The Holiday Family Photo: Keep it Real

7 years ago

On a pre-Thanksgiving dinner beach walk on Thursday, I passed a man wearing a Santa hat standing in front of a chair full of Christmas-themed props. Mistakenly thinking that he and the woman he was with were trying to take their own picture, I offered, as I will sometimes do when I see people in this situation, to take one of them.

"I'm the PHOTOGRAPHER," he snapped, and I kept on walking after a brief apology.

Then I went inside and told Twitter about it, as you do. I even used the hashtag #holidaybeachphotos gone wrong, yes I did.

Now, when I say "props," I mean he had a miniature Christmas tree, red and green baseball caps, a Santa Claus-shaped I don't know what, a white plastic patio chair and a surfboard. He was lugging all of this stuff around with an intensity that led me to believe that he intended to use every last one of these things before his shoot was over. I don't know how the people were dressed. I only saw one of his subjects wander down, and it appeared to be a patriarch of sorts.

In a bright yellow shirt.

Now part of me wants to let these people be, to shut my mouth and my fingers and note that there are many approaches to capturing photos for holiday cards and gifts, and some of them involve props in primary colors - even in a spot of natural beauty. The other part of me wants those people to put down all the knick-knacks and the standard fa-la-la color scheme and just...take pictures.

This is the part that is winning out at the moment, with the undertstanding that this is only my opinion, and if the people want the red and green baseball hats, the people shall have them with no complaint from me. It just got me thinking, that's all.

Now it is true that I did not grow up in a posed holiday card photo environment. No one in our family posed for portraits in color-coordinated clothing or traveled to a beach or a woodsy setting to get our pictures taken for Christmas. We had Olan Mills a couple of times a year for the kids and a rare family shot, and that was that. Beyond that, there were a ton of pictures taken at actual Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, and those were carefully shared among our extended family and filed away in albums.

Times have changed. Several of the cards I receive from families with kids (and a few dogs. Go dog families) include photos, some of just the little ones and others with the whole fam damily. I don't get too many with people in coordinated clothing, but I know they're popular. Many of the kids are dressed in holiday-themed gear, especially if it's just them in the shot.

I guess I feel like if this is the photo you're choosing to represent you to all of the friends and family on your holiday card list, it ought to be a good one. This, to me, means that it represents who you are and what you're like together, while not completely submerging the personalities and appearances of all the people in the picture. Tall order, perhaps, but herewith are a few hints from a mental review of the ghosts of holiday photos past:

1. Natural shots in natural environments should be, well, natural. I clearly have my own issues with bringing complicated props on the beach (or anywhere, for that matter) but that is only because most times a beautiful environment speaks for itself. Remember too that a holiday card is generally pretty heavy on strong colors and graphics,  so don't make the picture and the card compete.

2. Poses, as well, should really be relaxed and normal for your family. Kids should not be forced to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in portrait lockstep, but nor should they necessarily be hanging upside down off of a jungle gym if that is not their way. A good photographer should know how to encourage interaction and move you around comfortably, and if they can't, they're not earning their fee.

3. Proceed in matching clothing with caution. I am not going to get too far into this because this is another aspect of family portraiture that is steeped in tradition and personal choice, but I will say one thing: you are a family, not a sports team. (I mean, you may be a sports team, I don't know, but I'm guessing the majority of the universal you are not.) I can still see one family portrait in my mind where the (many) different branches dressed in polo shirts in a rainbow of pastel colors. I don't remember it fondly.

I am not saying definitely "don't," I'm just saying "maybe," and "be careful" and "consider embracing reasonable differences." And you don't have to listen to me anyway. Isn't that freeing?

4. If you're doing kids-only shots, consider having a parent shoot the picture. Higher-end point and shoots and entry level DSLRs make excellent pictures possible that used to be the province of photo studios only. (Sorry, photo studios.) Shooting baby's picture may be a pain for you, I guess, but I am a firm believer that no one is going to get a smile out of your child like you will. No one, especially not the boy down a the picture place at the mall - you know, the one with the big fake wrapped presents and random cubes and spheres? Not going to happen.

And if the idea of taking the kids' holiday picture the way you envision it is just too much to bear, consider lowering your expectations, shortening the shoot and going easy on gadgets and special clothing. Natural, environmental shots are always better, trust me. When I open the envelope in my kitchen after a long day at work, it'll make my dinner go down easier if it's a child I love who is smiling from my refrigerator. I won't care if she is dressed like a reindeer or not.

5. With most people trying to save money now more than ever, a special portrait session may not be in the budget. You can trade off with another family - their most accomplished shooter for yours - and get some possible informal portraits that way. Ask people. Everyone probably knows at least one camera geek by now who knows how to operate a self-timer or will be happy to help you out himself. 

Or you can always go with my favorite way to use photos that might otherwise go unnoticed: shop your hard drive. Most families have a few useable photos from birthdays, other holidays and vacations over the year that could easily be used for a great seasonal shot. If you're really feeling adventurous, pick out a photo specific to the most special people on your card lists and pop it into a card that doubles as a paper frame. It's a nice way to personalize the communication at a time when most folks are looking for deeper connections beyond stuff. The longer card list can still get the pre-fab photo.

So that's it. Go easy, have fun, and send me a card when you're done. And just one final word to the probably wise: one bright yellow shirt is probably better than five.

Apologies to your dog, though. I will enjoy photos of her much more if she's wearing antlers.

Holiday photos around the Web:

Michele Cheplic at the Photo blog wants to know if, when it comes to holiday photos, just the kids are in the picture or if the parents make it in the frame too. I have to admit that I always wonder why it's just the kids when the cards come in the mail (not that I don't love my favorite children. It's just something I wonder.) I don't like the reason she gives for why the moms stay out of the picture, but I get it. 

The discussion soon turned into a debate on whether or not Christmas card photos should include the entire family or just the kids. Most of the moms sheepishly admitted that they willingly chose not to be in their Christmas card photos simply because they feared they'd be the most unattractive person in the shot. Others admitted they had no idea how to work the self-timer on their cameras, while another mom confessed to not having a tripod and didn't feel comfortable asking a neighbor to come over and take the shot. Needless to say, I am not expecting too many Christmas cards with photos of the entire family coming to my home from that group.

Katie at the Tiny Prints blog has some interesting ideas for family poses. The family halfway down the page on the couch in the woods breaks my prop rule but in this case I have to support it, because it's a cool shot.

Awkward Family Photos' Holiday category is the photographic "don't" section writ large.

DesignMom has some pretty photo card ideas from "guest Aunt Lindsey" from the Stationery Place.

Family and photography Contributing Editor Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites, and wishes that hard-working photographer in the Santa hat a very happy holiday, surfboard and all.  

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