How to photograph the holidays (while still being part of the fun!)

Every family has one: The Family Story Keeper. If it’s you, you know the position is an honor.

And yet, the role comes with some dilemmas. Can you balance your own artistic vision with that of your family’s as you photograph a gathering? How do you stay present in the moment while still getting the shot? How do you tell your genuine holiday story without laboriously documenting every minute of it?

The holiday season is right around the corner. Let this be the year you have your Christmas cookies…and eat them too! I know that you can experience a relaxing, refueling holiday and can still shoot the images of your dreams.

First of all, let’s be clear about what you shouldn’t be doing. If shooting on holidays and at family events zaps your energy and doesn’t fill you up creatively, you have every right to step down from this role. Personal photography should be enjoyable and inspiring!

If you stop bringing your camera to gatherings, I promise others will take on the role. After all, everyone’s got a camera in his or her pocket! It’s perfectly okay to let them document the holidays with their phones. Many people do and those photos are to be treasured.

What is not okay is for you to dread family get-togethers because you feel like you are on duty or working the whole time. Take a step back and evaluate if this is how you feel. If so, consider leaving your camera at home this holiday season.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy bringing your camera along at holiday gatherings but simply seek a bit of balance, this is for you!

Embrace all styles of photography…even if they aren’t what you shoot professionally

I used to think that when I documented a family event, I had to stick very closely to my professed style of documentary photographer. I avoided all look-here-and-smile pictures and inwardly groaned when groups asked me if I could arrange a big posed photograph.

Then, a few years passed and I began to notice gaps in my photos. For example, I don’t have as many smiling images of my late aunt as I would like. I don’t have whole group photos to remind me of who had which hairstyle or who was dating whom.

As soon as I noticed the photos that were missing, I loosened up. I encourage you to take smiling, camera-aware photos for family and friends. If you are a portrait photographer, be sure to capture the candids alongside the posed shots. They don’t have be great. The light doesn’t have to be perfect or even good. If you can get it exposed properly and in focus, that’s good enough!

Be sure that everyone knows what to expect

Even though I’m open to taking more posed photos, I’ve talked to my family about my preference for unposed, documentary style images. They know I’m likely to be lurking in corners and on chairs with my camera, and they’re used to it. These are the photos I love to make. They are the reason I continue to bring my camera everywhere I go.

If you’re a family story keeper seeking balance between taking photos for others and making your own art, talk to your family! Be open and honest about why you love the craft of photography and communicate what kinds of photos you hope to make this holiday season. It’s a two way street! If you are open to grabbing some shots for them, they should allow you to also partake in whatever genre or style that you love most.

Go in with a big plan

Once you and your family are on the same page, it’s important to have a plan. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all there is to capture during the holidays! If you try to get it all, you are likely to feel exhausted and defeated with a card of 2,000 photos to sift through.

To avoid that trap, take time to identify the holiday traditions and gatherings that matter to you most. Ask yourself the following questions:

“What are the traditions would I be sad to see left undocumented?”

“Are there any events coming up that I’ve photographed every year that could stand to be skipped this time?” 

“Is there an activity coming up that I could use as a creative challenge?”

Then formulate a plan with the answers to these questions in mind. Make a list of the things that you definitely want to capture and those things that you are okay taking off your plate this year.

Make specific plans

The second part of my planning happens in short reflective moments before each activity. If you will be decorating the Christmas tree, you might ask yourself what top three shots you hope to come away with from that activity.

Next, think about how you can capture those shots differently than your first instinct. Perhaps you will vary your lens choice. Or, as simple as it may sound, stand in a different spot the living room than you  usually do to document the story.

Once I know a few things I want to do differently, I decide on my “shot list.” (Of course, we aren’t talking about planning some complicated wedding shot list.) My mental shot list is loose and flexible and subject to change.

To flesh out that tree decorating plan, you might try to grab some extra wide shots of the family decorating the tree. You could then get some close images of the kids putting on their baby ornaments or any other special role they play in this tradition.

Having these specific shots in mind means that the camera only needs to be out and in your hands for a small fraction of the tree decorating time. Once you’ve accomplished those goals, it can go away so that you can be fully present.

At extended family gatherings, you might plan ahead to get a smiling shot of all the cousins (or aunts and uncles or whatever groups make sense). Even as a documentary photographer I love  to see these photos through the years to see how we all grow and change.

At present opening time, I try to be intentional about knowing beforehand what reactions I want to capture. I know that I need to have the camera ready when Grandma opens her handmade gift from the boys, but I can probably leave it alone when my husband opens his socks…ha!

Again, this planning frees me up from photographing the whole time gifts are being opened. I still get to tell the story while also enjoying the joy of giving and receiving.

Be part of the story you are telling

What I’m really advocating for is practicing some mindful shooting this holiday. I always lament that the season can feel too over indulgent with too many excesses looming everywhere I look.

But I’ve come to realize that I contribute to those excesses in more ways than one. I don’t need to over document the holidays because when I do, it leaves me feeling the opposite of peaceful. With some planning, I can shoot for myself, for my family, and my friends. And I can still come out on the other side happy with the images and memories I made.

So give yourself the gift of thoughtful shooting this year in the form of extra pauses, self-reflection, and communication. It may be just the thing you need to enjoy your role as your family’s story keeper.

About the Author:

Andrea is a photographer, former elementary school teacher, Click Photo School Instructor, and mom to 2 boys in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA. Andrea has a Click Photo School family storytelling breakout called The Stories that Make Us and a workshop called The Family Story Keeper, in which participants learn to mindfully make family photo stories that will be passed down and become part of a rich shared history.

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