Learn thirteen essential tips for capturing evocative holiday moments with your own family members—without finding coal in your stocking later.
Image by Rawpixel.com
“Last year, there was a meme circling that said something like, ‘Behind every holiday photoshoot is a mom threatening to cancel all joy and happiness if everyone doesn’t sit still and smile for two seconds,’” Milwaukee-based documentary photographer Blimie Tee remembers.
“There’s some real truth to that. I feel that sometimes when photographing our own kids, we know how we want the photo to look and feel, but kids are kids, and in stressing to get the right photo, we might ruin the moment. As storytelling photographers, we sometimes have to let go of expectations.”
This time of year poses the perfect opportunity to create beautiful family photographs—but no one wants to pose for pictures throughout the entire holiday. We spoke with eight talented photographers from around the world about how they document precious holiday memories without getting on their family’s nerves. Follow these tips to make sure your own family photoshoot runs smoothly for everyone involved.
Image by Blimie Tee. Gear: Canon 6D camera, Sigma Art 35mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec; f2.0; ISO 1000.
1. Be respectful of everyone’s wishes.
“The key to not being annoying while photographing your own family is really simple: it’s just respect,” Tee adds. “Respect your spouse. Respect your children. My kids know that if they don’t want their photo taken, all they have to do is tell me and I won’t photograph them. Showing your children respect will go a long way in gaining their trust and in having them ‘tuneout’ the camera every other time.”
Image by bbernard
Image by Beth Urban. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, 24mm lens. Settings: f1.4.
2. Make it fun for everyone.
“When I photograph my own family, I actually don’t tell them about doing a ‘photoshoot’ in advance,” Massachusetts-based photographer Beth Urban explains. “Instead, I get them excited about what we are planning to do—like decorating the Christmas tree or drinking hot cocoa. If I want to get a group shot, I’ll fit it in between activities and say, ‘Before we go drink our hot cocoa, let’s gather here for a group picture.’ A common mistake is making a photoshoot feel more like a chore than a fun activity.”
Image by Brooke Alderson. Gear: Nikon D7200 camera, Sigma Art lens. Settings: Focal length 24mm; exposure 1/1200 sec; f2.8; ISO 200.
3. Choose the right location and activity.
Kuala Lumpur-based photographer Brooke Alderson also avoids setting up formal “photoshoots” when working with her own family, preferring to take a documentary approach to capturing everyday life. At the same time, she puts thought into creating the right atmosphere for her sessions.
“When I plan special activities for us to do around the holiday season, I will take into consideration where the activity is set with regards to lighting, and I think about what everyone is wearing to ensure that it suits the mood of the shoot,” she says. “An engaging activity keeps the kids interested which makes for lots of opportunities to capture emotive images.”
Image by Dusan Petkovic . Gear: Nikon D850 camera, Sigma 35mm 1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/250 sec; f1.4; ISO 200.
4. Do something they already love.
When choosing activities, familiarity is key. Stick with what your family members know and love.
“If I have scheduled a shoot with my family, it’s very important to engage them in a regular family activity so they can feel comfortable,” Serbia-based photographer Dusan Petkovic tells us. “That can mean making a family dinner, having a cup of coffee, going through family albums, or playing with the kids or grandchildren, etc. Basically, I think about the things they already do often; these are the times when you’ll get true emotions within just a few minutes.”
Image by Carolina Hanna. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Sigma Art 35mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/250 sec; f1.8; ISO 4000.
5. Prepare everyone before the session.
“Don’t assume your family will know how your photoshoots work,” Montréal-based photographer Carolina Hanna warns. “Prepare them, just like you would with a client. You have the advantage of familiarity when it comes to working with your family, but being photographed is likely unfamiliar to them.
“Unlike your own children, who are used to you constantly chasing after them with your camera, your other family members might feel awkward. Prepare them; let them know exactly what to expect, and have them plan holiday activities like decorating their tree or baking cookies. They’llbe able to focus on the activity they’re doing, and you’ll be able to capture them candidly, creating images they will treasure.”
Image by Tessie Wallace. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon 85mm 1.8 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/2500 sec; f2.2; ISO 100.
6. Steer clear of distracting patterns.
“The only way I prepare when I photograph my own family is to make sure our outfits coordinate and that no one is wearing a pattern,” Charleston, West Virginia-based photographer Tessie Wallace explains. “I do love bright colors, and I always incorporate red into my family holiday shots, but I have to be mindful of color casting issues with bright colors.
“Many photographers don’t make wardrobe suggestions for their clients before a session, and this can lead to awful color casting on skin if someone shows up in hot pink or bright blue. Often, one family member will be wearing something different and will stand out more than others because of the color of their outfit. That’s why soft creams, grays, whites, blues, andbrowns are my preference when photographing families, including my own.”
Image by Dusan Petkovic
7. Let them be themselves!
“I think that forcing people to act unnaturally is one of the most common mistakes photographers tend to make,” Petkovic says. “We are used to working with models, so we tend to have high expectations for our families, but this usually does not result in a good photo session. Let them be themselves. The best photos are honest, and when I’m working with family, I don’t want them to act or pretend. I just want them to be who they are.”
Image by Carolina Hanna
8. Get involved.
You’re not an outside observer during the holidays; you’re part of the festivities, so don’t be afraid to get involved and enjoy yourself. You don’t have to photograph every single moment.
“Keep your camera close by, but don’t keep shooting all night waiting for something to happen,” Hanna advises. “Instead, be a part of your family’s holiday celebration and pull out your camera at the right moments to capture the most beautiful, candid moments your family will want toremember.
“Instead of asking your family members to pose for you, just photograph them enjoying the holiday, whatever that looks like for your family. Try to capture the feeling of the holidays: the care that goes into wrapping presents, decorating the tree, spending the day in the kitchen cooking a beautiful feast, and enjoying a family meal together.”
Image by Ariana Falerni . Gear: Canon 24-70 2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 50mm; exposure 1/125 sec; f2.8; ISO 8000.
9. Give everyone a role.
Photoshoots are collaborations, so get your family involved in the creative process. “One of my daughters, Sasha, isn’t very motivated by toys and bribes, but she does respond well to the idea that she is a ‘professional model,’ as I recently discovered on a shoot we did at the Santa Monicapier,” New York-based photographer Ariana Falerni tells us.
“Her twin, Willow, was worried about doing the shoot because there were so many people on the beach. I told them that people would just assume they were professional models doing a photoshoot, which was true because I was paying them! From that moment on, Sasha was the perfect model. And I didn’t care one bit that she called me by my first name the whole timeinstead of Mom to keep the ruse going.”
Image by Ariana Falerni
10. Don’t leave anyone out.
“Make sure that you get every combination of family members together, or at least keep it equal,” Falerni adds. “This means that if you take a shot of just mom with all the kids, make sure you get one with just dad and all the kids. Or if you get two siblings out of three together, make sure you get the other combinations too. When designing albums and wall display options, I’ve often heard objections when one child was included more than another. Give yourself as many options as possible for your designs, and keep it all fair and equal.”
Image by Kyla Ewert. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, 50mm 1.2 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f1.2; ISO 1600.
11. Forget about the “likes.”
“I think remembering that the session is about our clients (or our own families) and not about social media ‘likes’ is something to keep in mind,” Canadian photographer Kyla Ewert advises. “I have found that taking a keen interest in my clients and subjects, cracking jokes as I shoot, andlearning to read the room has made for much more relaxed clients and family members, and in turn, more authentic images.”
Image by Kyla Ewert
12. Focus on the here and now.
If your child is doing something unique and cute at this age, or your parents have just moved into their dream home, highlight those elements. Think about what makes your family special at this point in time. Ewert tells us, “I always look for the story in front of me, asking myself what little details I want to remember about our ‘now.’”
Image by Rawpixel.com
13. Keep practicing.
Family photography shouldn’t be limited to the holiday season alone. Throughout the year, get your family in the habit of taking photos, and make sure they’re comfortable in front of your camera. “I have been taking pretty much daily photos of my kids since 2012,” Ewert says. “I challenged myself with a 365 project (taking an image every day) back then, as I wanted to capture our memories and improve my craft, and I haven’t really stopped.”
Working with your family year-round takes the pressure off once the holidays come around, so don’t be afraid to follow Ewert’s lead and document your daily life at home.
Image by Natalia Lebedinskaia
Top image by Beth Urban
Looking for more tips on shooting authentic holiday content? Check these out.
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