5 Tips for Stunning Winter Family Photos

December 24, 2020

Hello, it’s me, your friend from the North Pole…I mean Canada. I’ve basically been living where the elves build toys for children and Rudolf plays with all 8 of his pals since I was born. That’s right, over 30 years of this ​magic ​where the air hurts your face. I love it here!

I’m just kidding. I hate it. But I have learned a trick or two when it comes to surviving the longest season of the year and I’ll be giving you my top tips for getting great Winter Family Photos in this article!

I’m assuming you have found your way here because you need some wisdom on how to survive winter family photos. Maybe you’re a professional family photographer or portrait photographer looking to add winter sessions to your roster for financial reasons. ​(I mean, seriously…if you live in the northern hemisphere, you most likely book next to no sessions in the winter months. Changing this to include photoshoots during the winter can make a huge difference to any revenue stream!)​ Maybe you’re a family blogger looking to add some stunning winter photos to your blog. Or perhaps you’d just like some tips on taking them yourself! Either way – you’ll find something of use here in this article.

FIRST OFF – good for you for prioritizing taking family photos! Seriously. You are creating lasting memories of your family and this investment of your time, energy and finances is one of the best things you’ll ever do for them and you! Christmas photos are the cutest addition to your annual holiday cards and a special memento for your family members to look back on. 

One more thing before we get started. I offer a plethora of helpful resources like lightroom presets and online workshops if you’re interested in growing as a photographer. And if you’re interested in learning about how to take your ​own​ amazing photos ​(yes, this is seriously possible and no you don’t need a fancy camera),​ I wrote an ebook about how you can do just that! Check it out here: https://triciavictoriaphotography.com/ebook

Okay, let’s dive in on the best tips for capturing joy with stunning Christmas pictures this holiday season!

TIP ONE: SHOOT INDOORS

Listen. I get it. The winter is beautiful to look at (for the first five minutes…before you start drifting off in beachy oblivion). It can be magical and whimsical and full of glittery white fun. But if you can, avoid going outside. Seriously, I meant it when I said the air hurts your face. Who likes getting frostbite?

Maybe you put your annual family photoshoot off for so long that you missed the warm months, or maybe you’re a photographer that hates getting cold and dealing with grumpy, cold clients. But there are some easy and affordable alternatives to braving the wild white outdoors and if you’re into it, I recommend considering creating magic indoors.

Most cities have studios for rent or a home you can utilize (like an airbnb, for example) for your portrait session. So if you can, skip the Christmas tree farm and do it. Just trust me. You won’t need to worry about staying warm and heck, you can even take photos with a lovely holiday theme​ (bust out those holiday decorations and a Christmas tree for the annual Christmas card!)​ and wear your high heels without freezing your pretty little toes. The decor possibilities are virtually endless when it comes to indoor sessions. If you’re not a diehard decor enthusiast, many local photographers offer themed sessions so you don’t have to do the work yourself. 

Indoor sessions can be seriously awesome. In fact, they’re arguably my favourite location to document sessions because they’re warm, predictable and generally all have good lighting, depending on the spot. Check out some of my favourite indoor sets and indoor family photo ideas, and get inspired here!

But if you can’t or don’t want to take your family pictures indoors, the rest of this article will give you insight on how to get fabulous winter family photos.

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Prepare to get cold.

TIP TWO: WATCH THE WEATHER

What weather to avoid and why:

While winter can be beautiful and yield beautiful weather, certain weather-related scenarios can make taking winter family pictures an absolute nightmare.

There are three types of weather I would recommend you avoid at all costs.

  1. Windy weather
  2. Weather below -10 degrees celsius
  3. Full-on blizzards ​(I’m not talking about fluffy, pretty snowfall, I’m talking full on apocalyptic 3-5 feet of snow overnight storms. I’ve literally rescheduled weddings for this…)

1. Windy Weather:

While wind isn’t always cold, it’s usually pretty brutal during the winter months and it can make the weather feel significantly colder than it actually is. Have you ever wondered why they bother including the “actual” temperature alongside the “feels like” temperature? Who cares what the actual temp is…if it FEELS​ like -30, it’s -30. On top of chilling you to the bone, wind will also cause your eyes to water profusely. So unless you want to look like a windblown, red-nosed reindeer with mascara running down your face (all while dealing with uncomfortably cold, angry children), I recommend you consider rescheduling your family session to a less windy day.

2. Weather below -10 degrees

As a general rule of thumb, I won’t shoot a session when it’s below -10 (even if it’s sunny). This isn’t for my comfort as I can dress up in a full winter parka to stay cozy and warm if I’m the one taking pictures. But everyone else is usually pretty uncomfortable unless they’re ​also​ fully dressed in parkas – which won’t necessarily give you the most aesthetically pleasing images, unless that’s what you’re going for. ​(More on that later).​ Besides all that, frigid temperatures like this make noses and cheeks turn lobster red incredibly quickly and dry out your eyeballs. There is nothing worse than a runny nose and watery eyes while you’re modelling for winter pictures. For this reason, I reschedule (or redirect to an indoor location) any and all outdoor family pictures if the weather isn’t above -10 celsius. 

3. Blizzards

Now let’s talk about snowfall. Is there anything more magical than fluffy, light snow falling from the heavens, kissing your tongue and lining the trees and earth around you in a heavenly blanket of white? (Yes, it’s called Hawaii…but I regress.) No one would argue that this backdrop would make for beautiful photos. But there is a huge difference between this type of heavenly snowfall and a snowstorm from hell that has frozen over, unleashing old man winter with his icy fury on the land.

I mean, seriously…have you ever taken a walk during a blizzard? It’s nearly impossible to look up without your eyeballs being pelted with wet flurries. In my experience, you essentially only go out in these if you absolutely have to, and you spend the entire time squinting at your feet, trying your best not to run into stationary objects until you can get inside again. As you might guess, this is problematic if you’re after carefree, beautiful family photos. Literally, no one is comfortable in this scenario.

Besides how uncomfortable you would be, blizzards are nature’s way of hitting the hyperdrive mode, making the snow fall seem more like the stars travelling at lightspeed toward you in the Millennium Falcon​. (Did I seriously just reference star wars? Yes, yes, I did. Any Canadian will understand this reference.)​ This velocity makes it incredibly difficult for a camera to nail the image focus. Unless you or your photographer are shooting on manual focus mode (which is incredibly hard to do a good job of consistently), a camera lens will usually focus on the first thing it finds in front of the focal point. When the sky unleashes its marshmallow fury, your lens will alwaysfocus first on falling snowflakes, not your beautiful family.

All that said…soft snowfall should NOT deter you from taking photos outside. Regular snowfall can also present the same challenges as a blizzard, but it’s generally easier to shoot through the loose, gentle fluff over persistent snow that fills every square inch of the air around you. You may not end up with the same amount of shots in focus as you would on a clear day, but the ones you will have will be the pinnacle of winter majesty. These are the shots that fill your Pinterest board with visions that dance in your head. They can make for truly magical images.

Blizzards usually have all three of the things I recommend you avoid, making it a trifecta of problems you’ll want to avoid. So try to stick to weather that is warmer than -10, avoid blizzards and wind, but don’t shy away from magical fluffy snow.

TIP THREE: CHOOSE OUTFITS WISELY

Styling your winter family pictures.

Ahhh, the age-old question…what the heck do you wear for family photo sessions in general, let alone for your winter family session?

First – Consider what you plan on using them for. Are these for the annual family Christmas card? Are they for the walls in your home? Is there a specific theme you’re after? The answer to this should influence the direction your family picture outfits and color schemes will go.

But the biggest thing to consider with what to wear is where you’ll be shooting. One of the most frustrating things I have experienced in my own work is when I have not properly considered the color schemes of the environment we’re shooting in next to the colour schemes of the clothing we wear. Styling your family portraits with a coordinated colour scheme is the one of the most important ingredients for visually pleasing images.

Case in point. Don’t wear white if your environment is predominantly white and covered in snow. Choosing colors that complement the photographic environment will generally yield the nicest photos.

Let’s play this scenario out:

A pine forest, covered in snow.

This environment has loads of white – so white won’t show up very well, and you (or your subject) will get lost in the frame. Wearing bold jewel tones, like mustards, royal blues and reds will complement the green in the pine trees and help you and your family stand out from the environment, rather than get lost in it. Neutrals will work great, too. If you’re absolutely bent on wearing lighter colours, make the colour darker than the snow you’ll be shooting in, like beige or light brown, and use texture or accessories to help highlight your family.

Also, try your best to keep in mind that your outfits should also make sense. Winter photography doesn’t add up with summer attire – when you look at a winter scene in a photograph, the outfits should make sense with the environment. Simply put, wearing open-toed shoes, t-shirts and other seasonally inappropriate articles will look ridiculous (not to mention, will make everyone uncomfortably cold) while shooting.

If you’re a visual person, use Pinterest as a means to get inspired for coordinated family outfits. (You can type in fall family photos or winter family photos and the plethora of color schemes and outfit ideas will usually work great for winter family photos.) I’ve created a board just for this to help you get started – you can view here.

TIP FOUR: GET MOVING 

Get busy with winter activities and accessorize for better overall visuals for your winter family photo session.

Getting active in your photos will not only take the edge off the pressure to “perform” in your photos, but it will also yield beautiful candid moments of you and your family. ​(This method is especially effective when you have a professional family photographer taking the photos for you! It is hard to capture movement effectively using a tripod.)

When I teach at workshops about methods of achieving beautifully candid frames, I always stress movement as the best way to accomplish this. Our eyes are usually drawn to these photos most as they tell such a visually appealing story. You can do this easily by adding winter activities to your shot list.

Since winter is the longest season in the northern hemisphere, we northerners have created so many ways of making the best of it. (Many would argue these activities are for our sanity as much as they are to kill time.) There is no shortage of things to do outdoors in the winter months, making it so easy to incorporate these activities in your family photos.

You could…Go skating, drink hot chocolate, go tobogganing, build a snowman, have a snowball fight, etc. Another way to add pizzazz to your shots is to accessorize and texturize. Now is the time to have fun playing with accessories and textures. These additions will take an ordinary image from meh to wow by adding visual interest. Don’t be afraid to mix textures, either. The right textures and accessories can really make or break an image.

This isn’t always possible, but if you can, try to be careful to choose accessories that don’t clash with your environment or outfits. Try and stay as neutral as possible. (For example – if your family is wearing jewel tones in a forest, a hot pink toboggan will clash terribly with your scene and the people in it. A wooden sled would fit in with the environment much better.)

Accessory ideas include: Toques, mittens, scarfs, faux fur, blankets, waffled tops, textured leggings, sled, wool, fun socks, themed related accessories like mugs, etc.

I listed some winter activities above, but to inspire you more – let’s break a few of those picture ideas down:

Go skating with the kids and get pictures of you lacing the kids up. (And make sure to capture the first fall, and struggle to get back up on their feet – these will make for hilarious and wonderfully candid frames of your beautiful family.)

Or cozy up together in a scene as you pour some hot cocoa into themed classes​ (don’t forget the marshmallows!)​. Capture family portraits with the hot cocoa being given out, or the moment your family clinks glasses and says “cheers,” or cooling it off by breathing on it, or tossing a marshmallow into another person’s mouth – just get creative.

TIP FIVE: HAVE A PLAN & PRIORITIZE EFFICIENCY

Be Efficient and Create a Plan.

If you plan on photographing your family session yourself, make a list of photos you want so you don’t get there and draw a blank. Prioritize your “important” shots first, then get the fun stuff after.​ (Don’t forget to capture the classic shot with everyone smiling at the camera – these may not tell a great story, but they’re usually always a fan favourite!)

Map out exactly what you want to shoot and when with a list and follow that list. You can even include the types of shots you’re after for the activities portion of the winter photoshoot. Going through the motions of that activity in your head will help you determine which shots you’d ideally like captured.

Because winter is so cold, it’s especially important that you prioritize efficiency. I would recommend that you aim to finish the session as soon as possible (try for no more than 20 minutes) as people will generally expire more quickly in the cold weather than they do in warm weather.

One way of doing that is to make sure you don’t over complicate your setup. This is applicable regardless of whether or not you plan to photograph your own family or you’re a professional photographer yourself. Shoot with no more than two lenses (one is probably ideal, honestly – and I would personally recommend either a 50mm 1.2 or a 35mm 1.4) and try to get as much done as you can before you get to your location so you can start shooting as quickly as possible. (Like clearing your memory cards.)

BONUS TIP: STAY WARM WITH LAYERS

Layer up as much as possible without losing the integrity of the hard work you’ve done to dress everyone to look nice. This can include long sleeves, long socks, long johns, undershirts, thermal gear, etc. I’ve even seen nude fleece leggings that can be worn under nylons where no-one can tell you’re wearing them!

When planning your outfits, I recommend you aim to include mittens, hats and scarves. This won’t only look great, but will help keep everyone warm.

Before you leave the house, put the mittens being worn on a heat register, so the family has warm mittens to wear right out of the gate.

Use hand and feet warmers. These small, compact packs will help your whole family get through the cold weather each time they put their hands in their pockets and can help prevent their feet from losing warmth, too. Winter enthusiasts have been using these to keep their extremities warm for decades. You can find them all over, but I have linked them here as well.

Wear boots or weather-appropriate shoes. Keeping your feet warm will greatly extend the length of time you and your family is comfortable.

SUMMARY

Okay, folks – that’s pretty much all I have for you. Let us go over what we covered in this article:

  • Consider indoor alternatives for your winter photography session.
  • Stay away from bad weather.
  • Choose your family photo outfits according to the location.
  • Partake in winter activities and don’t be afraid to accessorize. 
  • Prioritize efficiency (do a mini session and get in and get out as fast as you can…)

Basically, the main thing here is to STAY WARM. The warmer you and your family are, the better the session will be. Other than that – try and enjoy the winter like a good sport!

Hopefully these tips help you get the most out of your winter family photo session. If you have any other helpful winter family photography tips, I’d love to hear them! Comment below.

Don’t forget to check out my ebook and other photography-related resources if you’re interested in growing your skill and enhancing your work!

I can’t wait to see the stunning pics you all create in a winter wonderland!

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