Lesson from the Scene: Ten Steps To The Family Christmas Photos

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Every year I take our family photo and, like many of you, send it out as a Christmas card. Here's what works for our family photo, try it with yours.
First - We do it outside. Everyone is more relaxed out there than in a studio environment. It's a casual setting with comfortable clothing. Comfortable cloths make for comfortable subjects. It is easier to make good family portraits with a relaxed family. 
Second – It’s easier outside. There is plenty of light and we can control it by where we place the family. We can use open shade, or backlighting or, for soft light, we can do it on a slightly overcast day.
Third - I look for a good background. I love our backyard with all the trees. While looking for a good place to do the portrait I take a few test shot to make sure what I see is what I'll get.
Fourth - I use a tripod and a radio remote control to fire the camera. This way I can be in the photo and make the shot when we're ready, not when the timer fires the camera. The remote also allows me to make several shots without running back to the camera to re-set the timer.
Fifth - With all of us in the photo, (and me not behind the camera watching for expressions), it's a real challenge to come up with good expressions on everyone in the same frame.
(Note: Back in the good ol' days of film Kodak did some research and found that each person added to a photo required seven times more shots to get a great expression of everyone at once.)
Sixth - I compose the photo, figure out where I need to be and take a couple of test shots of my family minus one. If the light looks good on everyone I join the group and fire away.
Seventh - If your family looks lifeless, hopefully it is only because of a lack of catch-lights in their eye. A catch-light is a photographic term used to describe light reflected in the subject's eyes. The lack of a catch-light, even in an animal's picture, can make the subject seem comatose.
You can use a white sheet to bounce light into the subject's eyes or use a flash. This year I used a flash.
If the subject is backlit, the main flash or sheet becomes more than just a way to create a catch-light. It becomes the main light.
When using flash, balance it to the available light. Start with a medium f/stop, like f/8, to ensure the group is all in focus. (We're talking about depth-of-field or how much is in focus in front of and behind the point on which the lens is focused.) Make some test shots at different f/stops and see what works.
Once the light looks good on the family we can explore a few ways to control how the flash balances with the outdoor light. With everything on program mode one can adjust the ISO from 100 up to 400 or higher. The higher the ISO the lighter the background will be, provided the f/stop remains the same. The lower the ISO the darker the background, provided the f/stop remains the same.
It is easier to do darker backgrounds later in the day or early evening. For lighter backgrounds do the session earlier in the day.
Eighth - Have everyone dress in the same or compatible colors. Earth tones like browns, greens and tans work well outdoors. Just be sure on one is dressed so differently that they look like the lead singer with a backup group on a Motown group CD cover.
Ninth - If you want to have a lot of fun let everyone change outfits for different looks. If your family is like our family, we like to take some goofy ones too.
Tenth - Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday.