Tips can make awkward photos better

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ah, the perfect Christmas card photo — so wonderful to have but so difficult to get.

I’ve watched as friends and family prop their little ones in front of the tree, straighten their collars, brush their hair and beg for smiles.

It’s rarely a happy ending for anyone involved. The pain of that cheerful card experience is universal, as an Internet search proves.

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A couple of young men even capitalized on the concept by creating a website

The site is currently running a contest for most awkward Christmas photo, and the highest vote getter features a seemingly perfect 1960s-70s era family photo. A closer look reveals an upturned middle finger on the suit-clad son.

Every good photo has an element of surprise, after all.

Though I’m not yet a mother of human children, I too share the desire to have that perfect Christmas card photo.

And, with much praise going to the four-legged model, not me, I believe we’ve had success all seven years we’ve tried.

But every year when Suzy’s Christmas masterpiece is unveiled to friends and family, we get the same questions. How do you do it? How do you get her to do what you want?

Well, Suzy is an approximately 9-year-old dog, not a child, but some of the following tips can be applied to any Christmas card photo whether the subjects are children, dogs or even gerbils.

1. Start with an idea

Prima donna models, like my dog and your children, get cranky fast. Don’t start a photo shoot until you know what you’d like the end result to be. Be creative or cheat — type in best family Christmas card on Google and you’ll get dozens of good ideas … and some bad ones.

2. Consider the background

Clean backgrounds almost always work best. Set your subject up in front of a solid color or iconic landscape that works with their fur, skin tone and clothing, whichever may apply, and the mood of your photo. If you want them in front of the tree, make sure there isn’t a cross or a star coming out of someone’s head.

3. Be in control

Dogs and young children are distracted by the sights and sounds of many outdoor settings. Inside might be better. Early on in Suzy’s card shoots, I was the only one in the room. I had to be able to prop the dog, control the dog, reward the dog, calm the dog and snap the photo at the same time. I typically shut us both up in a small room or closet so that if she ran, she couldn’t go far. I suspect cranky children are just as likely to bolt.

4. Cram treats into your pocket

For Suzy, small bits of bacon work best. For children, candy is probably better. Your subject will quickly learn that doing what you say means an immediate treat is coming. It’s not bribery; it’s photography.

5. Be patient

The first shots won’t be good. Putting anyone, dog or man, in front of a camera lens makes him or her nervous. Suzy seems to know the sound our camera makes after seven years of practice, but she still needs a few minutes to channel her inner model. Once the subject relaxes, the best photos come.

6. Be prepared to abandon the plan

Sometimes your perfect Christmas card idea simply won’t work with the subject, situation or lighting. Go with the flow and look for something else. What truly happens may be a better photo anyway, just ask the young man flipping off the camera now.

7. Celebrate a job well done

If you hope to ever take another good family photo, be sure to reward your subjects afterward. Again, Suzy prefers bacon.

In the end, you’ll likely end up with plenty of submissions for the guys at Awkward Family Photos, a few shots suitable for grandma, a few more smiles and a few less headaches.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551.