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How to take great holiday-card photos

Ready for your Christmas close-up? Elizabeth Mayhew shares smart tips on how to get your family looking their best in pictures.
/ Source: TODAY

With the holiday season lurking just around the corner, it's time to get your family ready for the annual photo shoot. TODAY lifestyle expert Elizabeth Mayhew shares smart and simple instructions on how to ensure a great family photo:

It's that time of year when families across America are gearing up to send out their holiday cards. But gone are the days of the simple, sweet-messaged signed card — images of Dasher and Dancer have been replaced by family photos. Competition among parents to send out good-looking family photos is fierce. In some cases, families hire professional photographers with price tags topping as much as $2,500 for a one-hour shoot. And some families have planned far ahead and had their pictures done at the end of the summer, when everyone is sun-kissed and well-rested.

Well, if you aren't one of the fortunate few who hires a professional, or if you haven't been organized enough to tick the family photo off your to-do list, here are 10 tips to help you get the best results and put your photo head and shoulders above the rest.

10 top tips for tip-top holiday photos

1. Set the stageHave a plan before you drag everyone into frame. Make sure furniture is properly set up or front porch is swept. Set up furniture so family members are at different levels, i.e., one person is sitting, another standing, another kneeling.

2. Dress for successDon't wear crazy prints or patterns (they distract the eye) and avoid wearing white (it will make you look bigger than you are). If you are doing a full family photo, you will want to be coordinated but not too matchy. Choose clothes that are comfortable and neat. Have some idea of the color scheme for your final card as this will help dictate your clothing choices.

3. Reward happy smiles
Kids have a short attention span when it comes to photo taking — as does your family pet if you plan on having him in the shot. Make sure you have a treat to tempt them with after picture taking is over.

4. Light rightMake sure that any light source — whether indoors or out — is behind the photographer. That being said, it is preferable to shoot in daylight because the result will be softer and more natural. Avoid taking pictures mid-day when sun is the brightest. Plan on taking your photo either early in the day (I prefer this time because usually my kids are well-rested) or in the late afternoon. To avoid red eye, have your subjects look directly into a light source right before taking the picture. This will cause the pupils to shrink (some cameras have a little flash right before the actual flash goes off which accomplishes the same thing).

5. Get close and personalTight, simple graphic images without too much going on in the background make for an elegant photo. People want to see you and/or your family, not your recently redecorated living room.

6. Cut the cheeseYou want to avoid shots that are too posed. If you are not having a professional take your photo, ask a friend to take it for you. Chances are your friend can engage you and your family in a way that makes everyone feel comfortable and relaxed. If you are taking the picture of your kids, have a few jokes or stories in your pocket to elicit a laugh (this is much better than saying "cheese," which usually leads to a fake smile).

7. RelaxTo keep everyone's body relaxed, have something like a family pet to interact with or something to lean on. Hands should never dangle by your sides; fold them in front or behind your body.

8. Look your bestIf you are worried about your weight, wrinkles or double chin, have no fear — there are small adjustments you can make to look your best. To avoid the "10 pounds" the camera adds, don't face the camera head-on (this will make you look wide). Instead, turn your lower body to the side, then rotate your upper body slightly toward the camera (think of how the actresses stand on the red carpet).

If you are posing with the rest of your family, position yourself in the back so you appear smaller — remember that people closest to the camera will appear largest. To avoid the double chin, watch where the camera lens is — if it's at eye level or above then you are fine, but if it's below your eye level, then chances are you will look like you have several chins. Reposition yourself so you can tip your chin out more than usual.

9. Quality is found in quantityIt is likely that you will take 50 photos to get one that you like (even Richard Avedon had to take tons of pictures of Jackie O just to get that one special shot), but luckily for us, unlike Avedon we live in the digital age, so you can snap away without worrying about the enormous expense of film.

10. Watch for the unexpectedSometimes the best shot is when your subjects think you aren't snapping anymore. I like to position the camera away from my eye, but still directed at my kids and snap away. It's likely you will get your family at their most natural.