4 Tips for Taking Better Holiday Photos

4 Tips for Taking Better Holiday Photos

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With the holiday season just around the corner, many of us will be toting our cameras to festivals, parties, and family gatherings to preserve our precious memories for years to come. Unfortunately, you might look back at some of your pictures and wonder why they were blurry, out of focus, or just not all that interesting. Whether you have a smartphone or DSLR, here are a few simple techniques you can use to make your photos not only stand out, but help you learn a bit more about photography along the way.

4 tips for taking better holiday photos

ChildChristmasTree

#1 Get down to eye level with the kids

While you might be tempted to pass the time visiting with adults and catching up with friends at holiday gatherings, some of the best photos years down the road often end up being the ones of kids. It’s fun to see them grow and change over time, and when browsing photo collections people will often linger on photos of children for all the memories they bring back. When you have your camera out, though, remember to get on eye level with the little ones! It can feel a bit strange to squat down or sit on the floor to get a good shot of your three-year-old niece while all the adults are visiting in the other room, but the results will be well worth it. It’s tempting to shoot down at kids from your eye level, but this often results in unflattering pictures that seem cold and distant. Putting yourself physically at the same level as the kids offers a much more interesting view of their world, and makes for photos that are far more personal and memorable.

ThanksgivingFriends

My friend and her daughter before a Thanksgiving feast. I had to crouch down to get on eye level with the girl, but the results make for a much more interesting picture.

#2 Adjust the ISO instead of using the flash

If you leave your camera on Automatic mode, you might notice the flash constantly going off which can result in washed-out colors and unnatural shadows across people’s faces. But if you try to disable the flash, your photos will often come out blurry or out of focus. To fix this, you can set your camera to Program mode instead of Auto, which will allow you to have more direct control over the ISO setting and get better shots in low-light conditions (like indoor holiday parties) without using the flash.

ChristmasEveService

Using a flash would ruin this photo of a candle-lit Christmas Eve service. I got this shot by bumping the ISO up to 3200.

The higher you set your ISO, the less light your camera needs in order to take a photo. This is nice if you want to avoid blinding people with your flash, but the trade-off is that your pictures might look noisy or grainy. Fortunately, most modern cameras do a fine job even at ISO settings as high as 3200 or even 6400 – particularly if you just want to share the photos online or print at smaller sizes like 4×6.

Make sure to practice beforehand so you are comfortable not only setting the ISO, but knowing the limits of what your camera can do. But if used carefully, adjusting the ISO instead of using the flash can result in much better holiday photos with the added bonus of not blinding your guests or having to deal with red-eye corrections later on.

ThanksgivingDinner

If you really want to use your camera to its full potential, ditch Auto or Program mode entirely and try shooting in aperture priority (A or Av) mode where you choose the lens aperture and ISO while your camera calculates the best shutter speed. Or you could try shutter priority (S or Tv) mode, where you choose the shutter speed (1/60 to 1/90 second are good starting points when shooting indoors, such as holiday gatherings) and ISO, and your camera figures out the best aperture. I would recommend getting lots of practice with these modes and making sure you know how to adjust your settings accordingly before the holidays, though. You don’t want to try something new for the first time when everyone is opening presents and have a bunch of dark or out of focus photos as a result!

Finally, it’s worth noting that many modern digital cameras have user-programmable Auto ISO settings. You can use this to tell your camera to select the best ISO when using the semi-automatic (A/Av, S/Tv, or P) modes but stay within a few parameters that you define. For instance, if you know that your camera gets too noisy above ISO 3200, you can set that to be the maximum allowable ISO but let your camera do the rest. Or you can also set a minimum shutter speed before the Auto ISO kicks in.  If you don’t want to shoot anything slower than, say, 1/30 of a second, your camera will do everything in its power to maintain proper exposure by adjusting the ISO in order to stay above that shutter speed.  This can be quite handy at holiday gatherings when you don’t want to spend all night fiddling with your camera’s menus and settings but also want to make sure you get the best shots possible without the pop-up flash constantly blinding your guests.

#3 Shoot moments, not poses

It might be tempting to run around with your camera at holiday parties barking out orders like “Smile,” “Look here!” and “Say Cheese!” But a better option is to be a little more discreet and attempt to shoot moments instead of poses. Capturing the essence of what people are doing – talking, laughing, opening presents, sharing a drink – often makes for much more interesting photos as well as better memories in years to come. There is certainly nothing wrong with posed photos or having people look at you and smile while you take their picture, but these often lack context aside from the clothes people have on. What else was happening? Who else was present? What sort of activities were people doing? By taking a documentary-style approach and shooting pictures of people just being themselves (particularly if you turn the distracting flash off and adjust the ISO instead) you will capture memories that will strike a chord years down the road.

ThanksgivingCardGame

This picture of a game of cards over the holidays carries a great deal more meaning to me than if I had told everyone to look at the camera and smile.

#4 Know when to put your camera down

This might sound counter-intuitive for an article about how to get better holiday photos, but as the saying goes, there is a time for everything under the sun. This includes a time to shoot pictures and a time to just be with friends and family. Rather than 100 photos of your family opening presents, just take a handful and use the rest of your time to simply be with your loved ones and enjoy your time together. Try to be intentional when taking fewer photos, and the result will be more keepers that you want to look at years down the road instead of dozens and dozens of images of the same scene.

ChristmasPresents

Rather than a boat load of present-opening photos, just a handful will likely suffice and the rest of your time can be used to visit, laugh, and share memories.

Bonus tip: Invest in a prime lens

If you are still shooting with the kit lens that came with your camera, now is a fantastic time to spend a little money on a prime lens and get used to it before the rush of the holiday season. While these lenses don’t zoom in and out, the trade-off is an ultra-wide aperture that lets in so much more light (especially compared to a kit lens) that you will rarely have to use the flash even at lower ISO values. You will get the added bonus of having a lens capable of smooth blurry backgrounds that can capture the beauty of even the most mundane subjects. The Nikon 35mm f/1.8 is a fantastic choice, as is the Canon 24mm f/2.8, but there are plenty of options to suit your needs depending on your camera and shooting style.

TreeOrnament

What other tips do you have for getting good pictures at this time of year? Leave any in the comments below, and maybe share a few of your favorite holiday memories too!

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Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

  • Michael Owens

    Christmas has always been my 50mm prime lens time hehe – glad you agree!

    Thanks for sharing your tips!

  • Great tips, Simon. Thank you.

    I love your first tip – getting eye level with kids. Photos look so much more interesting when they’re made from a different than normal point of view.

    I’ve shared a number of Christmas photo tips on my own site as well: http://www.calebkeiter.com/how-to-take-better-christmas-pictures/

    I’d love to know what you and your readers think.

    Thanks again!

  • Great tips. I totally agree with you!

    Last Christmas: 50mm prime lens on a Canon 6D 8000 ISO (no flash)

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpmiss/11916849084/

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  • Michael Owens

    Nice candid shot. Although, I wouldn’t have guessed it was Christmas in this shot!

  • Oh my goodness, that’s ISO 8000? Incredible. It’s amazing what you can pull off with some nice glass on a good camera.

  • 50mm is my go-to lens for portraits when shooting on my crop sensor D7100, but I found it to be a bit too tight when getting pics indoors. Do you use it on full frame or crop?

  • Michael Owens

    Crop. I only own a D3200 right now, and if I’m too cramped indoors I’ll go wider with my 10-24mm and edit accordingly in Photoshop to get the crop required.

    Especially good when I want some decorations or lights in too hehe

  • You’re right but it was mainly to demonstrate the purpose of shooting at eye level without flash.

  • And thanks to LR noise reduction tool 😉
    Thanks.

  • Michael Owens

    Photoshop a bauble in, problem solved hehe

  • Sounds good to me! I’d like to get a 10-24mm too, or maybe the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8, but for now my go-to indoor lens is the 35mm f/1.8. Wow does it ever work magic 🙂

  • shhhh! don’t tell anyone 😉

  • Michael Owens

    Yeah, my wide angle was a present from the wife, comes to something when it’s more costly than my amateur camera it attaches too hehe (she clearly loves me)

    35mm 1.8, I can imagine it does! I wish there were more magic in the world.

    Those type of lenses achieve it hehe

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  • Russ

    Always include the whole family.

  • Hahaha! Good call, Russ 🙂

  • Noe

    Love tip #4: we need to choose between being the Photographer and the Man, from time to time!

  • Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s a big temptation to always be snapping photos at the holidays, and it’s easy to forget that while we are so busy trying to preserve our memories we are forgetting to be a part of actually making memories! I’ve been there, done that all too often…

  • David

    Great article focusing on candid holiday portraits. I like to get pictures of decorations, too. When taking pictures of Christmas lights, I like to use a 4 point star filter. I prefer to use an filter, rather than doing the effect in post or using a camera effect. The effect seems to be not as popular today as it used to be.

    Another great effect is to use a wide aperture and create bokeh with background lights and decor out of focus. Your photo of the purple snowflake and Jean-Paul’s little girl picture are great examples.

  • I have seen several examples of using 4-point star filters (and other similar filters) and it seems really nice, but never tried it myself. Thanks for the tip, David.

  • Elise O’Neil

    One of the first pictures I ever took with my Canon EOS Rebel T3 a couple years ago when I got it as a combined Christmas/birthday gift (my birthday is mid-January so it’s close enough.)
    I rather like it, though it’s blurry because my hands are shaky and it had a high ISO.
    1/15 sec exposure, F5.6, ISO 3200, with the standard lens that came with my camera which is 35-55mm

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