Holiday Portrait Tips (Part 1)

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon1 Comment

Listener Survey

Want to mention one last time on this episode that we have a listener survey open right now.  It is a single question and the link is in the show notes. We want to know what software you PRIMARILY use to edit your photos.

Post-Processing Listener Survey 

7 Holiday Family Photo Tips

  1. Relax.  If there is anything I have learned from doing family portraits for many years now the top advice I can give to photographers has nothing to do with cameras, lights, or posing.  The most important advice I can give is just how important it is for you to be calm and relaxed.  
    1. If you are stressed, rushed, and running around then all of the people you are shooting are going to reflect those feelings.  
    2. Be happy.  Like over the top happy and bubbly.  As Levi mentioned in the previous episode being a little silly even helps the kids to smile and have a little fun.
  2. Adult Discussion.  Have a talk with the adults before-hand
    1. The adult (probably mom/grandma) who is wanting the photo to be taken.  Tell them they can help you get everyone together to take the photo. They can tell everyone how important this photo is to them, but when it is time to shoot their ONLY job is to smile and look at the camera the entire time.
    2. The adults need to be relaxed too and some of the remaining tips will really help with that.  Be aware of what else is going on at the holiday party. On Thanksgiving day in the United States, don’t try to do the family photo while the football game is on.  Try at half time or between games. Maybe try right after dessert has been served. You could even ask them before the party when would be the best time to take the photo.
  3. Plan.  Don’t drag everyone over to the area where you are going to do the shoot and make them stand there or wait there for 30 minutes as you are getting things setup.  
    1. If you are using flash, get that setup before you make anyone come over to be in the photo.  
    2. If you have to clear an area for this to work you may be forced into having people kind of waiting around for the photo to get going but do everything you can to make sure you limit that time as much as possible.  Give jobs for people to do to help move things along.
  4. Use Flash.  If you have flash equipment, use it!
    1. Levi gave the advice last week about using a single flash for portraits.  I love his advice there that if you think you need two lights, you are wrong, you only need one.  If you think you need three lights you are wrong, you only need one. Keeping the lighting simple is really good and helps with the relax part a lot.  A single light right by you as you are taking the photo can work really well. You could bounce it off the ceiling in a room or put the biggest modifier on that light (like a shoot through umbrella) and get it as close to the group as possible without being in the frame.
    2. If the group is really large, say more than 10 people, using a single light may not be the best.  We have an entire podcast episode on large group lighting to check out.  Basically it is a three light setup with two lights in silver umbrellas camera left and right and one main light in the front.
  5. Dress.  Going to have to know your group.  It may be super important to mom/grandma that the family be dressed up in some way and you will have to balance that with the whole be relaxed thing.  
    1. If looking coordinated with colors and clothes is important then advise everyone to avoid clothes with crazy prints/patterns and don’t do a lot of black or white as those colors tend to add pounds.
    2. Coordinate but not too “matchy”.  Don’t have the same shirt and pants for everyone.  We all look at those photos and think that is tacky and forced.
  6. Tight.  Shoot as tight as you can.
    1. Remember the whole relaxed tip here.  This is something you are going to need to try and figure out the best you can before you have everyone waiting on you.  You have to use a lens with a focal length wide enough to fit everyone in, but tight enough that there isn’t a ton of room on the side.
    2. Make sure you consider the print size.  Ask mom/grandma what size of print this is going to be.  This is SUPER important. If the print is going to be a 30×20 canvas, then that is perfect because most cameras have a native aspect ratio of 3×2 and the shot is going to exactly match the medium for printing.  That will even work well for a 4×6 Christmas card because that is just 2x the native aspect ratio. Matches perfectly. If 8×10 or 16×20 are the dimensions of the print, that doesn’t match things and usually you have to cut off some of the left and right edge of the photo so you will want to make sure to give yourself a little room so that you can crop it.
  7. Quantity.  Take lots of shots.
    1. Use a tripod so that every shot will be the same and you can use Photoshop to choose which face is the best from each person.

Listener Question

Thanks to so many listeners for sending in questions to answer in this episode. We had so many we are going to do Part 2 of this episode soon!

Question: Getting subject well lit and in focus with blurred Christmas lights behind them

Mara ‘Ostermeier’ Schack


  • Use as long a lens as you can fit in the space
  • Set the aperture as wide (low number like f/2.8 or f/1.8 if possible)
  • Set the shutter speed to no less than 2x the focal length
  • Use a tripod if possible, or image stabilization if hand-held
  • Have the people stand a little further from the Christmas lights closer to you. Try only including the waist up or even just the head and shoulders
  • Use bigger Christmas light bulbs, the little ones that tend to commonly go on Christmas trees this day will look really small in the photo


Jeff: Black Friday sale on the Create Photography Retreat.  20% off a ticket price that is normally the ridiculously low price of $497, bringing the cost of the ticket to $397.

Brent: Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8. Planning to rent this for my trip to AK in December. LensRentals is offering 30% off with code “LRBF19”



  1. Assign an adult to be “hair/makeup” for the kids which means wiping noses frequently and make funny faces to make kids stop crying.

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