You know the feeling: You’re browsing beautiful card designs for this year’s holiday card, imagining your smiling family front and center. But actually getting your family together for said photo—and getting a good photo out of them—is never easy. There are schedules to coordinate, outfits to plan, teenagers to appease, and finding someone who knows how to work a camera (or racing against your camera’s self-timer).
Breathe easy, holiday card aficionados! We interviewed San Francisco-based kids photographer Sarah Hebenstreit of Modern Kids Co. to get the scoop on how to take the perfect family photo. And she knows what she’s talking about: she photographs Minted’s founder and CEO Mariam Naficy’s holiday card photo every year! We have her best tips on getting beautiful family pictures for your holiday cards—and to treasure for years to come.
If you’re choosing a professional photographer, make sure they enjoy photographing kids. Comb through holiday cards you’ve received and pull a couple of favorites, then ask your friends who their photographer was. “Word of mouth really is the best recommendation,” says Sarah.
Not looking to hire a pro? Instagram makes it easy to figure out which of your friends and family members have “the eye”—and it won’t cost you a thing (but throwing in some seasonal sweets wouldn’t hurt).
“For more intimate family portraits, I like shooting at the family’s home,” Sarah says. “But for holiday cards, an outdoor location will give you more options.”
During a family portrait session, Sarah likes photographing everyone participating in activities together. “I’m based in San Francisco, so we might start out at the Ferry Building and get some macarons at Miette, before heading out to one of the city’s black-sand beaches,” she says. Even a simple activity like going out for ice cream will help everyone feel more relaxed in front of the camera.
If you’re planning to use a family photo for your holiday cards, we recommend choosing three or four favorite card designs—and keep their layouts and orientation in mind when taking portrait photos, so your favorite photo will actually work with your favorite card design.
“I’ll know to shoot more horizontal or vertical options, depending on the design,” Sarah says. “And if the card has typography up top, then I’ll be sure to frame shots with enough room to accommodate the type.”
To avoid a holiday-card scramble, schedule a family photo shoot with a photographer by mid- to late-October. “Think of Halloween as your absolute deadline,” says Sarah. “This will give you enough time to get the images back from your photographer and place your holiday card order with plenty of time to spare.”
If your family is a bit more spread out, think strategically about when you’ll all be together: maybe at the wedding of a close friend or relative, or maybe you have to wait until Thanksgiving. Timing will be tight, but if you have your holiday card design and your recipient address book all ready to go, you can pull it off!
Sarah advises dressing your kids in outfits that make them feel happy and comfortable. “Dress the girls first, since they tend to have more clothing options,” she says, “then choose everyone else’s outfits to coordinate with theirs.” Stick to mid-range colors, like soft pastels and gray, and avoid high-contrast outfits and cotton clothing in black, which tends not to photograph well.
If you’re shooting outdoors, don’t forget to coordinate your outerwear! “We’ll be able to get more shots since we won’t have to wait for everyone to put on or take off their jackets,” says Sarah.
Try not to bring too many belongings to the shoot. “I won’t be able to get as many candid shots if you’re holding your purse in most of the shots,” Sarah says. “Since you won’t want your bag or stroller in the picture, it’s best if you just leave them at home.”
For kids aged three and under, opt for a morning shoot—think 8 - 10 a.m. “They’re usually happier in the morning, right after they’ve eaten breakfast,” Sarah says.
Older kids will do well in the late afternoon. “And if you can catch the sun setting, the lighting will be incredible,” she says.
But if a mid-day shoot is the only option, then it’s a better idea to shoot indoors since the sun will be directly overhead, which is not ideal for photos. Ultimately, you know your kids and family best, so pick the time that will have everyone in the most smiling mood.
The key to getting amazing family photos? Relax and have fun. “I always encourage silliness during shoots,” says Sarah. “I actually want the kids to make goofy faces, because chances are they’ll flash a real, genuine smile right after their silly face, which is perfect for me.”