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How to Take Better Pictures of Your Family This Holiday Season

With people getting together again, here are 5 hints to help make lasting memories

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More families plan to gather for the holidays this year, a big change from last Thanksgiving, when gatherings were discouraged.

Beyond the joyful reunions and memories made around the dinner table, for many of us this will be a great opportunity to create updated family photos. It’s been too long.

The good news is that over the past two years smartphones have gotten even better at producing seemingly foolproof photos.

Are your images too dark or too light? Do you have photos that look like they’ve been torched by a gas lamp because the flash was too strong, or are your images fuzzy and out of focus? All now are unlikely to happen, thanks to software tricks, especially on late model iPhones, Samsung Galaxy or Google Pixel phones.

That said, human error can still get in the way. So here are five tips to help you get memorable family photos to pass down from generation to generation.

1. Appoint a director

Big gatherings create competition for your time.

Some folks are dealing with the food. Others are involved in what’s on TV. Somebody needs to take charge and make sure the photos get done, either before mealtime or after.

Pro tip: If you can set a time before eating, you’ll probably have better attention from the family members along with good afternoon light where everyone will look better.

2. Place the camera at eye level

To get everyone in the group shot, you won’t have any extra hands to take the photo. Luckily, software comes to the rescue. You can use the timer on your smartphone to take the photo using the selfie camera. With the visible screen, everybody will be able to crowd together to fit in the frame. 

What you’ll need:

• A tripod and adapter. A tabletop tripod is great, and you can pick one up at your local big box store for $30 to $40. You’ll also need an adapter to fit the smartphone atop the tripod. Many tripods come with the adapter included.

• Or a stack of books. If you forgot the tripod, you can lean the camera against a stack of books or something else to keep it upright and steady.

The trick is to make sure the camera is at eye level. If it’s looking up at you and your family, you’ll be shooting into noses and exposing giant necks that nobody is going to like.

Preferred method: Stack a bunch of books on the table, as high as they can go until you reach the eye level of most people, including the tripod on top of the stack. Or just stack a whole bunch of books for the no-tripod technique.

Next, turn on your phone's timer to start your group selfie countdown.

On iPhones, open the Camera app, choose Photo and tap the up arrow at the top middle of the screen. You'll see five or six icons, depending on your iPhone model, directly above the white shutter button. The timer, a clock icon with a portion of the circle missing, is on the right, sometimes the far right. Touch that icon and set it to 10 seconds.

On Androids, the timer is easier to find. On most Samsung Galaxy phones, just open the Camera app, and a similar clock icon directly atop the screen. It offers settings for 2, 5 or 10 seconds.

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3. Use chairs. They're your best friends

The biggest problem with photos of large families is getting everyone into the picture. If it’s just four of you, it’s easy. If the brood has grown, it’s a challenge, especially when you don’t have a photographer helping you.

But let’s assume that a family member will be acting as the holiday photographer. The tendency is to make two rows with the shortest people in front and the tall ones behind. That’s good in theory. But people in the back tend to get hidden, and you won’t see their faces.

This is where chairs make a difference. They can let you make rows and the people behind can crowd around the seated folks.

Pro tip: Give grandparents or other VIPs the chairs, and let the kids stand behind them. Because you’ll have the smartphone screen and the timer counting down the seconds, everybody will be able to get into position and confirm that they’re in the frame — and at eye level with the camera.

Robin and Natalie Cayetano

Courtesy Jefferson Graham

4. Watch your windows

As good as the new smartphone cameras are, they can’t always compensate for the way light streams through windows. When you photograph someone in front of a window, the camera tends to expose for the brightness of the window instead of the subject. That turns them into silhouettes.

On the other hand, the best lighting you’ll find for your get-together will come from a window — soft, even light that will make everyone look great, without any shadows on their faces. But that can happen only if they stand facing the window.

Pro tip: Try to take the shot with as little clutter in the background as possible. That way, you can focus attention on the faces, not the mess on the kitchen table.

For instance, in this mother-and-daughter photo of Robin and Natalie Cayetano, we positioned them so they were angled with much of a blank wall behind them, making for a less cluttered image.

5. Go outside to catch some sunlight

Sometimes you don’t have access to window light inside and your available interior overhead light is harsh and unflattering. Solution: Go outside if you can, even if it’s just to pose by the door, to get the available light on your faces.

When you're outside, open shade can produce the same soft, even light that you get from a window.

But if you stand in direct sun, it will produce harsh shadows on your faces, especially in the eyes. Try to have the sun behind you, not facing you, and everyone will be able to see all your faces without shadows.

Cayetano family photo on their porch

Courtesy Jefferson Graham

For this family shot of the Cayetano family, they posed on a seat on their front porch, in the shade. A loving family is one that sits together, right?

Three of the family members fit on the seat while Natalie sat on the arm. She appears to be a little taller than her dad, but she probably wouldn’t complain. Dog Wes is in the shot, too, and there is a secret to getting animals to participate. Just take lots and lots and lots of photos, because odds are the pet will be looking up for at least one of them.

Jefferson Graham is a contributing writer/photographer who covers personal technology and previously was a technology columnist for USA TODAY. He hosts the Photowalks travel photography series on YouTube and is the author of Video Nation: A DIY Guide to Planning, Sharing and Shooting Great Video. 

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