By Samantha Critchell
The Santa hats, beach background or dressed-up dog in the holiday card photo might be saying more than “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year.”
The image can be a snapshot of the past 12 months: where you’ve been, what you’re thinking, your outlook, your outfits.
Yes, it’s a big message to come in a 5-by-7 envelope, but you already knew a picture could be worth a thousand words. Now consider that this card might be the only piece of snail mail you send to your loved ones all year. While email and social media makes it easy to stay in frequent communication with far-flung friends and relatives, those tweets, texts and updates can be deleted or forgotten as quickly as they arrive.
A holiday card, in contrast, “is really a chance to make a statement,” says Kemper Johnson, visual director of MyPublisher.com, an online custom publishing site.
“You’re creating your own greeting card. It has meaning, and most people you’re sending it to know will know that it’s your home in the background or the vacation you were on, or it’s an introduction to you and your family to a new friend,” he says.
So are you the traditionalist who lines the family up in front of the fireplace? The goofball who each year dresses up her Chihuahua in a new sequined frock? The proud parent who wants to show off the family’s football star and best ballerina on the same card?
The right photo will look different for each family, and likely will be a different type each year, says Meg Bohnert, card stylist for Shutterfly, the online photo site. You’ll know it when you see it, she says.
Her advice: “You want a photo that is ‘in a moment.’”
That doesn’t mean perfect, though. Sometimes it’s the frame shot just before or after the posed photo that better captures the real family dynamic.
Next, think about color. That means not only the background and text but also the hues of your clothes or the setting, says TV style adviser Jeannie Mai. “Color is what will jump out of the envelope first.”
White, for example, is a way to “hit the reset button” and convey a change, either in look or lifestyle, she says, while peach or blush tones say “romance — that you’re feeling lovey dovey.”
If you like a strong, polished look, consider browns and grays mixed with black, suggests Mai, who hosts Style Network’s “How Do I Look?”
She envisions her own card this year to feature a natural, woodsy setting with fresh greenery. “I want my card to say to my recipient that there’s a new year ahead and a lot to look forward to.”
* Black and white: This is either nostalgic or modern, says Johnson. With the traditional trappings — those Fair Isle sweaters, plaids or snowy landscapes — your message is one of a classic, timeless holiday greeting, he says, while something sleek without clutter is more sophisticated and subtle.
There also are practical reasons to use a black-and-white image. If there’s too much clutter in the background, it’ll be tempered, and will neutralize clashing colors.
* Coordinated clothes: “Matching outfits can do a couple of different things,” San Francisco-based photographer Jennifer Chaney observes. “It can say, ‘We’re very traditional,’ it can say, ‘We have a sense of humor’, but it also can convey that you don’t have a lot of creativity.”
She suggests everyone wear something in the same color family or have one matching accent piece. “You’ll look like you belong to the same family but that you have your own style.”
* Gallery: Using multiple photos can bring a family together, even if it’s hard to get them together in one room. “It’s the quick fix if someone is away at college or for grandparents who want to show all their grandkids,” Bohnert says. “You can tell a lot of stories this way.”
* Antler ears, Santa hats and fake moustaches: “The joke has to be an obvious joke,” Chaney says. Clever wording will help here. Think “Awkward Family Photos.”
* Pets: As much as he’d like photo cards to show every member of the family right down to the goldfish, Johnson warns that pets can steal the thunder, so mind the pecking order and how that comes out in the picture.
* Outdoor setting: It’s often the easiest shot, has the best light and it’ll probably have the most easy-going feel, Bohnert says. The family will probably come off as less stuffy and more playful.
Don’t feel limited to a pine-tree background. If your best photo was from your summer vacation, share that with your friends. They want to see you when you feel happy and at your best, Bohnert says.
If you want to make it feel a little bit more “holiday,” trim it red and green or add candy-cane stripes.
* No people: You don’t need people to make a personal photo card. An artistic landscape from that blockbuster trip, a sunrise picture from your deck or the wreath that hangs on your door can say just as much.
* New Year’s: Want to stand out from the crowd? Send a New Year’s card. “That says, ‘I’m always late’ or ‘I’m really optimistic,’” according to Bohnert, “but you’ll remember getting that card.”