a peek inside the fishbowl

03 Nov, 2011

The Christmas portrait – DIY style

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Ottawa|parenting|Photography|Publishing/writing/career stuff

My latest piece at Savvymom.ca is about holiday photo cards. I wanted to spend a little more time talking about the Christmas portrait angle of that article.

Do you do a family portrait this time of year? Why or why not?

The issue of Christmas photo portraits is one I have ranted on about MANY TIMES BEFORE.

I used to bring my kids to cheapie cheap portrait studios and always walked away from the experience feeling frustrated and annoyed. Lesson learned: I got what I paid for, and as a result I was never completely happy with the experience. There was also the issue of the negatives, or should I say files, and who owned those files. I was paying for this sitting, right? And these are photos of my own family… so why couldn’t I get all the digital photos burned to a disk and go on my merry way? This is what really stuck in my craw, and eventually spurred me to start hiring myself out as a family photographer. :)

I was of two minds about having professional family portrait taken (and I totally get the irony of what I’m about to say): I wanted a nice photo but couldn’t afford to pay the price that normally go with an in-studio sitting. Also, the studio thing, I find it kind of intimidating. And it always felt so false to me; sitting up straight while wearing itchy collars and tight shoes. (For the record, it was my kids wearing the itchy things, not me.) I was always too self-conscious to pose myself, and also, I always felt that I had a better handle on what makes a good photo than the 16-year old kid behind the camera who didn’t know me from Eve. Also, what makes a good photo is highly subjective and I have pretty distinct ideas of what makes a great photo.


About a month ago I was invited to check out a new portrait studio here in Ottawa run by an experienced photographer named Harry Nowell. He had a rather interesting idea. Studio owners have always rented space to professional photographers who needed it – but Harry wasn’t going after the pros – he decided to make his place available to anyone with a prosumer camera and make it really easy to do so. And I thought that was pretty cool. (Transparency alert: my family was given a photo session at this studio, but as always, my opinions here are entirely my own.)

I mean, you COULD do the annual Christmas photos at home. I have. Here’s a holiday portrait I took of the girls for Christmas 2009. (I set up an umbrella to light it.) You could also do it outdoors, and end up with a portrait in which the kids are smiling through frozen lips while standing in front of a white sheet you’ve thrown over your hedge. ;)

You get my drift right? Sometimes an indoor studio is the best option. And Harry makes it pretty darn simple.

You send him an email to book a date. Once that’s nailed down, you let him know what camera and lenses you’re bringing, and whether you have a tripod or remote etc. He suggests what to wear, and then you just show up. The studio is in a cute renovated home on Preston Street and the intimidation factor is practically zero. He sets up the lighting and tells you where to stand, and then he disappears. (Although he’s available if you need a hand.)

Rates are reasonable, and spots are booking up fast. So if this is something that appeals to you, do it soon.

My suggestions:

  • Bring props: santa hats, jingle bells etc.
  • Moms, bring face powder. It makes a difference. (Personally, I don’t like to be shiny in photos.)
  • Don’t forget the pets! They’re part of the family too. (Although you might want to ask Harry before you bring David Boa.)
  • Bring snacks if your family is snackish. There is a kitchen and washroom there.
  • Bring a plan! If you have 30 minutes before Baby recovers from a nap and you need to get to it right away, say so, and get snapping.
  • Bring a support person – your friend or neighbour or Aunt Susan. They’ll watch from the sidelines and hopefully make helpful suggestions (i.e. “squeeze in over there” and “didn’t your mother ever tell you to sit up straight.”) Also, it’d be handy to have this extra person on hand with a tissue to wipe runny noses and fetch dropped toys, the runaway snake etc.

Harry loaned us a remote, which made this process infinitely easier. I could NOT imagine doing this on a timer. That would have been hellish. Next time we do it I might ask him if there’s a way we could rig up our laptop so we can see exactly what we’re shooting as we’re shooting it.

Here’s a tip, and it might seem self-evident, but make sure you get the shot you want before you call it a day. We have tons of fun photos but very few “serious” portraits because SOMEONE was making “funny” faces in what could have been great shots… but we didn’t notice. *sigh*

Anyway, yes, we got a few good photos:

The girls

Piper poses

the Fam

… and many amusing outtakes:

snatching the cookie


And I think I’m going to ask for a camera remote for Christmas:

shooting myself

You can look at a few of my favourite shots from this photoshoot on my Flickr page. You can read more about Harry’s studio and the DIY portrait package on his website.

9 Responses to "The Christmas portrait – DIY style"

1 | FireMom

November 3rd, 2011 at 10:02 am


This. Is. Genius. Absolutely freaking genius.

(And great shots!)

2 | Giulia

November 3rd, 2011 at 10:19 am


This is a great idea!
We set up studio lighting in the basement with background etc. at least once a year, if not 2 or 3. Sometimes we’ll do an impromptu photo shoot with the kids and sometimes a family shot for the holiday card. We use the timer and our kids (2 and 4) love the blinking light and daddy running back to the chair…it makes for non-serious family photos with big laughs/smiles. Last year we did them with a black background and dark clothing, this year we went for all white….
Great shots of your family.

3 | Kimberly Hosey (Arizona Writer)

November 3rd, 2011 at 10:43 am


Wow, what an awesome idea! I wish there was something like this near my house. And yes, these are wonderful shots. I think I like the outtakes best. So joyful.

4 | Maranda

November 3rd, 2011 at 11:03 am


Amazing idea! Sure beats laying down a bed sheet in front of the Christmas tree.

5 | fern

November 3rd, 2011 at 11:27 am


Great idea! Your dog Piper is sure photogenic! Harry Nowell is doing great things!

6 | Harry Nowell

November 3rd, 2011 at 12:08 pm


Thanks Andrea!
It sure was good to meet your family during your photo shoot at OSW.

I’ve been hearing people laughing and smiling during their photo sessions – while I am working in the office. I wish I could be a fly on the wall but part of the DIY success is the family is by themselves and can let their hair down!

Different people use different triggering devices – remote, self timer, someone used an in-camera feature that automatically takes a photo every 2 seconds for 20 seconds – creates a small ‘movie.’


7 | andrea

November 3rd, 2011 at 12:59 pm


Thanks all! Thank you Harry!

p.s. I just spotted my friends J & L on Harry’s blog. They had a DIY portrait too and got some GREAT pics. Check it out :)

8 | DaniGirl

November 3rd, 2011 at 7:29 pm


I love this idea! BRILLIANT!!!

9 | Shan @ the fairy blogmother

November 12th, 2011 at 2:22 pm


What a fabulous idea!! Love the pictures you got!

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (23) and Sarah (21). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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