Tips to get the best family photos this holiday season

Family at home for Christmas.
Photo credit: svetikd/Getty Images

The holiday season isn’t special only because of super-sized turkeys or festively-wrapped gifts. The holidays are most memorable because it’s the one time of year that most of your clan is all in one place — which is why people always want family photos.

Despite our efforts to capture the moment and create reminders of these wonderful days, too often, getting good family photos ends up being one of the most stressful parts of the holiday season. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way!

All in the family: A group photo

If you’re going for a group shot, have a bit of a plan in mind before you assemble the clan. You want to find a place that everyone fits, where the lighting is right, and where the background works. (That means checking that no piles of dirty dishes are visible, and taking care not to shoot where it will end up looking like grandpa has a Christmas tree sprouting out of the top of his head.)

To start, rather than letting every single person insist that a photo be taken with their own camera, use just one camera to take the photos, and promise to send the images to anyone who wants one. This is going to save you time, effort, and cranky kids — and cranky adults, for that matter. Another big benefit is that you will be able to get everyone looking in the same direction, rather than each person angling to look into his or her own camera (or phone) lens.

The other problem that seems to come up with group photos is — who gets left out to take the picture? While you can usually ask for help from someone, you can skip this hassle, too.

How? If you’re using an actual camera, get a tripod if you don’t already have one, and, a remote for your camera. The good old self-timer is still a valid option, too — just make sure you set it for long enough to get yourself into the picture in time.

Photo credit: PH888/Getty Images

If you’re using your phone to take these pictures, there are, of course, good old-fashioned selfies (as well as selfie sticks), but you can also download a variety of apps that work like a camera timer to allow you to get a little distance from the lens. Couple that with a flexible mini tripod to hold your smartphone in place, and you’re all set!

When it comes to posing your group shot, some professional photographers like to arrange everyone by height, then stick the tallest person in the middle of the back row and alternate next tallest to the left and right, doing the same with the rows in front as they get shorter. Offset your rows so the heads of the people in front are between the heads of the people in back. The point is to consider the heights of your subjects, and try to keep the composition balanced.

Finally, remember that, no matter how many people you’re photographing, lighting really matters. Unless you’re fortunate enough to live in one of those parts of the country where it’s going to be 70 degrees and sunny on the day, you’re probably going to be taking these photos indoors. Pick a room that’s large enough to fit everyone and has a good amount of light — either from a large window nearby (best) or several light sources. Avoid using the flash unless you want things like washed out skin tones, red-eye, and heavy shadows on people’s faces.

Or… don’t worry about the big group

For holiday photos, some people prefer instead to be grouped as couples or in family units or solo, and this may make your life easier, because it’s a lot simpler to get two or three people smiling on cue — with their eyes open! — than it is to coordinate a dozen or more folks. (Also encourage people to take selfies with another person or two.)

Later, when you choose your favorite images, you can put all the various photos together — in a digital frame format or in a physical picture frame — to keep your holiday memories organized.

Candid camera: Getting great un-posed shots

Everyone wants the big group photo for the album, Facebook, or to turn into a giant print to hang over the fireplace. However, the images that truly capture the joy and love of the season are going to be the little candid snaps you grab as your family laughs, eats, and celebrates together.

Keep your smartphone or camera handy, and be ready to capture those little moments that happen throughout the day. Kids playing, adults laughing, boys and girls of all ages going out to play a little touch football in the snow — all of these are the real experience.

Again, turn your flash off, because it’s a dead giveaway that you’re taking pictures, and will often eliminate any natural expressions and actions.

Two quick photography tips

Here are two basic photography tips for you to keep in mind.

One: Don’t try to center everything — often, aligning the primary subject slightly to the right or left looks better. (See above for an example)

Two: Intentionally fill the frame with things worth including. Many times, that means getting close to your subject, but could also mean letting the holiday decor or food-filled dining table play just as important part in your photo composition as the people.

Holding on to the memories

When you’re caught up in the festivities, it’s easy to forget to snap a couple photos. Some people will argue that living in the moment is more important — which is true in many cases — but there are plenty of people will be able to much more vividly recall past events when there is a picture available.

Even if you’re not the kind of person who particularly enjoys looking at photos (or the kind who doesn’t like having pictures taken), there are bound to be family members who will cherish the images.

Also remember that part of the fun is in the sharing. By the end of the year, be sure to email the best photographs to all of your guests, and print and snail mail the best ones to relatives who aren’t so internet-savvy.

Unlike a couple decades ago, there’s no film to buy, nor any processing costs, so it’s practically free to take snapshots… and ten, twenty or more years from now, you or members of your extended family will be delighted to have these meaningful little pieces of the past.

MORE: How to make your holiday food photos look better

Living and loving the moments

For the best experience for everyone, let go of the need to get for the “perfect” shot. People will get tired of posing and smiling. Hair will be out of place. Someone in the bunch will make a silly face. Who knows — maybe even the dog will decide to check out the camera up close.

When this kind of thing happens, take a breath and remember your goal is to capture the reality of the moment — and that, not perfection, is the stuff of which family memories are truly made.