holiday Family Photo Tips
Holiday Family Photo Tips
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Holiday Family Photo Tips
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Holiday Family Photo Tips

Shop the post:

Tartan Tissue Turtleneck (Here’s the girls’ version!) / Cozy Jeans (THE BEST. So warm and soft!) / Black Pumps (Ridiculously cheap today. It’s unreal. Leopard version here.) / Long Cardigan / Girls’ Blackwatch Plaid Dresses / Mitch’s Checked Shirt

Now through Sunday, everything at J.Crew Factory is 50-60 percent off! Read my complete guide to shopping the site here.

In collaboration with J.Crew Factory; all opinions are my own. As always, thank you so, so much for supporting the partnerships that keep Kelly in the City up and running!

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