How The Cards Are Made

A lot of people ask how the cards are made. The answer is: Photoshop. I take photos of our faces, cut them out in Photoshop (a photo-editing computer program), and paste them onto a card made of source photos.

As an example, below is how I made the 2008 card. Or click on one of the following cards to see how that was made.

2011: Lego. Click here
2009: Twitter. Click here
2008: Palin. Below


We look for a topical subject that we’ve been interested in during the year. In January, we start thinking of the card’s subject. We read newspapers and entertainment magazines to see what might be the big thing come December. In 2008, nothing much was scheduled, so we had to go to Plan B: wait for something to happen.

As the year developed, I wanted to do an Obama card but unfortunately that guy is too slick and there weren’t any good jokes to be had. I considered having our family be fans in adulation but that was just a one-joke gig. Jennie suggested we be the losers (Bush, Hillary, McCain and Palin) at the inauguration, but that was difficult to portray. An idea to do an old black-and-white photo based on Dorothea Lange’s famous 1936 image, to reference the global depression was, well, depressing.

Finally, we saw a picture in Time magazine (11/24/08) that was cute of two kids dressed as Sarah Palin. Jennie suggested that we could all be Sarah Palin and that sounded interesting. I’d not done a card before where we were all the same subject, or even a real person.


I first try to find an iconic, well-known image to work from. This is easy for movies (see years 2002 to 2006) but hard for a news subject. So I collected lots of pictures of Sarah Palin. I loved the one of her in black boots, walking from a plane (bottom left, under the bear), but I couldn’t find a high-resolution image.

In Photoshop, I made a blank-canvas image at the desired size, 5" x 7" at 300dpi. Then I dropped in all the pictures I had. As you can see, all but one proved to be too small to work with. Scaling them any larger would result in a poor-quality, grainy image which wouldn’t blend well with our photos.

So I only had one decent-sized source image — her official Governor of Alaska shot — to work with.


Next I make a dummy card. This has the basic image elements, sized and positioned in a manner that may work. It’s a starting point to see how the image is likely to go.

As you can see, the original idea was for us to all be Sarah Palin, and have the card say "Merry Christmas from the Palins." Also, Panang was going to be a moose and I couldn’t resist including a flute.

The concept changed slightly as we wrote the letter. Jennie thought it would be funnier if we were all a Joe-The-Plumber type family that Sarah was describing. The title got changed to a version of "palling around with terrorists" that Palin used to criticize Obama.

With a dummy made, we could progress to the photography.


The key to making the photos blend well and look good is lighting. The original Sarah Palin photo is a studio shot, so I needed studio lighting. Unfortunately, I don’t have a studio, or studio lighting, so I made one.

Outside, on our patio, I stacked chairs, wood, and a trash bin around the patio table. I used this as a frame to hold white cardboard, all around and under. This gave me a small, white-box studio. (Note the laundry drying on the left!)

I used natural light, some lamps from Home-Depot, and a flash unit to give an even light. The flash is that black thing just below Roxy, attached with a gray cord to the top of the camera. The flash is indirect, bouncing off a white card for a more even look.

The sunlight is also indirect (from overcast sky or in the shade) for even lighting; direct sunlight will produce harsh shadows and over- and under-exposed areas.

Note that the key here is to have white boards and lighting UNDER the face, to light the chin and give an evenly-lit look.

Another trick is to position the camera BELOW the face, at chest level. Looking up at the person gives a subtle, heroic look to the portrait. Shooting from below also helped emphasize the person’s chin, as Sarah Palin has a strong, wide chin.

A fancy camera is not required. I used my Nikon D5200, set to Fine JPEG compression and aperture-controlled exposure. I add in some exposure compensation of +1 to make the white white, rather than gray, and take the flash exposure down by -1.3 to make the flash lighting less obvious. A tripod is useful, to reduce camera shake and make a sharp photograph.


I had to use glasses on the people as this would "sell" the shot. Even our dog, Panang, wore glasses, although not for long and it cost me a lot of biscuits.

The glasses are reading glasses, bought from Walmart for $16.88. The kids loved them! I bought two pairs as I was hoping that Redford and Roxy would pose together but, of course, being kids, they wouldn’t.

They also refused to wear the red jackets I had pulled for them, but fortunately they would wear at least something red. This is Roxy’s Christmas dress. She was very proud of it.

The hair, as you can notice, was not puffed up in a Palin "updo." This was going to be done later in Photoshop.


Here’s where the cheating comes in.

I take lots of photos, import them to my computer (an Apple iMac), and review them for sharpness and suitability. Here’s the shot I chose of Redford. As you can see, it doesn’t look that great. I had mistakenly used the wrong saturation on the camera (Vivid instead of Natural/Portrait) so the skin colors are heavy and orange. So the first thing I did was reduce the color saturation (Image > Adjustments > Hue > Saturation).

Next I tidy up the teeth and eyes. I use the Lasso Tool to highlight the teeth, then reduce the color saturation and increase the whiteness (Image > Adjustments > Curves). I do this also to the whites of the eyes, and increase the color saturation of the eye pupils. Sometimes I also sharpen the eyes a touch, to make them stand out slightly.

Then I smooth out any skin blemishes. This is done with the Clone Stamp Tool, using nearby, nicer-looking skin.

As luck would have it, on photography day, everyone in our family had a bad cold. You can see Redford’s nose is a mess, poor guy. I had to rebuild his nose in Photoshop as it was particularly prominent in the photo.

The background is removed by creating a new layer (a duplicate of the background) and highlighting all the parts to be cut out. There are many good Photoshop tools to do this (including the Magic Wand Tool) but I don’t know how to use them (I’m too lazy to read the manual). Instead, I do it all laboriously by hand using the Lasso Tool and Edit/Cut.

Note that all these changes are made on the original image in the original, high resolution. Always use the highest resolution file available and don’t reduce down until the last moment. I save the work file (as a .PSD) in case I need to come back to it.


Here’s an early work image. As you can see, there’s no hair yet and I started with a different shot of Redford (just to confuse you). Also, Panang is still represented as a moose. I started with the kids first as they were the keystone of all this. I used Edit > Transform > Scale to size everyone correctly.

I copy each portrait photo and paste it into the card, as an individual layer. Every element in the card is a separate layer, so that it can be easily modified and positioned. There were around 40 layers in this card. (The 2006 Lost card used over 100 layers). Later, I combined groups of layers to make people, so that I could move each person around and make a different grouping for the finished product.

Makeup was added digitally. I added eyeliner by drawing black around the eyes with the brush tool (on a separate layer). Rouge was added to the cheeks as a large blob of red, made with the brush tool, and the layer was given an Opacity of 13% so that it blended in seamlessly. Lipstick was added by increasing the size and saturation of our lips.


To get the hair, I used the Lasso and Cut approach on the source image of Sarah.

Hair is particularly difficult. Usually I use a "Feather" on the Lasso Tool of "1", but for hair I fade the edges with a feather of 2 or 4. I also drew in some hair afterwards, using the Brush Tool with a Master Diameter of 1.

I copied the hair and pasted it on each person, including Panang. I cut out different parts of the hair and used Edit > Transform > Skew to shape the hair for each person. Then I colored it for each person, giving more red for Jennie and making it gray for me (by reducing the color saturation).

The Finished Product

Here are the two parts of the card. On the left, are all the layers from source images, including the background and hair. On the right, are our photos. Note that I have cut off our real hair and added some shadows for the fake hair.

Below is the finished product. After color-correcting each layer (so that they all look similar), I "flatten" the image (which combines all the layers into one) and save the file as a JPEG. I then upload the JPEG file to the printer (Shutterfly) and have the card printed. Voilá, a silly Christmas card!

See the finished product.

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