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Creating a standout holiday card

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  November 13, 2008 03:08 PM

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By Joanne Rathe
Globe Staff Photographer

They seem to be arriving by the hundreds these days. Everyone seems to send out a photo greeting. It's a great way to update friends and relatives about the people you care about most in your life, and it's a great opportunity to be creative.

Being part of a two-photographer couple household, our kids had no choice but to sit for us year after year while we created our holiday greeting. Over the years, we certainly had our share of cranky moments, and "it's too cold for this!" As they grew and their teachers started requesting copies of "the card", the children began to see the value in the perfect photo. Now they love to brainstorm new ideas each year.

Two things will make your holiday photo stand out: A great photo and a great presentation.


Location: Choose a location that’s meaningful: a special summer vacation place, or a place that expresses the winter season or your family tradition.

Lighting: Resist the urge to use your on-camera flash. The lighting is too harsh. Take the photo during the warm light of the morning or late light toward the end of day. It’s great to incorporate the lights of the season, whether it’s festive holiday lights or candlelight.

If you can adjust your camera to use a slow shutter speed to allow for some ambient light in these situations, it will create a warm effect. There are many settings on digital cameras that allow you to do this, such as “night” or “indoor”, but it’s so easy to experiment and see your results right away.

Also, when shooting winter scenes, beware: Late afternoon snow in the shade makes a blue cast, which can be adjusted using a “shade” setting in digital cameras. Snow scenes during a bright sunny day may cause your subjects to squint and also underexpose your subjects. You may want to avoid overly bright snow days.

Make it fun: If your subjects are in a fun environment, or are doing something they love, you are more likely to get a special moment or tenderness among siblings.

Take a ton of photos of one situation: There is no expense with digital cameras to take many shots. This will increase the odds that your kids will be relaxed and everyone will look good. And of course, every once in awhile you just may have to leave the situation alone and come back when everyone is in a good mood and feels like participating.

Backgrounds: Look for backgrounds that are not busy or distracting.


In this digital age, there are endless choices for your final product. Every photo lab offers photo greeting cards. The problem with these is that no matter how cute the photo is, the cards all seem to look alike.

There are many other creative choices out there. For example, you can print the photo yourself on a good quality printer and photo paper using words that are your own unique message. There are many online photo services that allow you to create your card online and they will do all the printing (even mailing, too). Scrapbooking materials are a great way to personalize your card if you’re not sending out a mass mailing.

Don’t be afraid to walk into a crafts store and ask for ideas. Many craft and business supply stores sell beautiful pre-made cards you can personalize with your computer. I also enjoy looking over displays of holiday cards to get ideas to either incorporate a photo into that card, or create a photo card that looks like l would want to buy it.

Just plan ahead; it is a busy time of year!


2007 was a particularly snowy year, so the kids all loved the idea of making snow angels. This was shot from a low roof looking down at our backyard. I added contrast when I printed the photo, so the white of the snow extended to the white of the card. I used Microsoft Publisher to design the card with the photo and words “Angels 07”, but this can be done with any number of programs, including Photoshop. I printed this on Red River inkjet photo paper, using a bright white matte surface. The kids sprayed the card with spray-on glue and added white glitter to make the card shine.

For Amber Waves of Grain

Our favorite summer destination is the tiny town in Kansas where my husband is from. With nothing to block the horizon, you can’t miss when taking photos in the early evening summer light. We had the kids in a field behind grandma’s house, where the out-of-focus fields in the distance made a beautiful soft background. This was the holiday season after Sept. 11, so when it came time to assemble the card, it seemed the perfect time to reflect on our country. I printed phrases from "America the Beautiful" and then cut out stars from the type. We tied straw pieces into the card and used gold pen to frame the photo and write a caption with the location and date. It was labor intensive, yet therapeutic.


What a great dateline for a photo. My good friends invited us to spend the weekend at their New Hampshire home. We headed to Bethlehem, NH, which has a great tree farm. I created this card for my friends in Microsoft Publisher and printed it on bright white matte Red River inkjet photo paper. On the back of the card, I printed a small photo layout documenting the family cutting down the tree.


I found a beautiful computer-ready card at Staples one year. It was a square card on which you tied a gold ribbon, and it slipped into a square velum envelope. Our family photo was a simple close-up of the kids in winter gear with an out-of-focus background, which I converted into black and white on my printer and printed it to size on matte heavyweight inkjet paper, also available at Staples.


This is studio light set up with a backdrop, but it could be done on the right day in your backyard. Either a cloudy day with even shadows, or late afternoon reflected light (sometimes light that bounces off your house late in the day is beautiful). We used a wrinkled sheet backdrop, but it was the Santa hat, star shirt, and the lucky find for the card that came with a star to match. This was a catalog photo insert card (Exposures), with the photo converted to black and white before being sent off for printing at the local photo lab.


Joanne Rathe

About Joanne Rathe
Joanne Rathe, pictured here on the Zakim Bridge during construction in 2001, has been working at The Boston Globe since 1985, where she is an assistant chief photographer. She has had a wide variety of assignments, traveling from the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan documenting Afghan refugees to the Northwest Territories of Canada photographing the winter ice road. She has covered strife in Nicaragua, the Olympics, political campaigns, and the community of Globe Northwest.

She has won multiple awards from the National Press Photographers Association, including two first prizes. She also has received the World Press Children's Award for her photos from post-apartheid South Africa, the World Hunger Award for documenting rural poverty in New England, and many awards from the Boston Press Photographers Association.

Before coming to the Globe, Joanne worked at the Boston Herald and the Springfield (MA) newspapers. She is a graduate of Boston University's College of Communication, and is from Westbury, New York.

More photos by Joanne Rathe


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