The Tips, Tricks, and Faux Pas of the Holiday Card, According to Professional Photographers

By Cathleen Freedman

Set in front of a dappled gray backdrop, the Prince and Princess of Wales’s latest family photo is the Christmas card seen ‘round the world. According to Vogue, this singular image is meant to convey that the Wales are seeking “normalcy” and that they have a down-to-earth parenting style. Social media was abuzz over the sudden departure from their usual outdoor setting, the black and white filter, and whether or not Prince Louis ring finger was Photoshopped.

Naturally, all of this postulating makes one wonder, “What will people say about my holiday card?” when it arrives in the post. While your mailing list may not be nearly as large as the Wales family’s, there is still a royal amount at stake when it comes to crafting your own holiday message. We asked professional photographers for their recommendations on getting the picture-perfect shot and we dissect everything that could go wrong when sending this seaon’s greetings. Keep reading to find out all of their tips, tricks, and even general holiday card pet peeves. . .

Q: I’m not a photographer, but I’ll be taking this year’s pictures. Any tips for how to improve an iPhone picture?

A: There’s no shame in taking your holiday pictures on your own phone. “Your iPhone camera is a great tool, and photographing your own family can actually put you at an advantage, as your subjects are already comfortable with you!” Photographer Anne Rhett confides. She suggests you thoroughly wipe the camera and invest in a tripod. 

And lastly, “Don’t use portrait mode,” Laura Saur of LCS Studio warns. With these tips in mind, you can fool even the most critical holiday card viewers (maybe even your mother-in-law) into thinking you had a professional photo shoot. 

Q: When and where should I have a family photo shoot?

A: Photography is all about light and where it comes from. Whether you take an image inside or outside, the amount of light you have is key. Laura Saur notes, “Morning light is best for indoor settings. When shooting outdoors, golden hour glow is best.”

“For shooting outside, I recommend taking photos in the morning or late afternoon when the light is coming from a lower and softer angle. If you have to shoot when the sun is high, find a shady spot to take the photo. For example, under a tree or covered porch,” Taylor Jewell continues. “For shooting inside, I always recommend using window light. Track when the light is brightest in the room you want to shoot in and use that light to your advantage. Always be sure the light is illuminating the subjects in a flattering way.”

Photographer Jami Saunders says she avoids midday sun and you should, too. The brighter the sun, the deeper the shadows. (And the squintier your kids’ eyes will be. . .) Alternatively, if you snap shots indoors, artificial ceiling light can cast unflattering shadows.

Keep your backdrop in mind. If shooting outside in the throes of winter, you might have bare, spindly trees inching into your photo—and there’s nothing holly or jolly about that.

The general consensus is loud and clear: sunrise and sunset call times provide the most optimal lighting. Jami Saunders concedes, though, “that’s not always feasible with most families’ schedules!” As is the best policy with most things, simply do the best you can with what you have.

Q: What should we wear?

A: Have you ever noticed how, for some families, the white shirt and jeans combination looks so easy and effortless? But for others, it seems forced and contrived? Jami Saunders has a theory: You can make anything work if it’s “you.”

“I am a big proponent of letting individuals dress themselves,” Anne Rhett confesses. “I think this reaps the most interesting sartorial results and puts the subjects at ease because they aren’t wearing something that doesn’t feel authentic.” Plus, everyone loves a matching holiday pajama set. Just make sure everyone is onboard—“the smiles will follow.”

As a rule of thumb, however, wearing layers and warm tones are always en vogue for a holiday card. In colder weather, layers add depth and texture to an image; so don’t hesitate to put on a sweater or scarf. Similarly, jewel tones match the season. Be careful with smaller prints like gingham that tend not to photograph well, according to Laura Saur. Floral is always flattering. Solids, though, tend to be more timeless.

Q: How do I get everyone to smile in a photo?

A: Jami Saunders advises you to do whatever it takes to make your subjects relax. In fact, your goal should be to make them forget they’re even taking posed photos and instead, remind them that they are simply getting to spend time with the people they love! It’s really all about framing in photography—both behind and in front of the camera. “They are marking this time with your photo shoot, not just the hour with you behind the camera, but more this time in their life,” she says. “You are giving them a gift they will have forever, as cheesy as it sounds, it’s true.”

Laura Saur shared a cute story from set where the grandparents chided the kids from behind the camera and said, “Don’t you dare smile!” The trick worked well, and the pictures turned out beautifully. Now when photographing children, Laura likes to say, “I bet you can’t smile big!” It often makes siblings try to outdo each other with the biggest smile. In this case, a little friendly sibling rivalry is good.

You can also set a convivial mood with a swinging holiday playlist and other good mood tunes, as per Anne Rhett’s recommendation.

And if your little one is rambunctious on set, keep clicking the shutter button. “When you hire a photographer, get someone who’s willing to put in the chase and wants to capture your kids in their element. It reveals a lot about the season of life that your child is in, and that’s what you should want photographed!” Laura Saur notes. “Embrace who your kids are and let them be them.”

Q: How should we pose for the photo?

A: “I have had people occasionally come to me with a list of ‘poses’ they want to do,” Jami Saunders shares. “I’m happy to glance over those, but I guarantee you that once everyone gets in the groove, you will cover all the ‘poses’ without even knowing it.” 

Don’t hesitate to stagger your levels with furniture, especially if you have a large group posing for the photo. 

Anne Rhett encourages home photographers to take plenty of pictures and keep the camera rolling. “Sometimes the best images are the one-offs before or after the ‘Say cheese!’ moment!”

Q: What are some poses to avoid?

A: “I don’t like everyone standing in a line, facing the camera, arms around the back,” Jami Saunders admits. “It looks like a college football game photo. Turn to the side. Touch the person next to you. Lean on them. Loop your arms together. Look at each other. Just keep moving. It will also give you options. Options are key during the post-edit.”

Q: I’ve decided I want to leave this to the professionals. When should I book an appointment?

A: Laura Saur recommends booking a photo shoot for October to early November. Taylor Jewell says you should plan ahead as soon as you can. You definitely don’t want to find yourself taking rushed pictures in the mid-December chill with little kids. They should be comfortable and in the best of spirits. Keep in mind that photo editing turnaround can take two weeks, and Christmas cards can take a few weeks to produce.

Anne Rhett also notes that your photographer would likely love to receive a card, too. “It always makes my day to get them in the mail from clients.”

Christmas Card Pet Peeves

1. Low Quality Pictures

You know the 21st century caption cliche: “Low Quality Pictures, High Quality Memories.” But your holiday card recipients would prefer a picture with definition. There’s no need to have a professional photo shoot every year, but if you’re going through the effort of printing a picture, make sure it’s worth the time and money you’re already investing. No pressure but some of your recipients may even keep your card on their kitchen counter or fireplace mantel through the holiday season. Jami Saunders advises, “Make it a picture they’d want to temporarily hang on their wall!”

2. Show Off The Whole Family

Many moms and dads believe that their Christmas card guest list only wants to see their adorable children. This is not true. “Your friends who receive your cards want to see you!” Jami Saunders confides. “They love you! Try to include at least one photo of you on your card.”

3. The Family Name

You’ve already done your photoshoot, and every image is flawless—there’s no candy cane stain or stray hair in sight. You’ve already built out your card, and you’ve checked your address list twice. Now, all you have left to do is type your sign-off.

“Merry Christmas From The Johnson. . .” Hm. Is it “The Johnsons” or “The Johnson’s?” 

Let us definitively tell youit’s “The Johnsons.” No apostrophe. If you consult any English teacher, they would gladly tell you this sign-off is making your family name plural, not possessive.

If your surname ends in ‘s,’ ‘x,’ ‘z,’ ‘ch,’ or ‘sh,’ then all you should do is add “es” to the end of your name. Again, no apostrophe necessary. You should write “Merry Christmas From The Finches” or “Happy New Year From The Joneses.”

4. Season’s Greetings, Happy New Year, and ‘Tis The Season

You’re now ready for the second grammar tidbit. Bring back the apostrophe for “Season’s Greetings.” (It isn’t “Seasons Greetings.”)

But put the apostrophe away for “Happy New Year.” It isn’t “Happy New Year’s.” But. . . If you write “New Year’s Day,” then you need that apostrophe.

Taylor Swift’s song has spread awareness for the phrase “‘Tis The Season,” which does have an apostrophe at the front.

With all of this information in mind, we wish you a happy holiday season—add us to your Christmas card list!