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Tips for hassle-free holiday photo shoots

A pro weighs in

Getting that holiday card-worthy shot can seem like an impossible feat. From unruly kids to forced expressions to animals that won’t sit still, a holiday photo shoot doesn’t always turn out like you hope it will. And if you can get everyone in the same room, how do you capture a standout shot you'll be proud to display for years to come?

Family photo

We caught up with New Jersey-based lifestyle photographer Carolina Rivera, of CWR Photography, for tips on how to get the best shot and make the most out of your holiday photo shoot.

SheKnows: What makes a holiday family shot really stand out?

Carolina Rivera: To me, what's most important in a family shoot is emotion, moments and a real family bond coming through in the image. Secondary to that is the composition — keeping the backgrounds contextually relevant but simple so that expressions really stand out — and a cohesive color pattern to tie it all together.

SK: What are some pros/cons of a posed shoot versus a more spontaneous one?

CR: Family photography got its start with posed shots, with large format cameras and long exposures. Families would have to stand or sit for a long period of time with the same expression on their faces. Now having said that, I think posed family photos are a great way to carry on that tradition, and its advantage is that everyone looks happy, and you can see everyone clearly. I personally am more of a fan of a lifestyle-type session, which has more spontaneous moments and real expressions. You might not be able to see everyone's faces perfectly in every shot, but the emotion that radiates from each image is more worth it for me. When my clients have a hard time picking their family photo between a more posed image or a more spontaneous moment, I always ask them what their ultimate goal is when they show others the image. What do you want them to feel? Do you want to show everyone what you look like? Then a posed shot is more for you. Do you want to show everyone just having fun? Then a lifestyle shot may be more for you.

Family photo

SK: What are the biggest mistakes people make when hiring a photographer and the biggest mistakes people make when trying to do a photo shoot themselves?

CR: I find that a lot of people hire photographers based on price, and while I realize it's a large obstacle for some, I feel that if you're going to be spending money on something and not doing-it-yourself, no matter how much it is, it's still an investment, so make sure that person is capable and not just a family friend practicing or trying to break into photography. Also, make sure to book early.

One mistake I find is people trying to do what a professional does. Don't try to pose an image and get fancy with lighting, location, etc. If you're going to do-it-yourself, just keep it simple and natural. Many people often concentrate too much on traditional symbols or even outfits that show the holiday theme. This actually detracts from your photo and makes you look more at the Christmas tree rather than the actual family bond, which is most important.

SK: What is the best time of day to do an outdoor shoot?

CR: The best time of day is generally about two to three hours before sunset. This is because between the hours of about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., typically, the sun is directly overhead, making unflattering shadows. If you are shooting on a cloudy or overcast day, this rule does not matter. The best lighting advice I can give to a family trying a shoot on their own is find some shade, get out of the direct sunlight and you won't need a flash because the light is nice and diffused and makes everyone's imperfections and squinting go away. The biggest mistake people make is thinking that a sunny day, right in the middle of an open field, will make a great picture. Unless you are a professional and know how to handle the light, this can make for horrible pictures.

Beach family photo

SK: What are some tips you can offer a family looking to get a great card-worthy holiday shot?

CR: If you are going to do the session yourself, here are a few pointers:

  1. Keep it simple by choosing a nice, clean background, a backyard with trees, an open field or even a cool, textured wall for posed photos to keep the attention on your subjects.
  2. Play around and don't be afraid to be yourselves. This will make for the best moments.
  3. Shoot more than one or two frames so people have time to loosen up.
  4. Please, for the love of it, don't wear matching outfits that are all the same color. It's OK to coordinate a look with everyone so that the theme runs through, but there is no need for everyone to wear red sweaters and khakis.

Eid family photo

SK: What advice would you give someone who never looks natural in photos?

CR: If you hire a professional photographer, a good one should be able to take care of that for you. If you're doing the photos yourself, I would shoot a few frames to warm yourselves up. Then, try and figure out an activity to do together, or have a conversation while the camera is on self-timer or play tickle wars with each other and see what comes out of it. Try also having someone you care about, or someone who you know will animate you or brighten you up, behind the person taking the photo, and have them be the funny guy. Sometimes, awkward moments or just really bad jokes make everyone crack up in the most natural way, and there's your shot!

You can read more about CWR Photography here or connect with Carolina on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. Happy holidays!

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