November 21, 2022

Take your own family's photographs!

By Laura Merz
Take your own family's photographs!



With December just around the corner, lots of families are starting to think about Christmas cards and holiday photos. Or if you’re like me, maybe you’ll get around to sending cards in January! But the idea of scheduling a photographer for a holiday card photo can be intimidating - should you take advantage of a mini-session or schedule a full session? Do you want these photos for long term or just for the Christmas card? Likely if you’re just deciding to have photos made, local photographers have already been booked up for months. For a lot of people the most reasonable solution is just to take your own photos at home. 

As a professional photographer I say - go for it! Pro-photography is not always the right fit for every family at every point. Sometimes you just need to do it yourself to save a few dollars or help get your kids over their fear of the camera. Whether its for the holidays or just because, you really can do it yourself - here are a few tips to help you get a great shot you’ll be proud to share, and maybe even frame! Read on to find out how to set yourself up for success, and see a few of my family’s own DIY photos.


Keep the color scheme for outfits simple using my 2+ rule: choosing two neutrals and one “plus” (a bright color or pattern) will keep everyone looking coordinated and cohesive. And don’t forget to keep your kids comfortable! The easiest way to ruin your photo is to have a crying kid because their sweater is itchy or the shoes pinch their toes. My favorite tip is to have two parent-approved outfits for the kids and let them pick, so they feel like they had a choice in the matter. 


Choose an open space like an attractive field, a grove of pine trees, or a simple indoor space like a tastefully decorated fireplace or cozy sofa by the Christmas tree. Double check that background elements are placed nicely around the subjects so no one ends up with a candle stick or tree trunk coming out of their head in the final shot! Consider your climate too - when we lived in Kenya, our local pine tree forest didn’t really reflect our daily tropical vibe so I chose to do my kid’s holiday pictures with more leafy green foliage. Similarly if you live on the coast or in the desert, you might consider leaning into that environment to create a timeless image rather than forcing a snowy-winter feel.

Two children in matching pajamas with a black dog. The background is green tropical foliage.


 Try to keep things as natural as possible so everyone feels at ease. Standing rigidly in a straight line doesn’t look or feel natural! Have couples lean into each other or hold their kids’ hands. Work with the environment too- If you’re using a sofa or seating area, have a few people sit, stand, and even lean against the chair to connect the space together. Check Pinterest for inspiration, as posing can be one of the hardest parts to conceptualize without some guidance!

When I'm working with a family, I'm always trying to use the positioning of the subjects to create a diagonal somewhere in the frame - whether its having the tallest person centered, with kids on the sides (creating a mountain-like shape), or having Grandpa sit in the middle and the family gather around him (creating an inverted V shape). Look below and see how the giraffe and my husbands arm create this nice diagonal effect - it allows your eye to travel around the scene and keeps you more interested in looking at the photograph.

 Family in front of a large wall of windows, with two giraffes sticking their heads through the window.


It’s tempting to put everyone in full sun or turn on an overhead light, but these kinds of harsh light can lead to the dreaded racoon-eye look in a photograph. Avoid strange shadows by choosing an evenly-lit space and avoiding dappled light (often found under a tree) that can leave splotches of light and shadow across faces. Shooting on an overcast day makes beautiful shots, but you can shoot in a softly shaded outdoor space or in a naturally-lit room for a similar effect. Inside, consider positioning the windows behind the camera so everyone is facing the light source for a natural-looking effect. If instead you choose to use the windows as a focal point, as in the image above, make sure the camera is focusing and exposing for the people and be prepared for a bit of a challenge to get the lighting balanced - it’s probably not best to try this if this is your first time using your camera. Above all, be sure that every person is evenly lit - don’t let one person get sucked into the shadows or have a stray ray of light across their face.



Unless you're a photoshop pro, don't try to photoshop yourself into the photo after the fact. Running back and forth to the self-timer a few times will be worth the effort to create a wonderful family keepsake.


Embrace your family’s natural dynamic and don’t try to force anything. If you are a fun quirky family, lean into it! If your natural vibe is more solemn, that’s great too. Let kids be kids - especially toddlers who don’t always love to smile on queue! Resist the temptation for everyone to be looking at the camera - photos with a candid element can often feel more authentic. Emotions come across faces quite easily in photographs, so avoid forcing or cajoling kids to try to look a certain way. Try to work with their natural temperament and in the end, you may just end up documenting a unique phase of their life. Sometimes those un-planned “blooper” photos end up being the favorites!



You can use these tips beyond the holidays of course! When my family visited Egypt earlier this year what I wanted more than anything was a portrait of us inside one of the temples - but the crowds were unbearable and I couldn't find a nice open space to make it happen. One night as the temples were closing, I spotted this lovely background that was just off the main area - the by viewing the columns at an angle, you could no longer see the other tourists behind us, and the small alley way was clear for me to set up my camera quickly on a ledge. Since I knew what I was looking for, it made it easy to create this shot with just a moment's notice. 

Outfits: with my guys in navy, and my daughter and I in reds and whites, we go together beautifully. 

Background: choosing a location where we could use the visual angle of the columns to block the tourists around us creates a cleaner image.

Posing: my husband and I create a bit of an angle with our bodies, bringing the focus down to my daughter in the front. 

Lighting: it was evening, it was important that my exposure was set properly to prevent the image from being too dark. I over exposed the image slightly and brought the natural shadow back into the shot during editing. 

Self timer: a ledge acts as a tripod while a 10 second timer captured the image. 

Keeping it natural: it was the end of a long day, so when my son didn't want to be front and center on the image, we just went with it.





Taking you own photos can be a challenge - but with a little planning and a lot of flexibility you can create images that are beautiful and timeless to adorn your holiday cards this year! 

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