How to take the family holiday picture of your dreams

This year, don't let little Timmy spoil the fun

As someone who came of age in an era when Christmas and Hanukkah cards were actual printed bi-folds featuring wreaths, dreydlech, and frolicking reindeer, I've noted with interest the way holiday greetings have evolved over the past three decades.

Slowly but surely, the traditional card has given way to a completely new paradigm: the annual family portrait. Bucolic winter landscapes and jolly Santas have been mostly replaced by artful photographs of friends and family. Jeans and white t-shirts on the beach at sunset? Check. Everyone holding hands and jumping into the family pool? Cool. Mom, Dad, Chester, little Liliana, and even Grandpa rocking the local rock wall? Yeah!

For the recipient of these winsome pix, the result is pure joy. Who doesn't love seeing how friends and family have grown and changed over the course of 12 months? All those smiles can't help but elicit even more smiles. For those actually posing for these jolly images, however, the experience isn't always so blissful. Bad timing, bad weather, tricky family dynamics, and fretful toddlers can make taking the annual group portrait decidedly un-merry.

So how best to avoid a disastrous family photo shoot?

"Relax!" advises Monica Lau, an Addy Award-winning photographer and photojournalist who's been behind a professional lens since 1988 and started shooting family portraits seven years ago when her own daughter entered preschool. "A group photo shoot is an opportunity; a wonderful gift to you and others. You have the best chance of success coming into the experience with an open, positive attitude."

A successful and sought-after portraitist, Monica kindly shared a few tips for anyone hoping to take a perfect family photo this — or any — year.

Plan ahead.

Don't wake up the morning of December 19 and decide you're going to take a cute picture of the fam-fam and send it to everyone you know. Schedules being what they are these days, just getting everyone in the same place at the same time can take calendaring skills worthy of a White House social secretary. And if you want to hire a pro late into the season?


"My repeat clients know to give me a call in September or October, as soon as older kids are back in school. It's a busy time of year. It can take weeks to coordinate a photo shoot, and then I need plenty of time to edit," says Monica. "After Nov. 15, I can't guarantee final pictures in time for Dec. 25."

If you have waited a little too long, Monica suggests, don't panic.

"How about a New Year's card?"

Do your homework.

Start with a budget. Can you afford a professional photographer, or will you need to enlist the help of a friend with a nice camera? There's no shame in the latter. Plenty of amateur photographers take perfectly lovely pictures.

If you go the pro route, be sure to work out costs ahead of a booking; some photographers post their prices directly on their websites, others require an email or phone call. In either case, perusing multiple photographers' websites will give you a sense of each pro's style and examples of work. Ask friends whose previous family pictures you have admired for references, and search the internet for highly-rated photogs in your area. This will allow you to select a photographer most likely to deliver pictures that you will like for a price you can afford. It might also give you some good ideas for planning your own shoot.

Once you come across a good candidate, contact her or him by phone or email. Expect a call or email back within 72 hours; if someone is too busy to get back to you in that timeframe, he or she isn't likely to have the time to communicate thoroughly enough with you to set up a photo shoot that will best serve your family's unique wants and needs.

Establish up front what you can expect for the agreed-upon price: how much time the photographer will spend at the shoot; how much re-touching he or she will do; how many images (and in what format) you will receive. Some pros "upsell" additional services such as editing, additional images, and prints. This is fine; just be sure you know what you're getting for your money so as to avoid sticker shock later on in the process.

Be creative and flexible.

Formal is fine … if that's your family. There are lots of folks who feel comfortable donning the Christmas sweaters and lining up in a perfectly-lit studio. But don't limit yourself or set yourself up for disappointment, especially if you have younger children who might not share your rosy, royal vision.

"I say 'yes!' to a lot of things," laughs Monica. "Why not use the holiday portrait as a chance to be a little different?" She encourages families to consider framing a photo shoot around activities they actually enjoy doing together, such as hiking or playing board games."

But be open to considering various locations and themes too. Many public places require professional photographers to have special permits, for example, and photo shoots can only occur in specific times and places that might not conform to your schedule or desires. You may have to coordinate around various sleep and feeding schedules. Weather can impact outdoor shoots. And your elegant idea of having everyone wear all-black clothing in the garden?

"I will always respect a client's personal preferences," Monica states politely. "But I will also let you know all-black just doesn't look good in colorful settings."

Make sure the clothing you choose is both comfortable and functional for everyone involved. Wardrobe changes during a shoot take valuable time away from your photo shoot, and many photographers do not allow for them.

Show up prepared.

Formal or casual, no matter where you've planned to have your shoot, what you've decided to wear, or how to style hair and/or makeup, give yourself plenty of time to get ready before you head the site.

"And treat everything as if you were going to your own wedding," Monica recommends.

That means clothing — even casual clothes — should be pressed and pristine. Be sure you like your shoes (if you plan to wear them). Don't apply makeup that might smear or run.

If you're not at home, pack snacks, water, and disposable wipes for everyone. Accidents happen, even to adults. And if you've got little ones? Monica has some important advice.

"Bring along a favorite blanket or lovey. And then get ready to let me do my job."

Relax. Smile.

A good attitude is more important than any outfit or backdrop. If you show up for a photo shoot tense or unhappy, those emotions will negatively impact your final images. If the shoot involves two or more individuals who don't get along, openly declare a one-or-two-hour truce, for the sake of the picture.

Listen to music. Watch videos of goats screaming like people. Laugh at actual people practicing laughter yoga. Do whatever it takes to get yourself in a good frame of mind, even if you don't like having your picture taken.

"Lots of people don't like having their picture taken," reassures Monica. "A good photographer will have the warmth and skill to make you feel comfortable quickly."

That goes for children, too. Working with children is one of Monica's specialties, and she has great advice in that arena: try not to be anxious, because your children will pick up on that anxiety.

"All I need parents to do is smile!" Monica says. "Be ready, looking happily at the camera, because in that one split second when your child is paying attention and looking sweet and happy, I am going to press the button."

And the result will be a beautiful snapshot of your family to share with loved ones this year... and to cherish in all the years to come.


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