Imagine a world where your holiday photos are actually really good — no half-closed eyes, cringeworthy outfits, crying children, or badly-behaved pets.
Get there with the best advice on how to take a great family photo, from two top-rated photographers on Thumbtack who specialize in family portraits: Lindsey Eltinge from Atlanta, Georgia, and Michelle Cardoso from the Bay Area.
Schedule your shoot just before sunset
“An hour before sunset or within the first hour of sunrise is the best time to take photographs,” says Michelle Cardoso. “It’s called the golden hour because the lighting is really soft and golden at that time. The time not to take photos is the middle of the day when the sun is directly above; you’ll get harsh shadows under your nose and eyes that won’t look good in pictures.”
If that timing just won’t work though, Lindsey Eltinge points out that there are ways around it. “If you’re in a forested area at 12 noon, it doesn’t matter where the sun is in the sky. What you want is for the photographer to be able to work with the natural light in the way that’s most pleasing. If you pick a nice outside location that provides shade throughout the day, then you can really shoot any time of day.”
Take the photos somewhere meaningful
Pick a place that means something to your family, says Lindsey. If you don’t have anywhere in mind, most photographers have a few go-to locations they can suggest. “I pick locations with a few points of interest, so that by the time you’re done with an hour shoot, you have pictures that look like you’re at five or six different places.”
Lindsey prefers outdoor locations for families because it gives people a chance to play in the water or climb trees or run around and forget they’re having their photo taken. “The more you can find a location where you would go and have a good time even if you weren’t doing a photo shoot, the more natural and genuine your photos will turn out.”
For holiday-specific photos, Michelle has found success shooting families at a Christmas Tree farm. “I bring a few decorations they can play with and get candid shots of them putting ornaments on the tree.” It’s a great way to get a photo that has a holiday feel, but without the constraints of putting your decorations up super early or shooting inside where the lighting may not be great. She also recommends a fall shoot for holiday photos. “I look for parks with pretty colors in the trees and pretty leaves on the ground.”
Don’t wear distracting patterns or matching outfits
Michelle says to avoid wearing patterns (stripes, plaids, and polka dots). And don’t wear the same color, let alone actual outfit. “Those things are distracting and can take away from the expressions on your face.”
Lindsey also recommends avoiding black and white clothing because they don’t tend to photograph well. It’s better to have everyone dress around a theme. “Have everyone wear pastels, or a fall color, or a summer color,” she says. “You also want to try to get everyone to wear either lighter clothes or darker clothes. The more the tonal range is similar, the better it photographs.” Whether to dress formally or casually is up to you.
If you shoot outdoors, you won’t need much makeup because the natural light is so flattering, adds Lindsey. But Michelle points out that professional hair and makeup can add confidence, which really comes through in photos.
Don’t stand still — keep moving
“The more you’re moving, the less you’re overthinking it,” Lindsey says. “If my clients start freezing up, we stop what we’re doing and I tell them to jump around and shake their arms out, so that they can get back to what they’d be doing naturally if there wasn’t a camera around. Make sure you’re not doing the same thing for more than a minute or two. That’s what will give you those natural poses that capture really well.”
If you are looking for a more formal posed photo, Michelle still suggests you start with candid shots first. “That will loosen everyone up a little bit, so the family is comfortable when doing the posed photos.”
Let your kid be a kid
Michelle points out that smaller children should be well-rested and in a good mood — meaning you’re not taking photos around their nap time. It can help to practice with them ahead of time to help them be comfortable in front of a camera.
But even the best-laid plans fall apart, which is why Lindsey says the best thing you can do is just give up control and embrace whatever happens. “Acknowledge that it all looks cute,” she says. “A happy kid looks cute. And a crying kid looks cute. Let the kid be what the kid wants to be instead of trying to force them to do things.”
And let your dog be a dog
The same thing holds for dogs, Lindsey says. “If pets are part of your family, then bring them. If you have a high energy dog, pick a location where he can run around. And don’t even worry about him being in the first photos. Let him run around and get his energy out. By the time you get to the second half of your shoot, your dog will calm down and want to hang out and sit next to you and now you’re getting those natural moments.”
And if your dog doesn’t want to hang out, don’t worry about it. “I was taking photos of a family and they were all dressed up by a lake and their Lab kept inching near the water. They really don’t want him to go in the water, but I finally said, ‘Just let him go.’ I ended up with this beautiful photo with the family in the foreground and the dog in the back running towards the lake. It’s real and it’s genuine.”