It’s a snap: How to create the perfect holiday photo card

Sending holiday cards used to mean choosing a few boxes from the drugstore and sitting down to sign and stamp. But with the growth of Internet photo sites like Shutterfly, Minted and Tinyprints, creating a flawless card has become easier, but also can seem like a competitive and all-consuming sport.

Each season, mailboxes are deluged with family missives that look more like fashion magazine shoots than favorite snapshots.

“People in general are taking much more care about how they do their cards,” says Minted founder and CEO Mariam Naficy. “They are putting out so little mail that they want that once piece of mail they send to friends and family to be very unique and express their style. Nobody wants to feel cookie-cutter.”

But with holiday cards, unique teeters into terrible with alarming ease. Fourteen photos on one card? Everyone sporting neon scarves? Too many choices can lead to trouble. But with this advice from expert designers and photographers, creating a card worthy of being displayed until Valentine’s Day is easier than shopping for the in-laws.

Card first, photo second. While the pressure is on to get the perfect shot, it’s wise to pick the card first, says midtown Sacramento photographer Jill Carmel. That way, outfits and backgrounds can be chosen to match what will ultimately frame them.

“When people plan it ahead of time, it’s really stunning,” Carmel says. You may want to spend some time exploring some of the holiday card websites to start brainstorming about size, shapes and formats that are available this year. That may inspire you to try something different from previous years.

Be adventurous. This year, cards are more elaborate than ever, with creative design innovations taking center stage. “Clear” cards with die-cut cutouts are big at Tinyprints, says Head of Custom Design Heidi Reichert, as are glitter and twists on traditional holiday colors. “So instead of your forest green, maybe a pop of color like lime green,” she says.

Minted’s Naficy says a new line of cards with gold and silver embossed foil over the photos is popular on her site, as well as effects such as ombre and watercolor. She adds that she is seeing flat cards win out over more traditional folded ones because they are better suited for many of the new designs, and make less use of photo paper cards, which don’t have the quality feel of matte paper.

Dress for success. Leave the matching outfits at home. That’s “something we did in the ’80s,” warns Carmel. Instead, think coordinating – colors and clothes that work together in a similar palette without being too close in style.

“It adds a lot more to the image when people are wearing things they normally wear and like to wear,” adds local photographer Lisa Smiley. She says that it’s also important to make sure everyone is comfortable in what they have on. “It comes across in their expressions when they are uncomfortable, especially in kids and men,” she warns.

Time it right. Carmel points out young kids often can be cranky by the time afternoon rolls around. She suggests taking pictures in the morning if you have little tots, but if your brood is older, hold out for late afternoon when “the light is a little prettier.” And Smiley says to make sure no one is hungry, since a shoot can last up to two hours.

Let there be light. No matter when you do it, make sure you have adequate lighting and stay close to the subjects. Dim lighting will appear grainy, and having to zoom in will lessen the quality, which should be between 300 and 500 dpi (dots per inch). Reichert also says to keep an eye on pets’ eyes, which often reflect unpleasantly if a flash is used. “Glowing Fido eyes can really detract from the rest of the people on the card,” she cautions.

Go pro. Hiring a professional photographer to get the holiday shot is becoming more common. Local photographer Naomi Harrison, who offers a mini photo session for holiday cards, says she does 80 percent of her business in the fall as families prepare for the holidays. An average professional sitting ranges from about $150 to $250, plus the price of photo packages, which can up the tab to more than $1,500.

With that investment, going this route often means getting more than a card out of the deal. Experts advise using the opportunity to have a family portrait done, with the holiday card as a secondary benefit. Carmel also advises clients to get hair and makeup done professionally. “The difference is so big,” she says. Smiley agrees, adding that it “helps to relax moms” when they know everyone is looking their best.

Be fair. If you’re collecting shots to use, be sure to be both legally and socially correct. If it’s a professional shot, make sure that you have the rights to it. If it’s part of a package from a professional photographer who provided digital files, rights are likely included. However, taking a shot off of someone else’s website or social media site may cause issues. It’s also just polite to ask before sending out a picture that you didn’t take.

Be you. “Families are moving away from the more poised photos and trying to catch the essence of their family,” says Reichert. She says that she’s seeing lots of action photos of families doing the things that they love and that define their personal ethos, from “hiking to barbecues on the back deck.”

Forget deadlines. “Procrastination has increased,” says Naficy, adding that New Year’s cards are a popular option on her site. Tinyprint’s Reichart agrees, and says that cards can go out as late as February and still count as on time. “As long as you are in that first quarter of the year, you are OK,” she says. Along with New Year’s greetings, another popular trend is “happy everything” cards that stay away from a particular holiday or tradition.

Relax. “You get so caught up in wanting the perfect photo that the children become tense and the parents are focused on making sure the kids look perfect,” warns Harrison. This is a holiday card, after all. Remember the spirit of the season and have fun.


Resources: Many specialty sites will walk you through the steps you need to create personalized holiday greeting cards, including :,,,, and

Cost: Photo greeting cards range in price depending on the style, size, die cut, quality of paper and quantity: 30 cents to $3.99 per card, including envelopes.