Holiday Portrait Tips (Part 2)

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon1 Comment

Question 1: How Do I Pose People In Holiday Portraits?

Below are real questions from podcast listeners that were submitted to our Facebook group. Do any of these questions about posing sound familiar?

Scott Jeffcote: Tips for dealing with small kids that don’t want to be a part of the shoot and won’t smile etc

Josh Austin: How to deal with parents who know their kid was a turd for the whole shoot but they still complain when they are not posed well in the final images? Or complain that they didn’t get as many final images as they wanted. Do you send images that are not great just because they are all you have? (I love kids but man I hate taking photos of them)

Stefanie Adams: I love the pictures when everyone is looking natural and not looking at the camera, how do you stage this?

Answer: Posing is tough. For many it is harder than any of the technical aspects of photography. Like everything else related to photography it really takes time and experience to get it down. Planning the shoot is key. If the holiday portrait is with a family, understanding the size of the group and if there are kids involved is a must. Setting the expectation with the parents that their only job is to look at the camera and be good like they are wanting their kids to do is essential. You can talk to mom about having people be comfortable in their clothes is going to create better photos than having everyone in matching formal clothing.

Some kids are incredibly shy and that can make it hard. My niece takes some time to warm up to me every time I see her. I see here every couple of weeks but she still hides behind her mom whenever she sees me. Knowing that before doing a photo shoot so that you can be prepared for gives you a much better chance for success. Ask about their favorite treat and asking mom and dad not to give it to them before the shoot so that it can be a good reward and bribe during the shoot. Slap-stick comedy never fails. I am terrible at it but it works not only with the kids but with mom and dad.

One of the things Jeff does with his clients to help them feel happy with the photos they are getting from a paid shoot even when they have seen the kid not be very cooperative is involve them in the culling process. There are a lot of photographers who disagree with this, but he gives the client EVERY image that is not technically or obviously bad. He throws away the exposure test shots, the blurry shots, or the shots where there are closed eyes or other really obvious problems. The client get proofing versions for all the rest of the photos and his clients really love being involved in choosing which they want to be edited. His clients ALLWAYS choose images he never would have.

Getting “natural” photos mostly comes down to making everyone feel comfortable in an very uncomfortable situation. There isn’t a single approach to this, every group is going to need different things to make them feel comfortable. Being silly can get it done. Being fast is another thing that usually helps, people get more stiff and unnatural the longer the shoot goes on. You can try asking to have people in the group get people comfortable by asking the older people in the group to tell some kind of story to the group and taking shots while that is going on. You could break out toys for the kids to play for a few minutes.

The photographers who figure posing out are the ones who excel with portrait photography. Nail this and you get clients for life. If the person paying for the photos has a good experience, they will be back. If you want to make money doing portrait photography you should never stop studying posing techniques. This is more important than any of the technical aspects of photography or the gear you have. Your clients are expecting you to tell them how they should pose in the photo to look good. Here are a few of resources to check out:

Question 2: How Can I Politely Decline Doing the Holiday Shoot?

We all have our limits with photography and sometimes you just want to have a break. Do these questions from our listeners resonate with you?

David Richard Leadingham: I would also address how to politely bail out of doing it. Whole I love taking pictures, I hate when there’s a family gathering and someone always inevitably says, “hey Dave, can you bring your camera?”.

Usually my “batteries need to be charged”. Lol

Michelle Leigh: exactly! Or family and/or friends who ask for a shoot and then request the raw files to edit the images themselves

Answer: It’s nice just to know you aren’t alone in this right? Everyone needs a break from their profession, especially at holiday gatherings. If you weren’t hired to shoot the event, totally reasonable to want to take the night off and relax like everyone else. Best thing to do is be honest. Let everyone know you aren’t up to it and they should understand.

Jeff and Brent haven’t head anyone really ask for raw files, most of them don’t know how to deal with them or even to ask for them. If expectations were clear up front as part of a shoot that the client is hiring you create the images and then provide them the raw files, then you need to figure out if that is something you want to do. For us, wouldn’t be too big a deal if that expectation is clear, but if you don’t want to share the raw files then have that discussion up front.

Question 3: How Do You Get a Good Background and Setup Lighting For Holiday Photos?

If you are up to shooting the holiday gathering, finding a good background and having good lighting are pretty important. Just like it is with any portraits you do indoors, which is most likely what you need to do here if it is pretty cold outside. Check out what our listeners asked us.

Nelson Tapias: If the clients home is not an option and you don’t have a studio, how do you find indoor locations to shoot in?

I’ve seen this come up quite a bit as the weather gets cooler. I know every city would be different but perhaps there’s a good general strategy.

Dan Leamons: Ideas for shooting holiday themed sessions when you don’t have backdrops or a really great holiday location or props.

Kevin Mallick: I second this, I’m lucky to have tons of space, but no everyone has backdrops, space, and it’s really cold and wet outside so lots of people aren’t up for outdoor portraits.

Declan Flynn: Any tips for using those printed photo backdrops? Those 10×10 photos of a Christmas scene that kids and family sit in front of. Some photographers use them and they look great, many use them and they look fake.

Juules DuPrey: How to get proper lighting on the people and being able to have the nice Christmas light glow vibe.

Nonato Nonnie Ramirez: Indoor family room picture ideas with the tree. And how to light it successfully.

Answer: Shooting outside in the holiday season in the United States can be hard because it is cold enough in most places that it isn’t ideal. Faces turn red. It is uncomfortable. You aren’t likely to create images where people actually look comfortable and happy. You probably need to figure out how to get the group indoors for the shoot and if you don’t have a studio that can be tough.

One of the best places might be the home of your client. Most people have a lot of props to use for these kinds of shoots. Big Christmas Trees and other decorations are put up in a lot of homes during the holidays and they can make incredible backgrounds for holiday photo shoots. They may be cramped, those decorations can take up a lot of the space in their home, so you might consider doing a composite where you take a photo of the home with their decorations without the people in one shot and then take another shot of the people with good lighting and put them together.

You could also look at hotels, community colleges, churches, or neighborhood lodges. Reach out to your connections to see where other photographers in your area are going for this, something like a community Facebook group might really help. Add the fee it might take to get in the space to shoot into the cost of the shoot and let the client know that is part of the shoot. If it is too much for the client, don’t do the shoot.

For sure you can’t meet up with a client and then think you are going to find a spot. You need to figure this out before the shoot so that you don’t waste time and get people grumpy.

Think about some other options to make a little different holiday feel for photos using accent lighting. Put a gel on a flash, maybe red and green gels, and use those to create a different background that has a holiday feel. If you want to do this the best background to make those colors show up on the background is light gray. White reflects too much of the light and doesn’t make the color pop. Black doesn’t reflect the light at all. Light gray is the very best color to use for flash gel colors to show up.

You also want to make sure the models are standing a little bit away from the background. You want some of the highlights on the models to show the colors were there so that it looks like they are in the photo, but you don’t want them so close that the colors will be reflected in their skin. Three or more feet away from the background really helps.

As a last option, those 10×10 fake backgrounds can work. Especially if you want to do “mini” sessions where you take holiday photos for a large number of groups over a couple of hours. To make those backgrounds not look like they are fake in the photo you need to blur that background and you have to make sure the models don’t cast any shadows on the background. Get those models a few feet away from the background helps with both of these things, which means that 10×10 background is going to be tough to use if the group is more than about three or four people. Use a wide aperture (small number like f/2.8 or f/1.8) to have your camera setup with the smallest depth of field possible. You can also have the lights be a little more overhead pointed down towards the models so that their shadows don’t end up on the background.

Finally, balancing the flash with the ambient light is more critical than normal. You want those lights on the Christmas tree to show up really well in the photo, that is a good portion of what makes that feel magical. If you can have the models further away from the background then lighting them can be pretty different from what the light is on the background. Get your camera setup to shoot the background the way you want it first then add the models and the flash to the photo so that it looks the way you want.

Lighting modifiers really helps with this too. It makes the light from the flashes really soft and wrap around the models, allowing you to get that light really close to the models so that it is hitting them and not the background.

Question 4: How To Set White Balance For Holiday Photos?

An important question to answer for any portrait shoot you will do, but we have all seen photos from the eighties that look a horrible shade of yellow because the white balance is not good. Check out what our listeners were wondering about.

Barbara Butler-Conard: Tips for photographing indoors in general, my photos always seem to be a bit yellow. It’s embarrassing when a relative captures a better photo with their iPhone.

Katie Nakayama McCartney: Shooting indoors with mixed lighting! There’s window light, overhead light (which needs to be turned off, I learned), lamps, kitchen light, Christmas lights… And getting rid of distractions in a small space!

Randy Gemar: How best to take the family photo outside with snow ❄️

Answer: With all the mixed lighting situations you are likely to face in holiday photos that can be a little harder than normal. It is hard these days because a lot of competition is coming from iPhones and other smartphones. The thing to focus on here is that we don’t really care what the ambient light looks like for the most part, what we care about here is making the skin of the models looking right.

One of the things that can help is a white balance card you can include in the photo. It can really help when you are setting white balance in post to have that card in the first photo you shoot. You can have your camera use the information to set a custom white balance but we recommend just shooting the card in the first photo really quickly and then moving on. Don’t keep those models waiting or they get grumpy.

Have one of the models hold the white balance card parallel and very near their face. Just below their chin is great, just make sure their face is not casting a shadow on the card. That card needs to be reflecting the same light that the skin will be in the photo. It is incredibly easy in post to pull up that first photo you spent 5 seconds shooting, using the eye dropper to set white balance and then copying that white balance setting and pasting it on all the rest of the photos.

If you don’t have a white balance card you can use light gray or off white colors in clothing. I have even used teeth to help set white balance. It just a little easier to use that card as the eye dropper source because it will be the gray that the white balance setting is trying to achieve.

The other suggestion I have here is to NOT use auto white balance in these shoots. There are too many things you camera could be looking at from shot to shot that could change how each is having the white balance set to and it makes it harder to copy and paste the white balance settings in post. Turn off white balance, take one shot with the white balance card at the very beginning of the shoot, and then fire away. If your lighting changes significantly, like moving to a new location, then shoot that card again.

Final suggestion here is to use spot metering. I like spot for all of my shooting, but this is especially important in a snowy scene. Your camera will not meter correctly if there is a lot of bright snow it is trying to meter from. Using spot metering allows you to meter from the skin and have the camera ignore that super bright snow that is surrounding the model. Remember too that with most Canon cameras that spot metering happens from the center no matter where your focus point is set to be. There are some cameras that allow metering to follow focus but most Canon cameras do not support that and you need to meter from the middle.

Question 5: How To Deal With Extended Families Wanting Individual Family Photos?

If you have never done an extended family photo shoot that you may not know that most of the time those families are expecting not only the large group shot but ALSO shots of all the individual families. Even though the client won’t think much of it because you agreed to an hour long shoot but that can add up to a whole lot more post-processing work than you were expecting. Check out what our listener had to say.

Breanna Miller: Dealing with the financial part of a family session. I keep getting clients trying to add their extended family in their sessions. I resorted to charging a regular family session plus 50% of an additional family session for each extended “family”.

Answer: This has happened to me in pretty much every extended family shoot I have ever done. This is where it is super critical again to have the pre-shoot expectations discussion with the family. Ask them if they want more than just the large group photo. If they do, let them know how much it costs for photos of each individual family in addition to the large group. If that is too much let them know that you are happy to do the large group shot then but you won’t be doing individual families unless they are willing to pay for that.

Question 6: How To Make Your Own Family Take Holiday Photos Seriously?

You may be the only one who wants to have a good holiday family photo. Does Janet’s question seem familiar?

Janet Schill: How do you get your own family to take the family portrait serious?

Answer: Again comes down to setting expectations. Before the holiday party with your family let them know that creating a really good family photo during the holiday party is important to you or to mom or grandma so that they are prepared for that. They still may be a little grumpy but if they know about it you have a much better shot at having them take things more seriously.

You may also want to change venue. Go to a different building to do that shoot or at least a different room. You can have things setup in this different location ahead of time and be ready to get that photo as fast as possible but having them go there to take the photo makes people take it more seriously.


Jeff:  ($250 + $55 for 150 messages – $0.37 per message)

Brent: Hiking Guide Book (Death Valley)



  1. I was listening to Jeff when he said he allows his clients to go through the photos to choose the best ones. That’s actually not a crazy idea. I used to work at a headshot studio and we would do an hour session with the clients because we would do other poses, go outside, etc to give them more variety. Once that was done they would sit down in front of the large TV screen we had. In the meantime, while they waited, we would quickly go through all of the images and get rid of any that were test shots, eyes closed, unflattering, etc so they would only see the ones we were ok with. Then we would pull them up in Lightroom and narrow them down together with the client. That way they saw all the photos and chose the ones they were happy with. It worked out really well to do it that way. Plus we helped them see why one photo was a stronger image than another because they don’t always know or see things the way we as photographer’s do. They really appreciated that. We would get payment that very day and have the photos back to them within the week. When we used to send them a link, it would take people forever to get to it and the excitement of the photos wasn’t as strong after so much time passed and they would often select fewer images to purchase if we let them do it that way. Just another way to do things that may not work for everyone but it worked great for us.

Leave a Comment