How to Not Hate Every Minute of Your Holiday Card Photo Shoot

I know that for many parents, getting family portraits taken can be extremely stressful. The outfits, the moaning and groaning, and the fact that your toddler always chooses that exact 20 minutes to have their biggest tantrum of the year. Add to that the social pressure of getting the “perfect” holiday card or Facebook cover photo, and you’ve got the makings of a nightmare.

I’d love to offer some tips and advice from my years of photography, my experience being a middle school teacher, and even being that child who has a meltdown the second the photographer whips out the camera.

Tip #1: It’s worth it.

I grew up before hiring a photographer was affordable or trendy. My father, being a passionate above-average amateur photographer, insisted on taking our family photo every year (of just us kids).

I can clearly remember the scene. Every. Single. Year. Fighting, literally screaming at each other, how long it seemed to take, having to wear stupid outfits that I hated. All of it.

But that one photo we miraculously captured each year? The ones that are framed and lining the main hallway? The ones that people oooh and aaah over, the ones that my siblings and I tear up over every time we visit, the ones that show the joy and progression of our entire lives? WORTH IT. Worth every ounce of investment, every roll of film, every bickering moment. Looking back, those were small prices to pay for my most cherished memories.

The photo above was our first holiday card photo (we lived in Florida, hence the summer look). {Photographer: Paul Weidel}

My first holiday card photo, 1984.

The photo above was one of our last holiday card photos before we all moved away from home. {Photographer: Paul Weidel}

Tip #2: Plan ahead.

Don’t try to plan your whole family’s outfits the night before. As soon as you book your session, start planning outfits and prepping your kids for the experience. The more you can do ahead of time, the more relaxed you’ll be the week of photos.

Which brings me to my next point…

Tip #3: Relax.

Easier said than done, I know. But when you are stressed out, running around, yelling, threatening, and overall dreading the experience, that is going to directly or subconsciously affect how your children feel about the photo shoot. Do whatever you can to relax and not stress out. Try to remember that the experience, as well as the result, should be a fun time. Try to have fun with it. Try to act like it’s your favorite thing ever. You don’t HAVE to do this. You GET to do this! Yay!

Tip #4: Explain the importance of the photos and decide who they are for!

Well ahead of the photo shoot, explain transparently why the photos are so important to you! Pull out some old family photos that you cherish from your childhood and show them to your children.

Another important way to prep kids for photos is to decide who the photos are for. Plan to give copies of the photos to Grandma or Uncle Bob for a holiday present. This will invest the kids even more. The day of the shoot you can remind them, “Smile big for Grandma!”

Tip #5: Give the kids some ownership.

By letting your kids pick components of their outfits for photos, you are giving them more of a stake in the photos. If you’re really worried about your 5-year old’s fashion sense, pre-select two outfits you approve of and let them pick which one they like best. The day of the shoot, consider letting them wear something special of yours, like a necklace or button.

Tip #6: Allow extra time. And extra time on top of that.

If you know doing your kid’s hair is going to be a tear-infused wrestling match, don’t do it right before you jet out the door to your photo shoot. Do it a couple hours ahead of time! Then plan a quiet, no-mess activity (hint: movie) before the shoot. This will give you extra time so you are less stressed, and won’t lead to upset kids right before the shoot. You can always do hair touch-ups right before you leave.

Plan to arrive WAY early to your shoot (15-30 minutes). You don’t want to be rushing to the shoot, which will add so much stress and lead to arguments. Plan to arrive obnoxiously early. This will give you time once you arrive to calm down from any pre-shoot tantrums, explore the park, and have some fun!

Tip #7: A good old-fashioned bribe.

Look, I’m all about intrinsic motivation. In fact, the school where I teach frowns upon stickers and extrinsic rewards. But this is too important. This is one of those times where it is WORTH providing a tangible incentive. A big one. I recommend doling out small incentives throughout the day (for getting ready, for the ride over, etc.). Have a big incentive planned for after the shoot (i.e. getting ice cream), and let them know about it ahead of time. This will help them associate the whole experience with something positive. It will probably save you some gray hairs, too.

Tip #8: Practice.

Practice smiles in the mirror and show them how you want them to smile. Kids go through phases at different ages where they give you a super fake smile when you ask them to take a picture. Show them in the mirror, or snap some photos with your cell phone to show them what kind of smiles you want. This works well for a lot of kids. Looking in a mirror can help them feel and see what a good smile is.

Tip #9: Make the day special.

If you have the means, go get your hair and nails done with the kids, or have a spa day at home! Do a fun and relaxing activity before the shoot, or plan to play at the playground after the shoot. Do what you can to make the day fun and special for your kids. This way it will be something they will look forward to- instead of dread- for next year.

Tip #10: Have fun with it.

Part of the joy of family photos can be looking back on the experience of taking the photos. Try to see this not as a photo shoot, but as a date with your family! You are taking your family on a walk through a beautiful park to see the fall colors! Tickle them, play with them, love on them. Try your hardest to relax and to truly have fun. It will show in the photos, it will loosen your kids up, and it will make a happy memory. Photos are supposed to be fun!

Fun holiday card photo!

That being said…

Tip #11: Tantrums are normal.

Do not panic if your child has a meltdown, fit, or tantrum right before or during our shoot. I assure you, it is the norm. It happens more often than it doesn’t happen. Instead of stressing, which will only make it worse, try to relax and do your best to calm them down and get focused on the incentive you’re offering, who you’re going to give the photo to, and how much fun we are all having! Remember to look at the camera and smile! That way when your child finally does smile, you won’t be fussing over them in the photo- you’ll all be looking at the camera and smiling!

Tip #12: Embrace the imperfect.

Your kids might cry. They might not look right at the camera. Try to embrace that. These photos are meant to capture your real family, their real personalities, and this very real stage in their life. Believe me, you’ll look back on some of those “imperfect” photos years from now and cherish them even more than the “perfect” ones. Some of the best family photos I’ve ever taken have been far from perfect.

Here is what would be considered an "imperfect" family photo. Two of the kids are not smiling. To me, this is an incredible photo that captures the personalities of the members and if I were these parents, this would have been my favorite photo from their session, smiles or not. {Photographer: Tracy Jane Weidel}

Again, imperfect. The mom and baby are not looking directly at the camera. I still think this is a beautiful moment and this photo is definitely a keeper. {Photographer: Tracy Jane Weidel}

I hope that I’ve brought some new insight that will help you have more fun with your family photos this year. Let me know if you have any questions, and I can’t wait to see you all at our mini session!

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