Better Christmas Card Photos {8 Tips for Getting Shots You Love}

The act of sending and receiving Christmas cards might be my favorite of all holiday traditions.   I just love seeing how my friends & family have changed and grown, and reading what they have been up to throughout the year.  It reminds me that even in the midst of all this busyness, even when we don’t always have a chance to catch up, we are still connected.

Husband and I have always sent photo cards, though some of our early photos were truly cringe-worthy.  It has always been a dream of mine to learn to take really great photographs and I have spent a lot of time studying, practicing, & improving my photography skills over the last couple of years.  I’ve taken classes from Simplicity, Me Ra Koh, & Ashley Ann Campbell, and read the Mom*Tog’s UnManual, Skye Hardwick’s Workshop Workbook, as well as Tony Northrup’s DSLR Book.  These days I pretty much never leave home without my camera.

But while my camera and lens have gotten fancier it really wasn’t that long ago that I was using my Canon Power Shot to capture the shot I was trying to go for.  Since not everyone has the desire or the ability to invest in a DSLR, I thought today I would share some simple tips for taking a great Christmas card photo no matter what type of camera you are using.  (And a HUGE thank you to the Schneider family for being my models for this post!)

Plan ahead

Think about and plan your shot long before you gather the family.  The best shots are not done on the fly.  Put some thought into what you will wear, whether you want to use props or not, where shot will be taken, and what sort of poses you will use.  Pinterest is a great place to search for family photo ideas!  You can check out my photography board, or do your own search for family photo ideas.

If you are going to try to get yourself in the photo, you will need to think ahead.  If you plan to use the self-timer on your camera, be sure you know how you will prop your camera up where you need it.  If you plan to ask a (non-photographer) friend or family member to take the shot for you, be sure to talk to them about your vision and share these tips so that you can work together to get a shot you love.

Keep it simple

You want the people, not the setting, props, or clothing to be the main attraction in your photo.  Look for relatively simple backgrounds that don’t have a lot of distractions–an open field, an old brick wall, an empty beach, a cobblestone street, a clump of trees or bushes, a pretty fence.

Layered solid-colored clothing photographs really well.  Even though the clothes are out of my price range, I love getting wardrobe inspiration from the Crew Cuts (by J Crew) catalog.  There are also a lot of fun clothing ideas on Etsy!  Patterned clothing can work too as long as you keep the background very simple.

Move beyond the green box

Learning to shoot in Manual takes a lot of time and practice, but most cameras have a few settings within Auto mode that can make for better shots.  For family portraits, use the portrait setting, which will lower the aperture and give you just a slight amount of blur in the background.  Be sure to turn off your flash!

If you want to experiment with manual settings, you might also want to try shooting in Aperture Priority mode.  Then set the aperture as low as it will go on your camera and let your camera automatically adjust the other settings.  I use a Nikon D3100, which is Nikon’s starter DSLR, the D3100.  I have really enjoyed learning to shoot fully in Manual mode, but one of my favorite features when I was just starting was the “Guide” mode, which was somewhat of a hybrid between manual & automatic.

Pay attention the lighting

I probably should have put this tip first because it is BY FAR the most important element of getting a great photograph.  Unless you are a professional photographer with professional lighting equipment, you should only ever take your family photographs in natural light.  But not just any natural light!  You want bright, indirect lighting.

Outdoor photographs should be taken out of direct sunlight, which causes nothing but shadows and BAD photos.  Pay close attention to odd shadows and streaks of light that can filter through trees or buildings.  One weird shadow or light streak can ruin an otherwise perfect picture.  The best time of day for outdoor photos at the beach or any place without a lot of shade is the hour after sunrise or the hour before sunset.

Indoor photos–if you you absolutely MUST take your photo indoors–should be taken in as naturally bright a spot as possible, with the subjects facing the window.  Make sure there is no direct sunlight coming in through the window.  And whatever you do, DO NOT USE A FLASH!  Turn it off!  The flashes on most cameras will immediately ruin an otherwise nice shot, adding harsh lighting, shadows, & red-eye.

Remember the Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds, once you learn it, is pretty easy.  Basically you should imagine every picture like it is divided by lines into thirds both vertically and horizontally, creating 9 equal boxes.  The Rule of Thirds says that your subject should not be in that center box, but along one of the lines, or preferably on one of the points because pictures that are slightly off-center are more interesting and visually appealing than those that are centered.

Watch for Mergers

A merger is an element of the background that is positioned in such a way in a photograph that it looks like it is coming out of the subjects body or head.    When you are already busy trying to remember a good lighting & the rule of thirds AND get your family to all cooperate at the same time, mergers are very easy to miss!  Always try to take a second glance at the background before you shoot to make sure there isn’t something in the background that might look odd in the photograph.

Be patient and keep your sense of humor

Kids will be kids.  Putting a lot of pressure on young kids to pose like models and smile at the right moment will probably result in a whole lot of frustration, more than a few tears, and some really horrible shots.

A lot of kids have trouble looking at the camera, so having a point of focus other than the lens can help.  Try tying a stuffed animal to the top of your head, or using some sort of squeaker to get really young children’s attention.  Have kids practice making goofy faces–ask them to be serious, then mad, then silly, then mean, then happy….and be ready to capture the true smiles that result.  Pictures of siblings interacting–smiling at each other, holding hands, kissing on the cheek, hugging–are always really cute and usually far more natural-looking than forced poses.

Crop & edit

You can’t crop & edit a bad photo into a good one, but you can make a good photo into one you absolutely love with a little editing help.  My favorite place to edit photographs is PicMonkey.  It is absolutely free to use and it is very user friendly.  Here are some of my most common edits:

  • CroppingI don’t like to crop my photos too much so I usually try to frame them how I want them as I shoot.  That said, cropping can be helpful if you need to zoom in or adjust the subject to follow the rule of thirds.  Just remember that as you crop, you lose photo quality.
  • ExposureI will often brighten my photos just a tad, then increase contrast a little as well.
  • Effects–Pic Monkey has a ton of fun photo effects and filters to choose from.  My favorite is Dusk, which I use at about 30% intensity on almost all my photographs.
  • Touch UpI don’t always use this feature, but occasionally I will use the eye brighten, teeth whitening, & wrinkle remover options.
  • Text--Easily add a holiday message to you photo–this is a great option if you’d rather just order regular prints to send along with a family letter.
  • Frames–I use rounded corners for all the photos I post on this website, but I don’t use that option for photos I will have printed.

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And finally, I am guest-posting today over at Life{in}Grace as part of my dear friend Edie’s 12 Days of Handmade Christmas series.  Be sure to check out that post here, as well as all the other awesome holiday DiY projects she has featured so far!

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Do you send out Christmas cards every year?  Do you prefer photo cards or traditional cards?  What is your biggest frustration when taking a family photo?

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{ 14 comments… add one }

  • Denise November 5,

    I love all your photos! As a long time reader, it has been really neat to watch your photography skills get better and better. I just wish we lived closer so we could sign up for one of your mini-sessions!!!! Thanks for the great tips!

    Reply
    • Ruth November 11,

      Thanks Denise!

      Reply
  • Claire November 5,

    I too wish I lived closer – getting the perfect family shot at the holidays is so hard! I always lov all of your beautiful pictures – this is a helpful article. I don’t even bust out my Canon and am usually using my iPhone camera on the fly (I am sure you are cringing! lol). So thankful for these great tips. Thanks!! xo, Claire

    Reply
    • Ruth November 11,

      Oh Claire, Orlando is only 2.5 hours from Punta Gorda! You could for sure make the trip on a Sunday afternoon!! Plus then I would finally get to meet you in person! :-)

      Reply
      • Claire @ A Little Claireification November 16,

        This is so true, Ruth. And wow, I just got called out!! LOL
        2.5 hours in the car (which – according to Ruth’s coupon math = 5 hours round trip) is quite an endeavor! I think we need to plan to head South for a little weekend getaway after the holidays (I have a Groupon for lodging and also have a “Kids Free” coupon at Legoland!!) So maybe you can email me a price for an “Easter / Spring sitting”? I would love that to pieces.

        I’ll be the one in white.

        hehe
        xoxo
        Claire

        Reply
  • Alisha November 5,

    Seriously wishing we lived in Florida (and near you!) — you are a fabulous photographer and I have no doubt that you would be able to capture the perfect shot of my kiddos! I guess flying to Florida for the sole purpose of having our Christmas card photos taken wouldn’t be very frugal, huh? Darn! ;) Congrats to the lucky bums who get to take advantage of this amazing photo shoot!

    Reply
    • Alisha November 5,

      P.S. We are seriously considering investing in a great camera (like the one you use). Are there any other additional “necessities” you would buy w/ the camera? Or is the camera alone enough for a beginner like myself? Thanks!

      Reply
      • Ruth November 11,

        I would start with just the camera then add accessories as you start to fill more comfortable. I didn’t invest in a better lens until I really felt I had the basics nailed down.

        Reply
    • Ruth November 11,

      Well you could take a TRIP to Florida to visit me and I’d throw it the photo session as a welcome gift! :-)

      Reply
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    Just your blog by accident, i don’t live far from punta gorda and i really appreciate your advice! It’s our daughters first Christmas so we want to make sure to get good pictures. :)

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