In the United States, we send about 43% less mail than we did in 2001, but as Alia Wong ofThe Atlantic reported last year, we’re still sending family holiday cards. Trends come and go, but the tradition of taking family photos during the holidays and sharing them with loved ones has continued to thrive and grow with every passing year; on Etsy alone, for example, searches for customized cards more than doubled from 2017 to 2018. 

Image © Claudia Cabrero Málaga
Image © Claudia Cabrero Málaga

These days, many of us take photos every day using our phones, but the holidays give us an excuse to slow down, relish the process, and create images that last a lifetime. We spoke with five talented photographers about how they make their family portraits stand out, whether they’re working for a client or collaborating with their own relatives. Here are their top tips for taking unforgettable pictures. 

Image © Aimee Glucina
Image © Aimee Glucina

Get the formal portraits done first.

Before a shoot, it helps to read over your shot list with your family. If they have their own ideas for poses they want to try, incorporate them and let them play an active role in the process. These posed photos work best at the beginning of a session, when everyone has enough energy to follow directions. 

“I ease into every family session by getting the more traditional shots out of the way first, then as we play and I see barriers come down, we get way more cuddly and fun,” Auckland-based lifestyle photographer Aimee Glucina tells us. 

After the classic “holiday postcard” shots, set aside some time for candid moments. Let the kids play and explore. Keep an eye open for those “imperfect” moments that feel genuine and honest. For Glucina, that’s when the fun begins–her favorite images aren’t the “cookie-cutter” holiday photos but the spontaneous, documentary-style scenes that unfold once everyone’s more relaxed.  

Image © Kirsten Lewis
Image © Kirsten Lewis

Take a step back.

In a similar vein, it’s important not to over direct your family members, especially if you’re working with younger kids. 

“I have photographed more than 500 families over the last twenty years and the one most important lesson I have learned is that you cannot force a child to do anything they do not want to do,” Denver-based documentary family photographer Kirsten Lewis explains. “Once I accepted this fact, I realized that during sessions involving kids, we need to work with them, not against them. 

“When it comes to making pictures of children, I let them take the lead. The majority of all my work is completely hands-off; I simply make pictures that reflect real life in an honest, heart-warming, and many times humorous way. If you can take a step back and wait patiently, a child will gift you with endless pictures.”

Watch the weather. 

Your family won’t give you the photos you want if they’re cold and uncomfortable, so even if you plan on shooting in the snow, make sure everyone is warm and bundled. 

“I’m always checking in the week before and days before with a weather report to make sure we don’t have to delay due to rain or cold temperatures,” Whidbey Island-based family photographer Kara Chappell explains. 

“I stop shooting family sessions when temperatures dip below 50 degrees. I find that kids are freezing (which is also visible on their faces), and the normal games and snuggles don’t work as well when everyone just wants to get back to the car ASAP.”

Image © Kara Chappell
Image © Kara Chappell

Plan for the golden hour. 

The hour after sunrise and before sunset–often called the “golden hour”–is ideal for family portrait shoots. “This time of year can be unpredictable in terms of the weather, so pay close attention to your sunset times. If you are trying to capture the golden hour, make sure you leave yourself lots of time,” Vancouver Island-based documentary and lifestyle photographer Ashley Marston suggests.  

Pay attention to wardrobe.

Family members will usually need help picking out their outfits well before the day of the photoshoot. “I always make sure my clients’ styling is on point and that everyone has an extra layer that compliments their wardrobe,” Chappell says. 

“My styling instructions and encouragement actually begin as soon as a family books a session. I send them resources and examples (via Pinterest boards and blog posts). 

“One of my favorite vendors is Style and Select, which is an interactive style guide that helps clients select amazing photographer-approved clothing for a session. If your clients look their best, they’ll feel their best, and the gallery will stand out.” 

Image © Kirsten Lewis
Image © Kirsten Lewis

Provide snacks and breaks. 

Avoid disgruntled family members by organizing your shoot for a time of day when they won’t be tired or hungry. On set, remember to pack some goodies and give your models time to unwind in between shots. During breaks, feel free to capture more candid moments between family members. It’s often the unscripted, in-between exchanges and glances that prove to be the most powerful.  

Image © Ashley Marston
Image © Ashley Marston

Use holiday lights to your advantage. 

The holiday season is all about lights (Christmas trees, menorah candles, etc.), so seize the opportunity to incorporate them into your shots. 

“This time of year is a great time to get creative with artificial lighting,” Marston says. “For most of us, it is dark by dinner time, and finding ways to capture your family in the dark can be a fun challenge. I have used the light from a store window, streetlights, candles, and white Christmas lights to help tell the story of the seasons. It makes for some compelling and timeless images.” 

Image © Aimee Glucina
Image © Aimee Glucina

Get creative.

When photographing your family, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. “Every holiday gallery I do will include something creative and different,” Glucina adds. “Whether that’s because we shot through something, created a double exposure, or used light flares to our advantage.”

Image © Aimee Glucina
Image © Aimee Glucina

Bring your camera everywhere.

Pre-planned holiday sessions are great, but so are spur-of-the-moment captures. If you and your family are heading out for a day of sledding or ice-skating, bring your camera.

“Sometimes, we believe that we have to prepare everything to make a perfect photo, but take advantage of these everyday occasions,” Spanish photographer Claudia Cabrero Málaga advises. 

“Maybe the light catches your attention unexpectedly; use it to take some photos. Personally, I like photos with movement, and I advise you to play with different planes. Move around to get different, unique perspectives and create dynamic images.” 

Image © Claudia Cabrero Málaga
Image © Claudia Cabrero Málaga

Document moments at home. 

Another great way to take photos outside of a traditional, organized photoshoot is to keep your camera handy when you’re relaxing at home, baking cookies, decorating a tree, lighting candles, or opening gifts. “This is an incredible time of year to capture your own family, as it is full of magic and wonder and slips by so fast,” Marston adds. “Don’t forget those quiet moments at home.” 

Image © Ashley Marston
Image © Ashley Marston

Get in the frame. 

If you’re working with your own family, don’t forget to include yourself. “Make sure you get in the frame with your family,” Marston advises. “Set up a tripod with a timer or remote. You don’t want to be the one thing missing from your family photos.” You’ll appreciate having these moments to look back on in the years to come, and so will your family members. 

Image © Ashley Marston
Image © Ashley Marston

Remember to print! 

Physical prints made perfect holiday gifts, and they serve as an enduring reminder of quality time spent with family. Don’t forget to print your photos and display them at home, either as framed prints or photo books. 

“Every year, I put together a sweet 5×5 soft-cover photo album of my girls,” Chappell tells us. “I order about fifteen copies, and I give one to all the grandmas and aunties, and I make sure to order one for myself and each of my girls. We love to look through the older books and remember how much fun and love surrounded us.

“Miller’s Signature Books are my go-to albums for clients. The books are a cost-effective option for clients, but also have durable pages perfect for little hands to look through. I also love Fracture glass prints for a unique way to gift an image.”


Want to learn more about how to take better pictures? Bradon Woelfels’s Skillshare Original, Instagram-worthy Photography : Shoot, Edit, and Share with Brandon Woelfel has more tips and tricks for shooting beautiful, shareable photographs.

Cover image/thumbnail credit: © Kara Chappell

To learn more about Feature Shoot, click here.