Planning the Annual Schnuth Family Christmas Self-Portrait

Yeah, it’s not even Halloween yet and I’m already thinking about Christmas. Our annual family self-portrait, anyway.

It’s fun for me, yet it’s also a source of stress. Every year I want it to look perfect, and I plan for weeks to figure out the right seating, posing, lighting, framing. Inevitably, even with all that planning, something goes awry. Even so, just the fact that it’s a family self-portrait in our own home makes it that much more perfect: a slice of life.

Last year’s portrait session involved a tantruming toddler and a grumpy Daddy. I had to merge two versions of the portrait in Photoshop to get the end result (which still wasn’t awesome, for various reasons).

Christmas Portrait 2013

The year before (shown above) was one of the best, actually — Connor had these fantastically rosy cheeks, the cat laid down calmly on Aaron’s lap, and everybody was in focus at f/6.3 with off-camera flash. We had our moments of Are We Done Yet? — but we have those every year, just about.

I wished I’d remembered to comb Connor’s hair for our 2012 photo, and I wish he were sitting up straighter, and I wish the cat weren’t trying to escape (as usual), but otherwise it actually turned out pretty decent.

Connor’s first Christmas portrait was one of those awesome slice-of-life moments, where he cried his fool head off while we took the actual photo, plus Aaron and the cat looked like they were photobombing Connor and me, thanks to a narrower depth-of-field than I’d intended.

Before that, it was just a matter of keeping everybody in focus and happy — which I still had issues with, even without a kid in the mix.

I had originally thought it would be a fun common thread to keep the tree in the shot for all of our Christmas Family Self-Portraits, but I’m realizing that just juggling the family and remembering how to use my equipment for the once-a-year event is enough. This year, I think I’m going to figure out how to arrange the four of us on the stairs, maybe string up some faux pine garland up the banister, and dress us all in our Christmas sweaters — all except the cat, of course. Plus, I need a Christmas sweater for myself, now that I think of it. And we need to make sure Connor hasn’t outgrown his.

I just had an idea to make things go quicker and easier, too. Wide angle — I can crop later; no need to be all elitist about my framing at this point — and stop down for maximum depth of field. (That’s photographer-speak for Just Make Everything In Focus And Don’t Try To Be All Fancy.) Make a big deal of taking a certain number of pictures — five, maybe? — then… HAND THE REMOTE TO CONNOR and let him take a few himself. Real ones. Ones where we’re all kind of laughing and hopefully not pissed about photo-posing stupidity.

Possible issues with this plan:

1.) Camera angle. I’ll need to pick a good stair for us to sit on, then crank the tripod up as tall as it will go. No weird 90’s MySpace looking-up-at-the-camera photos, either — we kind of did one of those in 2009.

2.) Checking the photos. Depending on how tall the tripod is — and whether I have to put it on a chair or table — and depending on how I pose all of us, it might be a challenge to check the images to make sure they look usable. Maybe a burst of three, then check, two more, then check, then let Connor take three. One of those will have to be a winner. Right?

3.) Strobe (flash) positioning. I only have one strobe for portraits, and keeping the front door open will only put massive glare on our glasses. So, especially since I’m stopping down, I’ll need to crank the flash (thankfully, it’s synced to my camera, so it knows what it’s doing) and make sure nothing’s in the way — walls, banister, that sort of thing. We don’t need shadows being cast on us.

4.) The usual: grumpy husband, reticent cat, cranky child, last-minute posing issues, and the stress of We’re Doing This Thing Now And The Timing Is Never Quite Right.

The Christmas picture always turns out “good enough,” though. Like I said, it’s always a perfect slice of life. It feels kind of Zen if you let it.

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