Gathering - Dreamstime

Dining in is the new dining out. Whether the photos are of family or friends around a home cooked meal or a couple at home, the resulting images are increasingly important as budgets shrink and an emphasis on relationships increase in unsteady times. This is the time of year in the western world where more families dine together than at any other time of the year. One of the biggest holiday meals in the U.S. has just passed but most winter gatherings will take place over the next month.

© Iofoto

It can be difficult to get great group shots using your own friends and family but if they are willing and allow you to take a little more time than with the normal family snap, you might get a winning picture. Although the uncle who drinks too much or a pouty teen may show up at your table, it might be best to concentrate on the positive side of family gatherings for most shots. Try for a mix of ages with the more the merrier. Images that show groups of people are in greater demand than ever just now. Age diversity is not as appropriate as is ethnic diversity for dinners with a group of like-minded friends.

Some ideas for shooting an actual family gathering during the winter holidays:

• Child helping to set the table

• The table setting and centerpiece

• Holiday decorations around the house

• The cook in the kitchen is not so easy to set up when an actual meal is being prepared. Sometimes capturing the chaos could result in a humorous shot.

• You may be able to get a grab shot before the eating begins but take care that the lighting will work without setting up your lights. Otherwise you’ll have some family photos but probably not be able to find success with them in the marketplace. And after all sometimes the camera should be left in the bag so you and the guests can enjoy the moment AND the food and drink.

• Grandma’s house may be charming as you remember it, but take care that distracting items are kept out of the frame such as low hanging light fixtures and framed art or photos of unreleased recognizable people.

• Follow the guests outside after a mid day dinner to see them walking off the big meal or playing in the snow.

• Children making holiday cookies is a sure shot but make certain that the cookies look home baked!

• Remember if you are shooting real people at an actual family dinner or party, you will still need to take the time to hand out and collect signed model releases.

A tip: You might be better off jotting down ideas as they occur to you during the event or party than trying to get the perfect picture during the festivities. Use these thoughts to build a storyboard for a daylong shoot over which you have greater control of the lights, set and models at a later date.

Suggestions for a shoot list for a ‘family gathering’ production.


o When shooting kitchen ensure that the counters are not cluttered.

o Alternatively do put some simple kitchen props around to add a touch of reality to the images. A bowl of fruit works nicely to this end.

o If the cook is meant to look like he/she is attending to something on the stove, put something in the pot even if only a can of soup. That way you can also turn on the heat. Nothing takes away from the authenticity of photo than a sparkling pan that obviously has nothing in it on a cold stove or a cook “tasting” from an empty spoon.

o Cultivate the friendship of developers and builders of new homes, condos or apartments. I have often used model homes that have been professionally decorated as sets for photo shoots. You can sometimes trade photos for access or pay a much smaller location fee than if you are going to go through a location scout.

o Stay away from bright red or blue cabinets and extreme décor or very regional looks in the kitchen and dining rooms.

o Use the tricks that professional production stylists use: copy the table settings down to the centerpiece from the displays in a mall or shop that caters to the home décor market or from the pages of shelter magazines.

o Changing center pieces/flower arrangements will allow you to create several different seasons /holidays during the shoot. In the two photos of a turkey on this page, the photographer has made very small changes to create both a Thanksgiving and a Christmas dinner using the same bird. He has replaced the Thanksgiving pumpkin with ribbon and pinecones for a Christmas table. (OK I don’t KNOW that it is the same bird shot on the same day…but the images make the point!)

o I read recently…was it on a Dreamstime blog?…that a very simple way to create a formal dinner shot was to crop in closely on a small card table or any flat service that had been set with a white table cloth and fancy silver and dishware. You will have created the illusion of a large table without the hassle of many place settings.

o is a web site that connects to rental sources by zip code in the U.S. Party stores will also often lend out props.


o A family shot should have at least three generations ranging in age from babies to older adults.

o No sweaters with a reindeer motif or other patterns. Keep the colors neutral or solid. Red is good, of course, for Christmas dinners.

o For an adult holiday dinner party, have a mix of ethnicities and keep the ages uniform.

Food and drink:

o A food stylist is an expert on making food look delicious. Nothing is worse than unappetizing food in a photo.

o If you can’t use a stylist, keep the food simple and in the background of the images or cater the main dish.

Keyword errors: Searching on ‘family cooking’ returned images of a bare kitchen. ‘Cooking’ should only return images where cooking is actually going on.

PS The holidays are over for the blog. In the next weeks I anticipate some more about good keywords and tropical travel. Stay tuned.

Photo credits: Andres Rodriguez, Andi Berger, Eugene Bochkarev, Iofoto, Monkey Business Images, Sandra Dragojlovic, Pressmaster, Redbaron, Rmarmion.

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December 08, 2008


The food looks so ... hmm ... i am hungry now :) Good images.

December 07, 2008


Thanks for your reply. I'm sure that's what it meant but I was confused as I had never noted a 'comment' before under my 'management area.' As I mentioned, I'm a real newcomer at this game so I'm sure I'll have more questions for you. Your blog has been most helpful so keep up the good work.


December 07, 2008


Ellen, I really admire and value your advice. I appreciate the time you put into all of your comments. It is so helpful to newcomers like me as well as professionals. Thank you so much.

December 06, 2008


Darolyn, I think that the comment is simple a head's up that I have posted a new blog if I understand your question.

December 05, 2008



I am new at stock photography but I'm learning about the technical qualifications for image acceptance. However, I'm still a novice at the personal marketing aspects of the business. For example I noted the comment (cut and paste at bottom} and I don't understand what it means. I have been reading your blogs and found it so interesting to note that even though Dreamstime's headquarters is not located in our country - you are a valuable employee and live just across the Sound from me. I have lived on Mercer Island Washington for 40 years so you can imagine the original cost of our home compared to those home prices of today. It would be fun to hear from you sometime via my e-mail rather than a blog comment since photography has obviously been our passion for a good many years.


Darolyn Quayle
Mercer Island, Washington

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User Boughn, one of your favorites, has posted a blog article. Use the following link to read more: Gathering

December 05, 2008


Another great article, Ellen! Thanks for your efforts.

I read recently…was it on a Dreamstime blog?…that a very simple way to create a formal dinner shot ...

Perhaps that was in the current issue of Popular Photography magazine? Even if not, they just had a similar tip, and several others, on how to shoot food.

Thanks again, Ellen!


December 05, 2008


Thank you for all the valuable information, Boughn. It is hugely appreciated.

December 04, 2008


You are a very caring person
The design of their homes, living arrangements, the very rich
My English is not good,
learn from to you

December 04, 2008


great tips and info as always, thanks so much!

December 03, 2008


Great tips! I especially love the idea of using a model home for interior shots, if it is possible. It is difficult to not show clutter or too much stuff on counters, etc. at real life parties and get togethers. Thanks and happy holidays!

Best regards,

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