Without fail, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, an old friend of my husband’s wins the gold in the holiday-greetings competition by sending us the season’s very first Christmas card. The vacation snapshot of her kids is our alarm clock: it’s time for Ted and me to face up to our own stash of photos and select a card-worthy family pic (invariably sent out well past Christmas, but in time to wish friends a happy year ahead).

Like most people, we take the majority of our photos during our travels and pretty much forget about our camera in the interim. And so every December, we find ourselves peering at screen after screen of digital lake, ski, and family-reunion photos, remembering the year’s adventures and then despairing over our inability to find one standout shot—or at least a group portrait in which we all have our eyes open.

Determined to upgrade our results, I asked photographers Eugenie Coumantaros and Janna Johansson (T+L Family’s photo editor) for advice. Not being technically inclined, I had to filter out the usual talk about shutter speeds, the rule of thirds, and why the time is right to invest in a digital SLR—who wants to get complicated about a Christmas card?But I was surprised by how many reasons there are to think before you shoot.

1. The Best Photos Are Rarely Random Most photographers compose their images, which means that if you’re out to capture a whole family, take the time to find a simple background—an expanse of trees or a colored wall will allow your subjects to be the center of attention.

2. Cheese Is Cheesy Forced smiles and stiff stances are the problem with most family portraits. Chat as you shoot—the LCD panel allows you to hold the camera away from your face. Don’t tell your subjects how to look; encourage them to interact and to forget the formality of the moment.

3. You Can’t Just Stand There To best portray kids, bend down and don’t be afraid to get close; okay, now a little closer.

4. The Light Has to Be Right Head out during the fringes of the day—early morning and just before and after the sun sets—a.k.a. the Golden Hours. In general, flash is to be avoided (it flattens everything), but if you must snap when the sun is brightest, use your fill flash to banish the shadows.

5. Better Too Many Than Too Few Act like a director and fire off several takes. After all, the beauty of digital photography is that you can come away with options—one’s bound to be right.

Our potential holiday picture this year was taken on a surfing beach in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, by the woman in the lounge chair next to ours—which brings me to another essential tip: after you’ve set up your shot, it helps to have a little luck in your choice of whom you ask to take your picture.

Why stop at putting your family on a Christmas card when you can stick them on stamps too?Using customers’ digital photos, three Web sites—,, and—produce Postal Service–accepted vanity postage (40 first-class stamps go for about $30).