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How to Photograph and Create the Perfect Christmas Card

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It's December, and the holidays are upon us. Whether you're religious, atheist, or agnostic, it's the perfect time of year to send out a friendly card to your friends and family to adorn their refrigerator with.

Today we're going to walk you through setting up the shoot, creating a solid composition, the post-processing procedure and even a little Photoshop magic to add that special personal touch.

A Perfect Way to Earn a Little Extra Holiday Cash

As horrible as it is to turn a holiday tradition in to a capitalist venture, the truth is we're all working a little extra to try to pick up a few extra bucks so we can survive the most expensive month we endure all year.

As a photographer, advertising a holiday card service is a great way to pick up a few extra clients. As long as your rates are affordable and your product is good, word of mouth will spread quickly through your circle of friends and clients and you'll quickly have to start booking shoots for next year!

Step 1. Plan the Shoot

I listed the planning process as the first step because it is critical to step two below. The planning stage doesn't have to be long and involved, in fact, it's a lot less of a headache if you keep it simple.

Sure, you can rack your brain, trying to decide on one perfect photo with a unique theme and a brilliant execution. But in all honesty, much of the creativity can be accomplished on the spot while you're shooting.

The biggest thing that you need to decide at this point is simply where to do the photo shoot. Obviously, this involves picking a place, but there's much more to it than that. In fact, more importantly for you as the photographer is the selection of lighting conditions.

Many families instinctively ask for the same exact picture: right in front of their Christmas tree. This involves you going into someone else's house where you don't have as much control over the environment as you do in your own studio. Personally, I like to encourage clients towards outside photo shoots. Weather and cloud cover are pretty big uncertainties but for the most part, you can plan it so you have exactly the lighting you want.

Check out local sunrise and sunset times in your area and spend a few days before the shoot evaluating the lighting a couple of hours before the sun goes down. Find the time that's just perfect for the feel you want and make sure to time how fast the sunlight fades away!

Step 2. Selecting Your Equipment

If you selected an outside shoot, you might not need to bring much. If you're shooting in the bright midday sun, a polarizer and a lens hood are definitely recommended. If you live in a snowy place you'll be getting a ton more sun reflection than you typically would so you'll need all the help you can get cutting down on the light.

If you chose a shoot around sun up or sun down, your camera and a lens with decent light gathering abilities will get the job done. However, if you've got one, a single external flash on a stand can really go a long way. You can use this as a fill light when the sun is still up and as a primary light as the sun starts to fade.

Finally, if you're going for that inside Christmas tree shot or anything else that's fairly dark, you'll want lighting equipment and plenty of it. The typical setup involves two external flashes on stands while letting the Christmas tree serve as your backlight. Alternatively, you might consider a ring flash, which will cut down on the work of killing awkward shadows and provide some nice dramatic effects to play with.

If you're using flashes, you'll want a way to diffuse the light. This can be as serious as a soft box or umbrella for larger rigs or as simple as a Gary Fong diffuser for smaller flashes.

Step 3. Composing the Shot

This can be a drastically different process depending on how many people you have in the shot and what their relationship to each other is. With families you can pack people in and do fun stuff with them. They're all comfortable enough with each other that they don't mind the closeness. If you're shooting a group of friends or some sort of community group, you'll have to find creative ways to make everybody less rigid and tense.

We couldn't possibly walk through every scenario so we'll go with two common setups to serve as general ideas for you to tweak in your own photo shoots.

Using Triangles

Let's take a look at a shot I did this year with a married couple and their baby. You'll find that this setup is fairly easy to reproduce among couples with one child, even if the child is older.

The emphasis here is largely on the family, the tree is in the background but is cropped out almost entirely. Because the husband is the tallest, it worked well to place him in the back. The tendency for most people in this situation is to place their head almost behind the person in front of them so I made sure that the husband's face wasn't being covered up by anything (in fact, I may have overcorrected a little). The important part is that you can see everyone's smiling faces.

What you many not notice here is that I've used a trick from classical art and set up a solid triangle as the framework for the composition. It's more typically a pyramid shape in old paintings but it's still quite effective when you turn the triangle on its side as I've done here.

The Rule of Thirds

Another shot that I took this year, which we'll use below to design a card, utilizes the most common method of composing photographs: the rule of thirds.

This easy and practical rule helps you balance a composition by breaking the image area up vertically and/or horizontally into thirds and placing your point of focus along the grid lines. In the image above, I primarily focused on breaking the image up into three vertical slices.

As you can see, it's not perfect, and it doesn't have to be! Rules of composition are general guidelines that you can choose to either strictly observe or reinterpret for your own purposes.

Step 4. Post-Processing

Next, we're going to take our image into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom for post-processing. You can easily do it all in Photoshop but I like to start here because the tools are so fast and powerful.

The bad thing about Lightroom is that it's easy to get carried away. With so many sliders and controls, your first instinct is to go nuts. However, sometimes you don't want the photo to look like it's processed with a vintage preset but instead simply want something a little better and brighter than the original.

For this image, I added a little Brightness in conjunction with cranking my Recovery to help bring back any blown out portions of the image. A also added some vibrance, made the image slightly warmer and adjusted the saturation and luminance on a few choice colors.

The image above shows the settings I used in addition to a split view showing both the original and edited images.

The Histogram and Camera Settings

As always, we want to keep a close eye on our histogram while we're making the changes to ensure that there's no unacceptable clipping. This helps make the final printed piece as perfect as possible.

As you can see in the image below, we're great on our black clipping but there is some detail that's being lost in the highlights. Hovering over that little arrow in the top right shows us that the clipping is taking place in the sky behind their heads. This isn't ideal but is acceptable. Our Recovery is already cranked so this will be better to let go than spend too much time worrying about it. As long as you have all the detail in the places where you really want it you should be fine!

From this image you can also see the settings I used to take the shot. My ISO was at 200 (the sun was fading quickly), the aperture was at f/3.2 and my shutter speed was at 1/100th of a second.

Since there are quite a few layers of interest in this image, finding the ideal depth of field wasn't easy. In the end I decided that f/3.2 was giving me fairly crisp faces at 50mm, with a slight blur on the carriage and a big blur on the objects in the distance.

Step 5. Creating the Card Graphics

Now, I know that just because you're a photographer doesn't mean you're a Photoshop wiz. However, the steps we'll take here are super simple and really go that extra mile to impress your clients.

First off, drag out a red box in the upper left corner of the image (I sampled the red from the bow on the carriage). Make sure you make a vector rectangle using the Rectangle Tool (U), not the Marquis Tool (M). This will help us edit the box into a ribbon.

Now, grab the Add Anchor Point Tool (found under the Pen Tool) and add in a point at the center of the bottom line of the rectangle. Then select this point with the Direct Selection Tool (A) and drag it up. To make a nice hard point, you'll have to drag in the handles to the center of the point.

Next we want to make the shape a little less flat so we'll add a drop shadow, inner shadow and gradient overlay using the settings shown below:

Take special note of the blending modes that I used for each effect. I've changed two of them to Color Burn to get nice, dark shadows.

The final step in making the ribbon is to take a soft, white brush and paint a line across the very top. Then reduce the opacity of this layer to about 23%. This step is completely optional and just gives the subtle illusion that the ribbon is draped over the edge.

Now that you've got a nice little ribbon, you can throw some text on it. We created the ribbon because the background of the photo was simply too busy to place type over with any degree of readability. The ribbon serves as a nice solid background and adds nice little holiday element.

You can use any fonts that you like, but I used Academy Engraved LET for "Merry Christmas," Type Embellishments One LET for the leaf (that graphic is simply the letter 'a' in the font) and Futura Light Italic for the text at the bottom. My first instinct was to use a script but I found that the engraved font looked and felt classy while remaining much easier to read than most scripts.

The Finished Product

With that, we're all finished! We now have a beautiful Christmas card with all the right elements: smiling faces, red bows, a carriage and even a personalized greeting.


Creating holiday cards isn't just a great business opportunity, it's something you can do as a great gift for your friends and family. Everyone likes sending out a card showing off their growing family but it's not always the easiest thing to organize or afford. Why not help out someone this Christmas by offering to take the photo and design the card?

If you've taken any holiday family photos, we want to see them! Upload the pictures to Flickr or a similar service and leave the links below.

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