5 Steps to a Classic Holiday Card Photograph

We just finished our holiday card for this year, which turned out well enough. We did not necessarily intend this to be an annual project; we used to write handwritten letters instead of photo cards, but with kids in the picture, the time investment has become overwhelming. Besides, as photo card options have risen in quality and dropped in price, it's a bit irresistible, as a photographer, not to take part. 

While working on this small project, I noticed how opinionated I am about what does and does not make a good holiday card. I thought I would write down a few thoughts, to validate, inform, or bugger your own position on the subject. Enjoy!

1. Take Time for a Dedicated Holiday Photo

Instead of mining your annual photo archives, searching for a photo (or many) that might bend to serve the purpose, give yourselves and your friends the gift of a fresh, purpose-driven portrait of your clan. An image made specifically to suit the holiday season will feel just right and communicate something subtle but important that that photo from your July beach vacation just can't.

2. Include the Entire Family

This is a completely subjective, personal request. I want to see your whole family, not just your kids or your dog. I know, you have WAY more images of your kids than you have of yourselves... I get that. But you're sending these cards to people you rarely see, they're gonna hang these photos on their refrigerator or whatever, and they want to see you, their old friend, looking back at them. Include the rugrats if you must (and of course you must), but get the parental survivors in there too. 

3. Choose a Location Appropriate to the Holidays

Forgive me, but a holiday card should look holiday-ish. I don't want to see you at the beach (unless you live at the beach). If you live in a cold, Northern climate, I want to see you bundled up and looking cozy. If you live somewhere warm, you still know how to look festive, right?

4. Get Help

Maybe you can't afford to hire a professional photographer, or maybe you just don't want to, that's fine. But please, get some help. Use a tripod, or ask a friend to come along. Selfies have a strange, squished look to them, and photos taken on a timer tend to look a little jittery. 

I immensely appreciate the help of Maya's mom, Jackie, who is always willing to shoot under my direction. Not many people would bear that cross, God bless her.

5. Leave Room for a Message

While it's generally a good idea to crop portraits fairly close, you probably need room for some copy on this mission. You might not know whether that copy will go above or below your family, so ask the photographer to shoot a little wider, leaving some room above and below (or above, then below) your faces. As long as you have a variety of compositions, you'll be able to find something that fits on your favorite photo printing site.

Family Portrait Session - Shorewood Hills, Wisconsin

It is such a strange, blessed fall we're having. Last week, we sat comfortably on a pier, watching the sun go down on Lake Mendota, wearing only t-shirts. Something seems wrong about that, but I'm not complaining. I just feel lucky, and slightly worried that we'll have to pay for this mild weather, sooner or later.

Last year, it was pretty tough to get either of these kiddos to look my way, let alone smile or act naturally. But this year was completely different, which made this shoot incredibly fun and easy. This family feels so comfortable with themselves and I think that really comes through in the images. It smells like good parenting, but I'm no expert.

Autumn Family Portraits - Neshotah, WI

Where is Nashotah? It's next to Oconomowoc. Lake Country. Honestly, there's a lake around every-other bend in the road, and there are lots of bends. When you live on a cute little peninsula, staying home for your photo shoot is a no-brainer.

Extended family portrait sessions are a great excuse to get together. These boys were not too interested in posed family portraits, so we pulled the wagons out and played in the street. Playing in the street is cool! Everybody is doing it.

The adult-to-kiddo ratio was strong here, so I was able to sneak off with each couple for those portraits that are so easy to forget about once kids dominate family life. Personally, I think having a recent photo with your mate is pretty important, so I try to request it when nobody is pulling on my leg. 

Autumn Family Portrait Session at Olin Park

This kid is cool, probably because his parents are cool. Coolness is genetic. This dad is infamous in his family for being un-photogenic, but I didn't experience that at all. Funny how some people get that reputation, usually from some isolated photo were the camera caught them in in a momentary cross-eyed moment, but then they can think they look bad in pictures forever. I like to wipe that slate clean.

I love Olin Park for family photography sessions because there is such varied landscapes within a short walk. Lakeside, parkside, big oaks, forest, field, playground... it's all close at hand. And it's separate enough from residential areas that it's usually pretty quiet too. Recommended!

Newborn Photography Session - Madison, WI

There is nothing quite as classic and pure as a newborn baby. We had a huge house available with lots of big windows and beautiful natural light, and our best images were the simplest: tender compositions, simple backgrounds, intimacy and family. This baby was the most cooperative little model I've ever worked with, sleeping, waking, posing, and smiling as if reading my mind. A special morning.

Wedding Photos at Tiny Period Garden Park, Madison, WI

An intimate, nearby locale seemed appropriate for this small wedding party. After a ceremony at the Federal Courthouse off the square, these folks stopped for a drink, then sauntered over to tiny Period Garden Park, a favorite Madison treasure of mine. The Period Garden is hardly a secret (how can anything along E Gorham be a secret?), but it's so easy to drive or walk by it daily and not notice it. 

Newborn Photography Session at Taproot Farm, Ridgeway, WI

Taproot Farm farm sits atop a hillside clearing east of Ridgeway, WI, looking east toward a rolling valley of forested folds. I first visited Taproot with my brother, who is knows the owners. They had invited a bunch of folks out to help pick and press apples from their old orchard trees, a fun project with delicious results. We brought Sebastian, our newborn first child, out for the festivities and enjoyed a wonderful evening of food and good folks. When the owners asked if I would photograph their newborn baby boy, I jumped at the chance.

This boy must have been excited too, maybe that's why he didn't want to sleep. Mama really wanted to do some sleepy naked baby photos, but the kiddo wasn't having it. He was wide awake, super curious. So we sauntered around the property, up and down dirt roads, past the orchard and gardens, and generally had a nice time waiting for the babe to get sleepy. It didn't happen until the sun was just about gone, but right around sunset he finally close his eyes and we got a few precious shots in the grass.

Rebecca + Matt - A Wedding at Fitchburg's "Art in the Barn"

This wedding involved so many things I love, including:

1. Charismatic megafauna (horses, in this case)
2. Lots and lots of party lights
3. Food carts (yes, plural)
4. A beautiful, well-loved, well-lit old barn
5. Really nice people
6. Charcuterie (with pickles and some sort of amazing cherry preserves)
7. A good breeze

Feeling lucky. And hoping to get out to Art in the Barn again for a show this year. Check out their schedule for more info.

Garage Haircut

Maya cuts hair in the garage, just inside the huge rolling door. There's something so compelling about the relationship between the cutter and the sitter. Fast fingers, smooth combing, gleaming tandem shears flicking in the sunlight. The feeling of soft and sharp feelings hands and tools on my head is so luxurious. 

When I call Maya and hairdresser, she demurs. She has worked professionally in three states, but life got in the way of her every making a strong, consistent career run. She cuts every so often now, for friends and family. She stopped cutting my hair last year sometime, when I foolishly objected to doing it in the bathtub. But I got some "free haircut" coupons from her recently as a present, so maybe I can be back in the chair soon.  

Olbrich Gardens Family Portraits in Madison, Wisconsin

This shoot was scheduled for Labor Day weekend, but it turns out the Navy does not predictably schedule leave for its sailors. Which was okay with me, considering I'm not the one with a family member in some unknown location in the Pacific Ocean most of the time. That brings some perspective. Thank you, thank you a thousand times to those who serve and protect us all over the world.

Before our session, I got to visit the home and see the wonderful collection (and implied appreciation) of black and white prints this family has in their home. Beautiful work all over the walls, both in-house from dad and daughter and from friends and colleagues as well. And they asked ME to photograph their family... I felt that was quite a compliment. And a little bit of pressure, but that's a good kind. Nice making work for folks with a deep appreciation for photography as a medium.