How to take good holiday photos without a professional photographer

Last year I had all our holiday cards printed and ready by the end of October.  This year, the time flew by, and ten days ago I hadn't even decided on a holiday card photo.  We like to splurge on gorgeous professional family photos every few years, but we didn't have the budget for it this year.  So I decided to take the photos of the kids myself.

Now, I'm a mediocre photographer at best: even with the best equipment in the world, I could never take photos like the professionals do. I did use a DSLR, but, it's the lowest of the Canon models (an EOS Rebel T3), it's 5 years old, and I used the kit lens that the camera came with (the one that all the photography blogs say to throw away because it sucks so badly).  To make matters worse, after a month of my badgering to pose for photos for our Disneyland visit, road trip, and various other product reviews, the kids had reached the end of their posing patience.  I had mid-quality equipment, low-level talent and little to no time... but somehow I ended up with gorgeous photos!  Here are some tips I came up with to help other DIY photographers achieve the same:

1) Give birth to gorgeous kids.  At the very least, have kids with above average looks.  But that isn't a problem, because since 100% of parents think their kids are above average!  :)

2) Work with what you have.  I wasn't hoping for professional quality photos, so I didn't even bother with setting up elaborate backdrops or scheduling a trip to the beach at dawn.  This year, I didn't even bother with grownups. Alfie rarely comes home before 6:30 PM, and it's pitch dark by then, but I didn't want to wait for the weekend. The only decent 2013 family photos that I found had all Homer Simpson, Krusty the Klown, or Despicable Me Minions in them, so I decided this year's holiday photo would feature the kids only.

3) The kids didn't want to change into their holiday outfits I didn't have the time or patience to force them The kids didn't have any holiday outfits to wear, so I decided to give the photos a holiday theme by having each kid hold up the chalkboard with a letter written on it to spell J-O-Y.  Here are other holiday word ideas I came up with:

  • for 3 people:  FA-LA-LA
  • for 2 or 4 people (if just 2, each person appears twice!):  HO-HO / H-O-H-O / X-M-A-S / 2-0-1-3 / L-O-V-E / N-O-E-L
  • for 5 people: P-E-A-C-E / -X-M-A-S-! / C-H-E-E-R / M-E-R-R-Y / P-A-S-K-O (for non-Filipinos, "Pasko" means "Christmas" in Tagalog)

Another advantage of using a collage of 3 photos versus a single photo of the 3 kids:  it's so much easier to get 1 kid looking perfect than it is to get all 3 looking halfway decent!

4) If you don't have a great camera, try to shoot in natural light (morning hours are best).  Look for a spot that doesn't throw any shadows on your kids' faces.

5)  To coax a genuine smile out of my kids, I had them sing the Alphabet Song.  This is my Top Number 1 Ultra Best Ever tip, and the only reason I haven't shared it before is because I just discovered it last week.  All those long "eee" sounds naturally stretch the mouth into a grin, and having to sing such a silly song got them smiling for real.

6) Take lots of photos.  LOTS.  The law of averages states that you'll end up with a decent photo sooner or later.  In my case, it's usually later -- but thanks to tips 1 thru 4 above, it only took me about 10 minutes till I had a few good shots to choose from.

7)  Use photo editing software to enhance your photo. My go-to editor is PicMonkey.  See what a difference just two steps ("Auto-Adjust" utility and "Urbane" filter) can make!

8) When cropping and arranging your photos, pay attention to detail.  Initially I had The Pea hold the "O", while 3Po held the "Y".  However, I realized that 3Po always held the chalkboard right underneath his face, while The Pea held the chalkboard slightly to her right.  When I put the photos together, the "O" was off-center (see photo below, top row).  It still looks nice, but was not acceptable to an OCD perfectionist like me. The  kids refused to do a retake, so it took less effort for me to digitally switch the "O" and the "Y".  The resulting collage looked much better (bottom row).

I'm quite pleased with the end result, if I do say so myself!

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