How to Take Better Christmas Card Photos This Year

family holiday photo styling

It’s the most popular time of year for family photo shoots since everyone wants a current photo for those yearly holiday cards. Since I’ve now had eight family photo shoots since my first son was born, I feel like I’m becoming a bit of an expert. I’ve learned a lot of what to do and what not to do when it comes to styling and preparing for family holiday photos. Every year our photo sessions get better and better (because every year I come bracing myself and prepared to avoid whatever crisis came up the previous year). Here’s a few ways that you can take better Christmas card photos:


Don’t get carried away with the location or props. Yeah, yeah, Pinterest is all abuzz this time of year with couples wrapped in string lights and jolly babies smiling in the snow. Be realistic about your family’s tolerance for new locations or shiny objects. Thinking about what you want and then getting realistic about how practical it would be to actually do it is the first step. Do you have kids? How many and what are their ages? You probably don’t want to go hiking into the mountains with three kids under three, for example. 

Plan ahead and choose a couple solid locations for your photos. Then, don’t forget to visit those locations ahead of time at the same time of day your shoot is scheduled. Personally, I like selecting places that are meaningful to you as a couple or family. We’ve done photo shoots at home, at the park where my husband and I had our first date, where we used to hike every weekend before we had a baby, and one of our son’s favorite places to visit. If your favorite place is visually appealing, all the better! When in doubt, pick a park or other open, outdoor area (weather permitting). Don’t be afraid to ask your photographer to visit the location ahead of time to make sure that they’re familiar with the setting and so that they’ll have good spots scouted out ahead of time. Your kids aren’t likely going to give you a lot of leeway when it comes to patience and time on the day of the shoot, so figure out ways to get in and out as quickly as possible.

Pick a date at least a couple of weeks in advance so you can prepare your appearance. Did you overeat on the Halloween candy or Thanksgiving dinner? You have a couple of weeks to get in a few extra workouts. Need a haircut? You have time. Get a manicure—I always forget how much you end up seeing our hands, especially as the mom who is often holding the baby or kiddo. Make sure you leave time to prepare the grownups as well as the kids.

IMMEDIATELY start gathering any props you want to bring your vision to life. This might be as elaborate as a Christmas tree or as simple as a scarf. Just start thinking about what you want to use and gather it up in case you have trouble finding something and need to come up with a plan B.

Remember that your kids are just kids. They aren’t professionals, or even grownups. So pick the time of day that they are in the best mood. For us, it is the morning. We’ve always shot around 10:00 AM until lunchtime, and it works perfectly. For others, it might be after nap time. Whatever it is that works best for your kids, you’re best off working around their schedule—not everyone else’s. Because if they are going to have a meltdown or be uncooperative, it will be the day you have a photo shoot scheduled. But remember, meltdowns can often make for some unexpectedly great photos, so just go with it.

Bribes are OK. You’re likely paying a photographer or enlisting a favor from a friend to get these photos done, and you need everyone on their best behavior. No one is happy when they’re hungry, and kids (and husbands) love a good snack that they don’t get to indulge in that often. Have them on hand, along with water (no colored juices—stains!)   on hand just in case, but try to make sure your kids have had a meal not too long before your shoot.

Dress appropriately for the weather. If it is cold, wear sweaters and coats—they make for great photos, especially for holiday cards. But if you’re like me, living in LA where it is still eighty degrees some days, you’re going to have to do sweater photos indoors or just embrace the weather you’re in. Overheated (or freezing) family members don’t make for happy photos.

Find a good photographer and stick with them through the years. I cannot tell you how important it is to have your family documented by a professional who knows what they are doing and can deliver beautiful photos that you’ll always treasure. We’ve been lucky enough to be photographed by the same photographer, who was also our wedding photographer. We have a wonderful relationship, and each time we have a photo shoot it is easier than the last because we’ve done it before. And whether I feel pretty that day or the kids are cooperating, I always trust her to deliver stunning photos. 

Coordinate your wardrobe but don’t go crazy on the matchy-matchy. There is a fine line between looking like you’re a cohesive family and looking like you went to Target and bought every piece of plaid-anything they stock. Selecting complementary patterns or colors (think varying shades of the same color) is a great way to go. You do not have to match. In fact, it looks better when you don’t. Bring a change of clothes if you want more than one look, or in case you get muddy, have a potty accident, etc. And always bring a couple of accessories like hats or scarves (we always throw a hat on one of our kids, and it is so adorable). And a pop of color is a must! 

Relax and just have fun. Ha! It’s easier said than done, right? But this is probably the most important thing to try to do, because if you’re pissed off or stressed out, no amount of smizing is going to hide it. The best photos are the candid ones of you being a family, rather than the posed ones. Get some of those too, but try to just relax, play, and be yourselves. Try not to focus on what you want the result to be and just enjoy the experience. You’ll get the best (and most honest and real) photos that way.

Photo by Jennifer Roper courtesy of Oh Lovely Day

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