How To: Ten Tips for Photographing the Holidays

the holidays

Shooting the Holidays

It’s the time of year when cameras come out from wherever they’ve been, just in time to photograph the holidays. Their owners may almost never take pictures, but even a family’s veteran shutterbugs are not immune to occasional finger and camera strap photos. Here’s a route to improved photographic odds this holiday season from someone who has probably made more bad photos of Christmas and other holidays than you have.

1. Prepare for Success

  • Retrieve your camera manual and brush up on what it contains. It won’t be easy to study it when you are actually trying to photograph the holidays. Download a copy from the manufacturer’s web site if necessary.
  • Have spare, charged batteries within reach.
  • Digital shooters: use automatic white balance or adjust for your light source.
  • Film shooters: have enough and be sure of the color requirements – daylight or outdoor film for flash, indoor film for tungsten, FLW filter with daylight film for standard fluorescent lights.
  • Use Exposure Compensation to get rich, saturated colors.

  • What You See Might Not Be What You Get, but the odds improve if you look carefully at the screen or viewfinder . Make a habit of studying the view to see what’s in the picture and what is out. Notice how moving the camera just a little bit can dramatically simplify and improve a photo.
  • “Point and shoot’ viewfinders are set above and to the side of the picture-taking lens, an arrangement that allows a finger to completely block the lens unbeknownst to the photographer. This viewfinder design has played a vital role in many a photographic amputation. That said, as a general rule, most of the body parts appearing inside the viewfinder’s lines will appear in the picture.
  • A digital camera screen can’t be trusted for judging exposure, especially when under the pressure of shooting the holidays. Your camera can probably display histograms, and if you don’t know how to use them then visit Histograms: Secret for Perfect Exposure.
  • 3. Limber Up

    Peruse magazines for pictures of kids and you’ll see that most were made with the camera at their eye-level. Start stretching your muscles and joints now so you’ll be able to get low to photograph people built close to the ground. That’s where they live so that’s where you should be — your pictures will be the better for it.

    4. Hatch a Plot

    Recruit an accomplice. Short-term, highly-localized population explosions are common holiday occurrences, so crowd-control can be an imperative. Discuss with your helper ways she or he can assist in getting the right people into certain pictures and help keep the wrong people out of others.
    Here’s a quick tip for preserving your relationships when making formal shots of the holidays. Start with the people you want in every photograph and invite others into the pictures are you proceed, rather than starting with all and asking some to step out of the picture.

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    5. Case the Joint Ahead of the Christmas Holidays

    Scout the area with your partner to envision the pictures you want of the holidays and decide how to get them. Move unneeded stuff to another room. Arrange seating so that you can placate hungry and/or over-fed people by re-shuffling them. You can get everyone in the picture if you gather them around a ladder and shoot down, but be aware that the big heads might make what you thought would be an intimate family portrait from the holidays look more like a MENSA recruiting poster. Using a wide lens or the landscape setting on a point ‘n shoot is a better option to help get everyone into group shots.

    Will you use flash? Reflective accessories come out of storage for the holidays, so notice reflective surfaces and take a few practice shots to see what shines back. Move objects or change camera angles to keep your pictures free of muzzle-flashes and thermonuclear events.

    6. Lighten Up!

    Low angles can create looming shadows in flash-assisted photos. Opening shades and energizing lamps will at least help. Better yet, shoot from slightly above the subject so that the shadow falls low behind the person and isn’t in the picture. Bounce the flash from a white ceiling if you camera permits.

    the holidays

    7. Blacken Some Eyes

    Those dreaded red-eyes and blinding white eyeglass glare both come from shooting into people’s eyes. Minimize them by shooting from an angle when subjects aren’t looking straight at you, or bouncing the flash from the ceiling if your flash head can be tilted.

    8. Wait for the Green Light

    Wait until the lights in your viewfinder stop blinking. Anxious lights might mean that the camera hasn’t focused on what it considers to be the subject, i.e. whatever is in the center of the frame or selected focus area, and/or it hasn’t decided how much light the flash should provide. For an off-center subject, move the camera to position the subject in the center of the frame, then press and hold the shutter part way. Wait for the lights to stop, continue holding the shutter button while you recompose the picture, and shoot. Congratulations! You just locked focus and exposure for the actual subject. (SLR shooters might have a separate lock button, usually within reach of the right thumb.)

    NOTE: Progressively longer periods of flashing can mean that the batteries are getting weak.

    9. Don’t Be Average

    “Automatic” cameras decide how much exposure you need. Actually, the camera just guesses, looking at the overall amount of light coming from the scene and trying to make an “average” exposure. If Uncle Alphonse and Aunt Orsavella stand in front of a brightly lit window, they’re going to be dark so that the window can be light and still have the whole photo be “average.” The solution: move the people, close the drapes, turn on a LOT of lights, or use flash. That way the people in your photos of the holidays can be recognized from facial features instead of from guessing.

    If you want really good exposures look into the articles at

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  • The information is valid whenever you take pictures, and it will help you take pictures of the holidays that you will want to share.

    By the way, a person outdoors in the sun could have some serious eye-shadows unless you use fill flash. Check your manual for more information on this.

    10. Have Fun!

    Christmas and the holidays are for making memories.

    Relax, breathe deeply, take great pictures, then put the camera down and be with your family. Remember, you’re a family member first and a photographer second. Don’t go down in history as the person who was never actually in any photographs from the holidays.

    11. Wait! There’s More for the Holidays!

    If you’ll be wrapping up the holidays with a New Year’s celebration you might want to visit this article:

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