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How to take the perfect holiday portrait

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Add a few props, open the shutter and let the magic happen./Photo by Portrait Innovations, Mount Laurel Add a few props, open the shutter and let the magic happen./Photo by Portrait Innovations, Mount Laurel

The Yule Blog: Dec. 7: 18 days until Christmas

Improve your holiday photos with props and candid shots

If your family’s seasonal traditions include taking a holiday portrait, you probably have a stack of photos that all pretty much look the same. Rather than adding another stilted family photo to the pile this year, consider breaking out of the mold with a candid portrait instead, suggests statepoint.net.

Think for a moment about one of your favorite photos. Is it the one where everyone is posed, sitting properly with a perfect smile, all eyes on the camera? Or is it the one where you caught an unexpected laugh?

Candid photography is how you can truly capture the personality and spirit of your subjects, according to some professionals.

George Lange, author of “The Unforgettable Photograph: 228 Ideas, Tips, and Secrets for Taking the Best Pictures of Your Life,” says the secret to great photography is shooting what a moment feels like, rather than what it looks like.

Whether you are having a portrait done by a professional or taking it yourself, Lange said that by rethinking the way a family holiday portrait is shot, you can add depth and emotion to your family photo album this year.

Here are his tips for family photographers -- whether they are using a point-and-shoot, a top-end manual camera or a cellphone – to capture their loved ones in special and unique ways, courtesy of statepoint.net:

Be in the moment: Fight the nostalgic impulse to take a picture designed to memorialize the moment for future generations. Instead, be in the moment, shoot in the moment. Encourage inspiration by gathering your family in a place where everyday moments occur, such as the backyard or porch.

Ditch the zoom: Move your feet, bend your knees, get your pants dirty. Get low. Climb above. Get down to the eye-level of the subject. Don’t zoom the lens unless it’s completely necessary. Push your camera right into things.

See the light: Light is the photographer’s palette and toolbox, a kind of visual thesaurus that offers a thousand ways to portray the same scene or subject. Learn to play with it.

Feel the rhythm: There’s a natural rhythm to life. Outside the studio, every scene has its own rhythm, every place its beat. Listen for that. If you’re in sync and just a little bit lucky, the shutter will open at just the right beat.

Keep shooting: “Often I see people spending more time examining the shots they’ve just taken on their camera screen than taking more pictures. This is not productive,” said Lange. “You can’t predict when you’ll get a good shot in a sequence, and you certainly can’t see it on a tiny screen. Just keep shooting. No harm asking most subjects for a do-over -- and another. For kids it’s a game.”

Using props out of context can result in more interesting holiday portraits./Courtesy of George Lange Using props out of context can result in more interesting holiday portraits./Courtesy of George Lange  

Use objects out of context: Props often make portrait-taking easier by giving subjects something to relate to and play with, distracting them from the camera. Props taken out of context -- a dining chair on a lawn, even in a snowstorm -- immediately add interest and fun.

Nick Ameen of A-PIX Imagery of Egg Harbor Township said wardrobe, location, time of day and the number of people are among the many factors to consider when taking holiday portraits.

“If you're photographing a group of people, consider a color scheme. Coordinating outfits can turn an average family photo into an outstanding photo. Choose a few colors, then select the outfits around that theme. Jeans with white shirts has been done countless times; throw in some color and let your photo stand out,” he said.

Location is important because it provides the overall tone of the final image, according to Ameen.

“A public park is a nice option, but be mindful and choose your spot carefully so you don't get photobombed by passers-by. Weigh your options and decide what background best accompanies your unique family.”

He said the time of day you shoot your photos is crucial.

“A common misconception exists that a bright, sunny day is great for photos. Actually, sunny days, especially at high noon, create harsh shadows and make people squint a lot. Many photographers refer to dawn and dusk as the ‘golden hours.’ Lighting is warm and rich during these times, resulting in beautiful exposure,” Ameen said.

Location is important because it provides the overall tone of the final image./Nick Ameen, A-PIX Imagery, Egg Harbor Township Location is important because it provides the overall tone of the final image./Nick Ameen, A-PIX Imagery, Egg Harbor Township

If you're photographing a large group of people, he recommends using a wide-angle lens if you have one. Also, with families and group shots, be sure to shoot the same photo enough times -- dozens if necessary -- to get the perfect shot, where everyone is smiling and no one is blinking.

And this is one time child bribery is totally acceptable.

“A little candy persuasion goes a long way for cooperation,” Ameen said. “Just steer clear of the mess makers that can ruin those gorgeous smiles and outfits. Smarties are a great option.”

See more of Ameen’s photos at www.a-piximagery.com/.

Nikki Robinson of Marmora, a freelance photographer for The Current and Gazette newspapers, said choosing the right background is important. She advised people shooting portraits to choose an area with a neutral background.

“A cluttered space will cause a distraction in your photos and take focus away from the subjects,” she said.

Robinson said to use as much natural light as possible because the on-camera flash can be harsh.

YB portrait Chloe: Natural light yields the most flattering results./BH Photography, Delran YB portrait Chloe: Natural light yields the most flattering results./BH Photography, Delran

“Light from a large window for shooting indoors or late-afternoon sunlight for shooting outdoors will yield the most flattering results,” she said.

“Wear plain or coordinating clothing. Your family doesn’t have to go out and buy matching sweater sets, but similar colors will create a cohesive look. Avoid random company logos and bold lettering on shirts.”

Robinson urged amateur photographers let their creative instincts fly.

“Instead of standing all in a row, do something that will show everyone’s personality. Drape yourselves in Christmas lights, or take the photo while everyone is jumping in midair,” she said.

Most important of all, be sure to leave adequate space around the subjects in the frame, especially if you plan to make prints for frames or to send to friends and family, she said.

“All print sizes – like 4-by-6, 5-by-7 and 8-by-10 – crop out different areas of your photo,” Robinson said. “You don’t want to be disappointed when you get the perfect shot and have to cut off the top of somebody’s head or body part just to get the photo to fit into a print size.”

See Robinson’s work at www.NikkiRobinsonPhotography.com.

Santa and baby./Jen Marra Santa and baby./Jen Marra

Gazette staff photographer Jen Marra also prefers working with natural lighting for portraits if possible.

“The photo of the newborn with Santa Claus was in a room of windows, and no flash was needed. But flash is sometimes necessary too,” she said.  

Marra said that playing with the camera’s manual settings instead of letting the camera use the built-in light meter reading for the auto setting can result in better photos at times.

“When taking the portrait of Spike I manually set my camera with the shutter speed at 60, let the light meter set the aperture, used ISO 400 and used an external flash,” she said.

A little adjusting in Photoshop to touch up the photo helps as well, she noted.

For family portraits, props help the subjects have a little fun and relax into their normal state. This helps get a natural smile on everyone’s face.  

“The photo does not have to be of everyone sitting by the tree,” Marra said. “Grab some decorations. For a family of four it might be fun to have the parents on the outside and the children in the middle holding up wreaths, wearing fun Christmas hats and laughing at each other. Maybe a young couple would like to hold a piece of mistletoe above their heads and smile coyly at each other. I think the key to a good Christmas portrait is to have fun.”

Pet portraits can be a task, depending on how active the pet is, she said.

“Getting down and putting an arm around the pet is helpful. Having the owner or owners come down to the pet’s level fills out the photo frame better than if the owner is standing and the pet is at the owner's knees. If pet and owner are the same height you can zoom in for a close-up,” she said. “Small pets can be picked up and held.”  

A flash is helpful, especially with dark pets, to bring out the eyes; however, Marra prefers an external flash to the camera’s built-in flash.

“The built-in flash tends to turn pets’ eyes in to bright green lights,” she said.

Knowing the animal’s name helps get it to look at the camera; goofy noises or a clicker can grab a pet’s attention too. Treats and toys might work, but they also might draw the pet away from the family, according to Marra. 

She advises setting up the background, props and other subjects if there are any before bringing in the pet.

Spike in sleigh./Jen Marra Spike in sleigh./Jen Marra

“Get everyone settled in to position and have everyone smile at the camera, and then once you are ready to get the pet's attention have your finger ready on the shutter button. I would even recommend continuous shooting while getting the pet's attention,” she advised.

“Make sure everyone keeps smiling at the camera while trying to get the pet's attention. Having the family looking and smiling at their pet or pets could look nice as well,” Marra said. “And be quick!”

The Yule Blog is a day-to-day countdown to Christmas featuring a new story each day. Click the links below to read other stories in the series.

Nov. 29: Best shopping apps put you where the buys are.

Nov. 30: Small Business Saturday gives independent shops their turn to shine.

Dec. 1: Before there was 'Elf,' there was 'The Santaland Diaries.'

Dec. 2: Historic Smithville has plenty of old-fashioned Christmas spirit to go around

Dec. 3: Earth-friendly gifts help preserve the world's green assets.

Dec. 4: Great gift ideas for the cook

Dec. 5: Let Cape May kindle your Christmas spirit

Dec. 6: The worst and the weirdest Christmas films

Dec. 7: How to take the perfect holiday portrait

Dec. 8: Will South Jersey have a White Christmas in 2013?

Dec. 9: Don't risk a home fire this winter

Dec. 10: In the kitchen with grandma: How to make 6-layer Neapolitan cookies

Dec. 11: 12 (relatively) new songs for Christmas

Dec. 12: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 1

Dec. 13: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 2

Dec. 14: How to make Razzleberry Dressing

Dec. 15: Last-minute make-it gift: Peppermint Patty Martini

Dec. 16: Dennisville Christmas House Tour connects past and present

Dec. 17: Snow day survival guide

Dec. 18: Best all-time Christmas songs

Dec. 19: 5 handy gifts for the home baker

Dec. 20: Cookie swaps sweeten the holidays if you can avoid the jams

Dec. 21: When will Santa get here? Track his flight Christmas Eve with NORAD

DEc. 22: Presents for pets - and pet lovers

Dec. 23: Best children's books get to the heart of Christmas

Dec. 24: Feast of the 7 Fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition for many Italians

Dec. 25: People all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus

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