Don't sweat your family Christmas card picture

I'll be the first to admit that a professional family photo shoot can turn me into a fire-breathing dragon.

It's just so fraught with tension.

Before the camera clicks, I feel like I've already jumped through a dozen hoops: negotiating the shoot with my husband (the prospect, the price), choosing a date and then checking the ever-changing forecast 100 times, styling the five of us and pressing our clothing, taming the curly hair, ensuring proper food and sleep for the littles.

I'm exhausted before the first picture. 

Once it's go-time, I'm like Jane and Archie represents the rest of the family.

 Cornered. Unwilling. Unhappy. 

I've talked to other moms who have an equally miserable experience. Throughout the course of a photo shoot, they wind up dropping threats and bribes and F-bombs -- all while feigning familial bliss, to nab a picture that will be framed with a Shutterfly slogan like "It's a wonderful life" or "Peace on earth." 

There is no peace in that corner of the earth where Mom is sweating, Dad is cussing, Toddler is screaming and Preschooler is losing all respect for the adult who brought this on.

Sure, you'll end up with a good-enough photo to use for Christmas card.  

But the shoot can take a toll on your family. And the pictures won't trigger good memories down the road. You'll look at them and remember the torture and torment -- the exact opposite of what professional family photos are intended to convey.


A new approach 

I've endured enough difficult photo shoots over the years to recognize this. And I'm finally -- FINALLY -- learning that there is another way. 

This has come with time and perspective, as I sink more deeply into my role as a mom.

But you might be surprised by another helpful factor that has helped: perusing the professional cards on the major vendors' websites and in their catalogs. 

You would think they would be intimidating, unattainable. At first they were. 

Then I took a closer look and studied the pictures. And you know what I realized? 

They seldom achieve that elusive Mom goal of getting everyone to look in the same direction and smile at the camera. They do not even try. 

Sometimes you can't even see a person's entire face.

This -- this, you can do. 

The images are artistic, authentic and ATTAINABLE. (Other common traits: They take advantage of good natural lighting -- early morning or right before sunset is considered ideal -- and are often filtered, typically for lower color saturation.)

They feel like real moments. They provide an intimate glimpse into a family, as if we are peering through a window to witness a sweet little moment unfolding before us.  

That's the goal of a holiday card -- not to get the perfect picture but to capture your togetherness, to convey a feeling. 

So take a deep breath and let your children be. 

Here's an example of a beautiful Twin Cities family who did just that. They used this picture for their Christmas card last year and it stood out as one of my very favorites.

It's such a tender, natural moment.

Photo by Matt Olson 

The mama looks happy, in the moment. The dad looks proud and relaxed. And there's a story in the picture: a triumphant kindergartener showing his prowess and a little girl who is feeling special, having just been adorned with a Brown-Eyed Susan. 

It doesn't get better than that! 


Moment of truth

This past weekend, we were going to do a Christmas photo shoot, a prospect that had proved tricky because I was planning to sync it with snowfall. I was checking my weather app compulsively, watching the chance of snow go up and down and up again. Finally the photographer and I had settled on a time, which turned out to have, in the final hours, a 50 percent chance of snow.


At the last minute, the photographer had to cancel.

And I didn't freak out.  

Instead, I let everyone sleep in, made myself breakfast and read in the glider. Then I enlisted a friend who was already planning to visit to snap a few pictures for us.

I bundled up the kids in all their winter gear without feeling rushed. Not a cross word was uttered. I was relaxed, and so were the kids.

Then I pulled out our vintage toboggan (a $20 Craigslist find we jokingly call "Grandpappy's Magic Toboggan") and plopped it in our snow-covered backyard. 

The kids were all too delighted to pile in. I handed over my iPhone, and the picture taking began. 

It was painless. It was silly. It was -- dare I say? -- fun. 

We paused at a second backdrop (snow-covered evergreens) as we meandered down to the neighborhood pond.

Then we let the kids play.

Soon a snowball fight ensued, and the 1-year-old used his short stature to his advantage, proving to be the sneakiest. 

 Look at that innocent expression moments before he threw his snowball at Daddy! 

We took one more round of pictures and headed in when Jane had to go to the bathroom.

The rest of the day was leisurely. We went out to lunch, we sang Christmas songs and we headed back outside to play more. 

There was no need to recover from a traumatic photo shoot. It was actually one of those rare days where you feel on top of your game as a mom, seizing teaching moments and tapping into greater reserves of patience. 

And as to the pictures? They turned out great. 

For our Christmas card, we used a shot where we all happen to be looking at the camera, but knowing that wasn't the end-all-be-all goal took the pressure off and enabled us to get a number of winning shots. They serve as a happy memory of a snow day we enjoyed together.



Sample holiday cards courtesy of


 Christina Ries is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and three children (and fourth on the way!) in Inver Grove Heights. Read all her posts at