More on Cameras & Photography

The holiday party season is here, and it's time for amateur family photographers to go into action.

The most shared shot from a big gathering is often the family portrait—and it's also the hardest one to get right. You're dealing with lighting variables, temperamental subjects, and a tight time frame, factors that make group or family portraits tough even for professional photographers.

"The main reason group pictures are difficult is that we are dealing with multiple live subjects," says Jimmy Chan, a wedding photographer in Montreal. "Capturing a still object feels very different from a real person you need to pose and interact with. Take that challenge, then multiply by 10—that's the essence of a group picture."

The following tips can help you create a shot you’ll want to share online and maybe even print and hang on a wall.

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Plan the Backdrop

You won't have much time for location scouting during a big family party, so find a good backdrop for your family portrait in advance. 

Chan says a large, neutral-colored wall makes an ideal canvas because it won’t distract from your subjects. It’s okay to include a Christmas tree or other holiday item in the frame. Just be sure to keep it on the periphery, so the focus is on your friends and family.

The same idea is true when you're shooting outdoors. Shoot in a spot with a simple background and where street lamps or trees won't seem to be growing out of anyone’s head.

Be Bossy

Don't wait for people to organize themselves. It will just slow down the process and encourage their attention to wander.

“People really like directions, so be clear about what you want everyone to do,” says Nicholas Purcell, a wedding photographer who shoots internationally. “If you speak loudly, that helps, too.”

It’s best to place the grandparents in the middle, the small children up front (where they are less likely to feel confined), and everyone else on the sides, Chan says. If the older people are sitting, try to place them on an ottoman or piano bench so that chair backs don’t interfere with the image.

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Get a Better Self-Timer

There's a reason the family photographer is often missing from a group shot. Self-timers usually built into cameras can be difficult and frustrating to use, giving him or her just a few seconds to get in place.

Newer cameras can solve this problem.

The major camera companies now make WiFi- or Bluetooth-connected cameras that you can control with mobile apps. You set up the camera on a tripod, step into place, and then use your phone to snap the shot exactly when you want to. 

For example, the Canon Connect app works with a number of camera models, including the popular Canon T6i DSLR. Nikon's Snapbridge app does the same thing with the company's newer Bluetooth-enabled DSLRs and Coolpix models such as the Nikon B500. Its Wireless Mobility App works with slightly older Nikon cameras such as the Nikon Coolpix P900. Sony's version, which works with many of the company's cameras, including Cyber-shot models, is PlayMemories Mobile. 

Using a remote shutter lets you snap the family portrait at the moment you want. It also lets you take multiple pictures in a row, just as you would if you were holding the camera. 

Use Available Light

A camera's onboard flash often creates a harsh, unnatural look. So see whether you can take your shot without using a flash.

First, turn on as many lamps as you can—and maybe even remove their shades.

Your goal is create even lighting across the whole scene, but that can be difficult when there are lots of people involved. If your location doesn't have enough light, there's a way to make your flash work a little better.

Dig around in your settings for flash compensation, which controls the flash's output. This is a setting few people seem to use, but it's available on many cameras. Try reducing the brightness while taking a few practice shots to find the right level. Of course, you should do this before the party starts, or at least before assembling the subjects of your photo.

If your camera doesn't offer flash compensation or you're still not getting the lighting you want, you could invest in a pop-up flash diffuser before your next party. These sell on Amazon for as little as $7. They're simply covers that look like frosted glass that fit over your flash and soften the light.

Photographers with a dedicated add-on flash unit can assert more control. If the flash head swivels, point it upward and slightly back to bounce the light off the wall. That will result in a more even, natural-looking image. 

Lighting can be tough outside as well, but in this case you're likely to have too much light, not too little. “Overcast conditions are ideal, because as the light becomes soft, the faces will be evenly lit,” Chan says.

In bright sunshine, things get more difficult. If you have the subjects face the sun, they'll be squinting. If they are lighted from the side, half of their faces will be dark.

Often the best option is to position the group with their backs to the sun. One trick is to obscure the sun with trees. Then, try using a flash. While it may sound strange to use a flash outside during the day, it can help you get the right exposure on both the background and the people in your shot.

Adjust the Aperture

You don't have to be a high-level photographer to adjust the manual settings that come with many cameras. For group portraits, the most important setting could be the size of the aperture, which is the opening that lets in light when you snap the shutter.

For family portraits, you'll usually want to make the aperture small, f/5.6 or smaller. (The higher the number, the tighter the aperture.) That will help keep everyone in focus, a challenge if you have people standing or sitting in rows at different distances from the camera.

For an artsier shot, though, you can do just the opposite and step down to a lower aperture, which means having a larger opening when you snap the shutter. This will tend to blur the background of your photograph.

This will work only if you have a small group of two or three people standing in a line parallel to your camera, so they're all the same distance away. 

And here's another trick: If you position your subjects 2 or 3 feet in front of a string of holiday lights, the background will have blurred light circles.

That will add an extra wow factor to your holiday image—and help cement your position as the go-to family photographer.