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Shooting for perfect holiday photo

My husband and I are photographers for The Miami Herald, and have faced some difficult assignments. But by far, the most challenging job we have all year is the annual Christmas card photo.

This year, our boys are 7 and 10 years old, and we want to include our chocolate Lab as well.

Over the years, we've had the boys run through hot sand and cling to coconut trees. We've tied them up in Christmas lights. There have been bribes, threats and the occasional tears (mine!) to get the boys looking happy and cute for the friends and relatives who expect nothing less.

I have found no secret to making this experience less stressful. But with today's point-and-shoot digital cameras, advanced technology spares you from some of the technical thinking. Cameras these days do a great job with exposure and flash compensation, and some even do facial recognition and smile detection.

But it's still up to you to figure out where to place the kids and how to pose them.

Here are a few tips:

1. Think about outfits first. Everyone does not have to wear matching outfits, but some color coordination helps. Solid colors work nicely.

2. Background is key! No matter where you want to take your picture, whether it's your own back yard or the beach, take a good, long look at the background. In the back yard, look for some dark foliage as a clean background. At the beach, make sure you find a quiet spot where you don't have people walking in the background.

3. Time of day is also very important if you are shooting outdoors. The end of the day is a good time. The sun is golden and not so bright. You can position people so they are lit by this golden, natural light. If you still find that your subjects are too sensitive to the sun and are squinting, turn them around, with their backs to the sun, and use your camera's flash. (Most cameras will automatically shoot with the flash in this scenario).

Just remember the background as you are moving everyone around. Beware of palm trees coming out of people's heads or any other distractions. Keep that background clean.

4. Positioning the family is also very important. A good rule of thumb is to try to make a pyramid shape -- taller people in the center with the shorter people coming in on the sides and down in front. Also, some of the best pictures are the ones in which the family is not posed. Have everyone walk, skip, run hand in hand along the beach toward you.

(The pyramid still applies here - tallest in the middle, shorter kids on both sides, and if you have an uneven number, or some small, toddling folks, let them toddle ahead of the group a little.)

5. Try to fill the frame of your camera as much as possible with your subject. Don't be afraid to go in tight.

6. Using the telephoto lens on your camera helps compress the subjects together a bit and focuses the attention on the subject rather than on the background.

7. Thank goodness for digital cameras! Don't be afraid to snap away until you get the look you are after. A little planning ahead, and a good deal of patience, and you'll have a memorable card for all to enjoy.