8 Tips for Creating Great Family Photos in Your Holiday Cards

December is almost here! You know what that means...

There are gifts to be thought of. And purchased. And wrapped. There are plans to be coordinated, to-do lists to be made. And there's a good chance that one of those to-do list items involves getting your holiday card figured out.

And if you are among the kidded, that is much easier written than done. Kids have an ability to sense just when Mom or Dad is stressed and under a deadline, and capitalize on it wildly. In the holiday-card-picture-taking scenario, this usually means unsmiling deadpan stares, uncooperative foot-dragging, and if you're particularly lucky, a full-on tantrum, as you stand there, camera in hand and patience exhausted, as you think about the rush-shipping charges you're going to need to pay to be able to get these cards out in time.

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Our 2010 family holiday card. This was about the 246th picture we took, I think.

I'm no expert, but this being my 5th go-round with the annual kid-photo holiday card, and having taken a few photography classes to further develop my hobby, I do have a few tips and tricks to share.

1. Plan multiple "photo shoots." Give yourself two or three opportunities to get a good picture. Penciling in a set date to get The Holiday Card Shot is almost certainly going to bite you. Do your picture-taking two or three days in a row - you'll be a lot more likely to get a picture you love when you have more to choose from.

2. Think of your setting. Outdoor pictures almost always are more flattering. Lighting is better and the background is more likely to be neutral and appealing. Also, if you take your kids to a place they love (yay, park!), it'll probably mean better moods and more cooperation.

3. Bribery. It may sound awful, but it works. It doesn't have to be a lot, but telling your kids they'll get a little something for their help can go a long way. I'm a big fan of lollipops and cookies in this regard. (Buy 2 Keebler® Cookies (6.6 oz. or Larger, Any Flavor, Mix or Match), Save $1.00 with this eCoupon) Also, it's important to reward them for cooperating, not necessarily you getting the shot of your dreams.

4. Use your camera settings wisely. You don't need to know how to shoot on Manual to get a great, professional-looking shot. For a shot of kids who are sitting or standing fairly still, use the Portrait setting instead of Auto if your camera has it. (Many do. The icon for portrait setting is usually a picture of a person's head... on my camera, a Nikon, it's a lady with a hat on.) What is different between Portrait and Auto? The Portrait setting will narrow the focus to be on your kids' faces, and will blur the background behind them. This will make your picture more visually appealing - your kids' faces will be the clear focus, and any distracting details in the background won't stand out. *Note: if you're going for an action shot of your kids, say of them running, this setting will likely result in a blurry photo. For pictures of a moving object, use Auto or if your camera has it, Sports mode.

5. Shoot from up high. One quick and easy photography trick is to always shoot from above your subjects, so you're looking down on them. You don't have to be hovering a mile above them; even just having your camera six inches or a foot above their eye level will do the trick. It's insanely more flattering than a straight-on shot. (Want to see? Use your cameraphone to take a picture of yourself by holding your arm straight out in front of you. Then try it while holding your arm up Statue-of-Liberty style. Big difference, right?)

6. Put on a show. So, you have the kids all sitting together, you're on Portrait mode, and you're standing above them. Now comes the tough part... getting the ever-elusive all-kid synchronized smile shot. If you are able to get your kids to all look at the camera and give you nice, genuine grins just by asking them to say cheese, then more power to you! My own kids' "cheese" faces are pretty awful, if I'm being honest, and involve revealing more lower teeth than upper teeth, if that's possible. So, my husband and I have resorted to acting like fools to try to get our kids to laugh. When I'm by myself, I go with the verbal humor, because I have to stay fairly still behind the camera. My tried-and-true schtick is to sing "Raindrops keep falling on my.... (name a body part.)" I start with "head," then go to "arms," "eyeball," "knee," "nostril," and so on, until I eventually get to the surefire grin-getter, when I yell out "Raindrops keep falling on my... HINEY!" Click.

When my husband is able to join in the photo-getting, he employs a Charlie Chaplin-esque slapstick routine as he stands just next to or behind me. The most effective approaches seem to involve pretending Mommy smells and acting like he's going to lick my cheek. Thankfully we've been able to get some laughs without any actual cheek-licking needed.

7. Don't be afraid of Plan B. Can't get a single shot of everybody that works? Don't worry. Work on getting a good shot of each kid by themselves, and know that you can still make a great-looking card using those - every site offers multi-photo card options, so you can put together a card to be proud of without having to resort to using a picture with 1/3 of the subjects with their eyes closed.

8. Choose your card carefully. With all the effort you put into getting the picture, don't rush through the card selection process. Once you decide what shape of picture box you want on your card (square, rectangle, circle), look for card designs that have some colors that coordinate with colors from your winning picture... it makes for a more polished end product when the colors all jive well. And use the built-in editing tools that all photo sites have now - experiment with zooming in (I've found that having the kids' faces take up the majority of the card usually is what I like best) and trying black and white or sepia tone instead of full-on color. There are a ton of options to play around with.

I just yesterday ordered my own holiday cards, and spent a lot of time checking out various photo sites, looking for deals and going through card designs. Here are some of my favorite from the sites I checked out, along with some coupon codes/deals I found... they're likely to change quickly, though, so check out the site before you buy! I'm also a huge fan of www.retailmenot.com to search for online shopping codes - when you pick your store, do a quick check before you pay to see if any new codes have posted.

TinyPrints.com - through 11/29, use code CYBER20 to get free shipping plus 15% off $75 or more or 20% off $149 or more

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Shutterfly.com - they are advertising up to 30% holiday cards through 11/30, no code needed, and free shipping on orders $30+ with code SHIP30

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Paper Culture - Go through www.paperculture.com/holiday and enter code SIMPLE25 to get 25% off your purchase.

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Pear Tree Greetings - Use promo code REAL to get 15% off.

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Hopefully these tips will help you get that to-do list item crossed off without any unnecessary stress!