1. Choose Your Setting
First things first: Before you start snapping away, you need to consider your scene. You can’t shoot a family portrait just anywhere.
If your camera is weak in dim light, consider shooting outdoors during daylight hours. If you live in the northern part of the USA, you’ll probably have some snow on the ground. Take advantage and get it in the shot. Likewise, you can profit from the Christmas lights strung all over your eaves. If they’re slightly out of focus behind the family, they’ll provide a soft, festive glow.
If, on the other hand, you have a powerful modern DSLR or mirrorless system camera, you can stay inside where it’s warm. Consider arraying family members around a crackling fireplace, the brightly lit Christmas tree, or the dinner table. Try to avoid strong backlighting, though. Under ideal circumstances it can lend shots an ethereal quality, but more often than not you’ll just get a blown-out background.
2. Improvise a Tripod
Even if you didn’t pack one for the trip home, you’re going to want something tripod-like so you can get in the shot with everyone else. Little-known fact: A tripod is just a platform you can set your camera on. And guess what? You’ve got plenty of those around your house.
Outside, you can use a railing, picnic table, or even a stump to frame up your shot. Inside, there should be tables and shelving galore. Books or used Christmas present boxes will do the trick to get the camera at the desired level.
Of course, you should be sure that your platform is nice and steady. We’d also recommend taking the strap off your camera for this operation—little kids and pets have a habit of grabbing onto them when you aren’t looking, and that could lead to an expensive repair bill.
3. Set a White Balance
Particularly when you’re shooting indoors, a good white balance is essential for good results. Ever notice how your shots inside tend to come out all yellowy-orange? That’s because pretty much all digital cameras struggle mightily with automatic white balance in tungsten/incandescent light. A little warmth can make shots look inviting; too much just makes you look jaundiced.
Luckily, most cameras offer an easy solution: manual white balance. Usually, you can access this setting by hitting the WB key on the back of your camera, or navigating to the white balance setting in the menu system.
Ideally, you’d want a dedicated grey card to take a reading, but nobody carries those around. In a pinch, you can use a white sheet of printer paper. Simply hold it close to the camera lens and follow your camera’s instructions on how to set a custom white balance.
Et voilà! Your family photos will be free of annoying color casts.
4. Test Your Exposure
Take a shot or two of the scene to make sure your camera is setting the exposure correctly. If possible, get a friend, grandma, or cousin to stand in the center of the scene so you can see not only how the room is exposed, but how your family’s faces and bodies will look.
If things are under- or overexposed (too dim or too bright), you may need to switch to manual mode to get the right results. Don’t worry, though… we’ve got you covered there. Check out our handy guides to shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
Most of the time, your camera should be able to focus properly on a group of people, all by itself. But autofocus algorithms aren’t perfect, and the little kids in your family probably have limited patience for re-shoots.
To make sure you get a sharp shot without a ton of trial and error, you can set your camera to focus manually. On a point-and-shoot, this will probably be a menu setting. On a DSLR or mirrorless system camera, you can probably flick a switch on the body or lens.
Next, set up any object (a present, a glass, a book… anything!) roughly where your family members will be standing. With that done, simply use your camera’s live view functionality to ensure the object is in focus. Take a test shot or two and zoom in to make sure you’ve got it right. (More advanced users can also take this opportunity to figure out the ideal depth of field for the shot.)
6. Set a Timer
Unless you happened to bring a wireless remote along, you’re going to want to make use of your camera’s self-timer function. This will let you get everyone—including yourself—properly positioned with time to spare. Most cameras offer 2- and 10-second timers by default, and some even let you set a custom delay of anywhere from 1 to 99 seconds.
If your camera has an intervalometer function, you can also use it to capture a series of shots over a set period of time—10 shots in a minute, 200 shots in 10 minutes, etc. With this technique, you can create a photobooth-style montage of varied poses for your family scapbook.
7. Make Sure No One Is Blinking
If you just want that one perfect shot, though, there’s one quick trick that can help you make sure you get it.
You’ve probably experienced the tragedy of a perfect shot ruined by one guy blinking, yawning, or otherwise failing to nail the ideal expression. You can head that issue off at the pass: Simply ask everyone to close their eyes until just before the shutter fires, then open them at the last second.
Most cameras use a flashing light on the front of the camera to signal when their self-timer is about to expire. We’d recommend you keep an eye on this and give your family an audible signal when it’s time to open their eyes and smile. Some cameras have a beep that goes along with the flashing light, making things a lot easier.