The other day I got a phone call from my wife while I was at work.
"Do you have anything to do on Saturday?"
"Because I want to take the Christmas card picture."
"I hate the Christmas card picture."
"Well, that's the spirit."
"It's just that it never turns out like we want and the day usually ends with no one happy."
"We're doing it on Saturday."
Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar. The kids are wearing their carefully chosen outfits. Not only do their clothes reflect holiday colors, and not only do they match each other, but they're also color-coordinated with the scrapbook pages that they will someday inhabit. That's right, we've dressed the kids (and ourselves) to match something that doesn't even exist.
Grace's hair has been tied in two perfectly symmetrical ponytails (my wife denies using a protractor and a T-square, but I don't believe her), each held up by a special bow that was purchased just for this day. William's hair has been plastered into a holiday helmet that could stop bullets. We're ready. This is where things start to go downhill.
There are two French doors in the kitchen that let in a lot of nice, natural light. I set up my shiny family next to the door to the side so I can catch those soft shadows on their faces. I'm using a white blanket on a sawhorse from the basement as a backdrop because the pantry full of mac-and-cheese boxes doesn't exactly say "Happy Holidays." With the camera on the tripod, I say those horrible words that set the whole fiasco in motion:
"Everyone look at Daddy."
They all comply for an instant. My wife wears an angelic smile, Grace has her mouth open (she's talking), and William gives me his deer-in-the-headlights look ("Did I just hear Daddy's voice? Oh, is Daddy here? I think Daddy is here. Did anyone else hear a voice like Daddy's just a moment ago?"). This will be the only time they'll all look at me at the same time.
I snap photo number one. By photo number ten William has had it with the whole deal and is trying to leave the room. At number 12 Grace is physically attacking her brother and from there I'm wondering under my breath why we can't just go to Hallmark like normal people, my wife is calling me "Ansel Adams" in a tone that sounds like "I get the kids once the divorce is final," and we all agree, our holiday patina faded, that one of the 40-something photos I shot will just have to do because if I don't get out of this kitchen right now I'm going to kill all of these people.
I am not a photographer. I'm a person who enjoys taking pictures. I know that terms like "f-stop," "composition," and "exposure" exist, but I'm not really sure what they mean. When Grace was born, I had wonderfully romantic ideas of re-creating some of my favorite baby images. You know the type: Two adult hands lovingly cup miniature feet that look like porcelain; soft light dances across the spiral of brand new hair on a soft scalp. The photos that make people say, "Oooooohh!" Not, "Oh."
So, I went out and bought a book entitled How to Photograph Your Baby, by Nick Kelsh. It's really terrific, and in it Mr. Kelsh spells out the three rules you need to follow while shooting photos of your kid: 1.) Turn off the flash, 2.) Get very close, and 3.) Click that shutter button like it's your morphine drip (I'm paraphrasing, of course). The good news is that his advice worked! I got some great shots of the kids over the years. The bad news is the same: It worked.
Flushed with my early successes, I started to believe that I could take decent pictures. But the fact is, eventually a good picture makes its own way into my camera, regardless of what I'm doing.
Anyway, Christmas Photo Day came and went, and while browsing the carnage in iPhoto, my wife had a great idea. "Why don't we use the rejects?" she said. "What?" I asked. "It'll be funny. We'll put three or four rejected photos on the cover of the card and one we actually like on the inside. People will love it." I like it.
So here's hoping things go better for you. If you want, you can take my wife's advice and get creative with the photos you wouldn't normally keep. But between you and me, I'd still just rather go to Hallmark.