The Isaacs Family Christmas Card

When planning our family Christmas card this year, my wife and I discussed the option of hiring a professional photographer to take photos of our daughter. However, we thought it would be much more fun and rewarding to do it ourselves.

Here is how we did it:

Setting up the shot

Luckily I have a friend with an extensive collection of video gear and lighting equipment. Normally, strobes (you and I call them ‘flashes’) are the preferred light source of choice for photographers mainly because of their output power and that the fact that they stay cool (you don’t want sweaty models, usually).


In the diagram above, you’ll see a large Lowell Rifa EX softbox, a bare Lowell Tota, and a bare Lowell Omni w/barn doors, and a reflector. These are all tungsten lights, meaning the light that they emit is similar in color to household incandescent lamps (actually, they are a little more yellow). However, the color wasn’t an issue because I can correct the white balance later.

Images from B & H Photo/Video

The Lowell Rifa EX softbox emits gorgeous, pillowy soft, wrapping light with a gentle fall-off. I’ve shot with it before and have always had excellent results so I knew that this would be my main source of light.

The Tota and Omni were used to light (nuke) the background (a plain cotton sheet) out of the shot. By over-lighting the wall behind the shot, I’ll have a clean, pure white background to work with. The cleaner the background, the less time I’ll spend in post-processing.

The Keeper

Not a day goes by that I don’t realize how blessed I am to have such a good child. Luckily she loves to be in front of the camera (and believe me, she’s had tons of practice). We really lucked out in this case, she was a complete ham and really cooperated for us. After a few hours of whittling down the shots, here is what we decided to keep.


I love that it captures her kind personality, smile, and bright eyes that my wife and I get to see and experience every day. This is exactly what we want to share with friends and family.

Aside from my insanely cute child, this photo is a wreck, right? Well keep reading.




The first step was to set the white-balance to compensate for the yellow color of the tungsten lights. Luckily I had a WhiBal card on hand to give me a good reference shot to work with so it was a matter of grabbing a reading and twiddling a knob in Aperture.

Getting a pure white background

After correcting the white-balance, I exported a 16-bit PSD file out of Aperture and got to work in Photoshop. My first step to a pure white background was some simple Levels and Curves adjustments. The goal was to lighten up some the already light areas to pure white, but I had to be carful and not blow out any detail in the dress and furry hat.

I was hoping that my adjustments would have been sufficient to white out the background, but that wasn’t the case. Instead of finesse, some brute force was in order.

First, I loaded the RGB channel as a selection (under the Channel’s palette):


This gave me a rough selection of the brightest areas in the photo that I filled with white:


Scary, right? Not for long. Next I grabbed the eraser tool (‘E’ if your keyboard inclined) with a large (100px) brush and began to erase the areas of the photo that I didn’t want to be pure white:


You can really start to see the photo come together at this point. Now that I had a rough outline of the white background, I went in with the pen tool (‘P’) and restored the detailed edges that my large eraser covered.


Now that the background was white, I was able to focus on the details in the foreground, including:

  • Adjusting the skin tone and other light color correction
  • Removing the glitter on her lips (those ornaments were apparently tasty)
  • Some light skin smoothing
  • Giving her eyes some pop
  • Cleaning up some of the edges and blemishes on the box
  • Sharpening

The Result

These last few details are what took the most time. I spent a few hours cloning, masking, and smoothing to get everything just right, but in the end the attention to detail was worth it:


I couldn’t believe it. The trial-and-error, the planning, and the patience all paid of. I can’t tell you how happy we are that we took the chance and did this ourselves.


  1. Franny said:

    absolutely beautiful. You did excellent. I need to learn some of this stuff. you had a beautiful little model, a professional could not have done any better.

  2. Dustin said:

    Thanks for sharing, great write-up and illustration of the setup. The outcome is wonderful. We’ve got to keep up with the Johnsons, this year’s card was nice!

  3. Jenny said:

    I love it, not only the baby but the pic is great!!!

  4. Chris J. Davis said:

    Beautiful picture Travis and I concur with Dustin, having this write up complete with illustrations was great.

  5. Kristi said:

    I am so happy that I convinced you that some posed pics are ok. Look at the result. Believe me it was hard to pick just this one; there were so many great shots. We had a fun day and were much more comfortable than at a pro studio. Love you. Dustin, we need your address!!!!

  6. Nathan Smith said:

    Holy cute alert! Awesome write-up. I’m waay behind in my dad-to-be photography skillz, so this was helpful. Definitely a “refer to later” resource, when I have something to shoot.

  7. Travis Isaacs said:

    @Nathan. I’ll be happy to give you some tips once little Smith has arrived!

  8. Seda said:

    I love it! Well…the baby more than anything else! But, I like your creative way of passing on a greating, as well as the the technique. Wonderful! Merry Christmas!

  9. Dianna Hahn said:

    It was a very beautiful picture and model. I would make a calendar of that picture.
    I love it. you did great.

  10. Sprogz said:

    Really nice explanation of the post-process steps; I’ve learned my “something” today.

    One question…

    You mentioned this was used for your Christmas cards. How did you go about getting this great image onto cards?

  11. Travis Isaacs said:

    @Sprogz – Glad you learned something :)

    We had them printed using the holiday card service on

  12. Lorry Kirschner said:

    I am so proud of the progress you have made with your photography since you were bitten with the photo-bug!!! Enjoy your addiction…we all will, since we are lucky enough to enjoy your wonderful work

  13. hawken king said:

    (you’re best off correcting the white balance on the actual camera before taking the shot, not photoshop. All dSLR have a lighting type selector)

  14. Travis Isaacs said:

    Sure, it would save me a post-processing step, but I’m not sure about the better-off part. By shooting RAW it doesn’t make a difference whether I set the WB on-camera or in post.

    Thanks for stopping by!