Facebook Pixel Holiday Photography: 5 Tips for Magical Holiday Photos

Holiday Photography: 5 Tips for Magical Holiday Photos

holiday photography tips

Do you want to capture beautiful holiday photos of your children, family, and friends?

Holiday photography can be so rewarding – if you know what to do. Unfortunately, without the right approach, you’ll likely look back at some of your pictures after the holiday season has passed, only to wonder why they’re all blurry, out of focus, or just not that interesting.

That’s where this article comes in handy.

Below, I’ll share the essential techniques you need for magical images of the holidays…

…so that, no matter your equipment, you can be satisfied with your photos this holiday season.

Let’s dive right in, starting with my very first tip:

1. Get down on eye level with the kids

Holiday photos of children are classics: kids playing games, kids opening gifts, kids sleeping beside the Christmas tree.

But beginners often make the mistake of photographing kids from high above, looking down, which gives a boring, distant snapshot, plus it fails to capture the wonder and magic of childhood.

That’s why you should always, always, always get down on eye level with the little ones.

Yes, it might feel a bit strange to squat down or sit on the floor, at least at first. But you’ll get used to it over time, and the results will be well worth it. Your shots will be more personal, more interesting, and far memorable.

Also, if you get down on a kid’s level, they’ll be more likely to open up to you (whereas you’ll likely feel much more intimidating when photographing from up above).


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

2. Adjust the ISO instead of using the flash

Most holiday events take place indoors, so you’ll have very little light to work with.

You may be tempted to use your camera’s flash – in fact, if you leave your camera on Auto mode, the flash may go off automatically.

But here’s the problem:

Direct flash from your camera looks, well, bad. It washes out colors, it gives a bright, deer-in-the-headlights effect for portrait subjects, and it casts unnatural shadows across people’s faces. Also, if you’re photographing religious ceremonies, a Thanksgiving concert, or even a family dinner, the participants probably won’t appreciate the constant flashing.

So what do you do? Well, if you switch your camera to Program mode and turn off the flash, then your photos will turn out either very dark or very blurry because of the limited light.

Instead, turn off your flash, and – using the Program mode I mentioned above – boost your camera’s ISO.

You see, the higher the ISO, the brighter the image becomes, and the sharper the image becomes, too, because a high ISO will allow your camera to increase its shutter speed.

Don’t boost your ISO too much, though; a high ISO produces image noise, also known as grain, which doesn’t look very nice. Fortunately, most modern cameras do a fine job even at ISO settings as high as 3200 or 6400, particularly if you just want to share the photos online or print at smaller sizes like 4×6.

So don’t worry too much about keeping a low ISO, but don’t go wild with it, either.


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.

In fact, I recommend you practice beforehand. You can determine the limits of your camera, and you’ll become comfortable setting the ISO in the process.

Bottom line: When used carefully, adjusting the ISO instead of using the flash can result in much better holiday photos. And there’s an added bonus, too: you won’t blind your guests or need to deal with red-eye corrections later on.


Also, 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. Aperture Priority lets you choose the ISO and the lens aperture, while your camera calculates the best shutter speed. The wider (lower) the aperture setting, the brighter your images will become – just the same as if you boosted the ISO – except that you’ll also get a lovely blurred-background effect.

I would recommend getting lots of practice with these modes before the holidays, though. You don’t want to try something new for the first time when everyone is opening presents!

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? Be a little more discreet and shoot moments instead of poses. Ditch the pose-speak, and try to capture the essence of what people are doing: talking, laughing, opening presents, or sharing a drink.

In my experience, this makes for much more interesting photos as well as better memories in years to come.

Of course, there is certainly nothing wrong with posed photos. And there’s nothing wrong with photos of people looking at you and smiling while you take their picture, either.

But aside from people’s clothes and their immediate surroundings, these images tend to lack context. When looking back at photos, you’ll often have tons of questions: What else was happening? Who else was present? What sort of activities were people doing? A posed photo probably won’t offer up many answers.

Candid holiday photos, however, will capture people just being themselves, generally with plenty of context. So by taking a documentary-style approach and shooting casual images, you’ll 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 counterintuitive 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 – as well as a time to just be with friends and family.

So rather than capturing 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 you’ll end up with more keepers, rather than dozens and dozens of images that look exactly the same.


Don’t take a boatload 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.

5. 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 familiar with it before the rush of the holiday season).

While prime lenses don’t zoom in and out, they feature an ultra-wide aperture (often f/2.8, f/1.8, or even f/1.2). A wide aperture lets in so much more light (especially compared to a kit lens); you can capture beautiful, bright exposures, even at low ISO values. You’ll also get the added bonus of smooth, blurry backgrounds that’ll make even the most mundane subjects interesting.


The Nikon 35mm f/1.8 is a fantastic choice, as is the Canon 24mm f/2.8, and there are plenty of other options to suit your needs depending on your camera and shooting style. I’d recommend picking a semi-wide lens (24-35mm) or a standard lens (50mm); anything longer will require significant cash and can be overkill when shooting in a house, while anything shorter will be difficult to handle.

Holiday photography tips: final words


Hopefully, you now feel ready to capture some stunning holiday photos! I highly recommend you pick up your camera and practice ahead of time (and if you’re going to purchase a prime lens, do it soon!).

That way, you’ll capture magical holiday images right from the get-go.

Now over to you:

Which of these tips is your favorite? Do you have any holiday photos that you’re proud of? Share them in the comments below!

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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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