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4 Tips for Taking Better Holiday Photos

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


#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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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
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.

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