5 Ways to Take More Meaningful Photos This Christmas

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Christmas goes by in the blink of an eye. But taking photos helps us to savour the moments long after the tree is gone and the kids are grown up. When you follow these 5 tips, you’ll have better and more meaningful photos this year.

First - 5 Ways to Take More Meaningful Photos This Christmas

1. Don’t Get Caught Off Guard

The first step to photographing an upcoming event like Christmas is to do a little planning. Start by considering the traditions and moments that you want to look back on in photos. Write an actual list so that you don’t forget what’s on it.

When you’re finished writing out your list, do this exercise to help you figure out what is truly meaningful about those moments. When you do this exercise, you’ll be able to capture deeper themes in your photos.

Take each moment and ask yourself, “What about this moment is important to me?”

For example, you might put “opening presents on Christmas morning” on your list. That’s an obvious one. But ask yourself, “What about the kids opening presents is important to me?” Perhaps the answer is something like, “seeing the look of delight on their faces.”

But don’t stop there; you’ve only gone a little bit below the surface. Now ask yourself, “What about seeing the look of delight on their face is important to me?” Maybe the answer is, “I remember what it was like as a kid and I want to pass that magic and excitement on to my kids.”

Sleep - 5 Ways to Take More Meaningful Photos This Christmas

Do you remember when you were a kid how hard it was to fall asleep on Christmas Eve? After putting the presents under the tree, I snuck in to take this photo of my son as he lay sleeping. This is the book we were reading for his bedtime story.

Now you’re getting somewhere! But you can still keep asking that question until you get right to the bottom. What about “passing on magic and excitement” to your kids is important to you? “Well, this is such a short time in their life. Soon they’ll be grown up and stressed out like me. I just want to slow that down and make their childhood good.”

You’re finally getting deep, so ask the question one more time. “What about slowing down and making their childhood a good one is important to me?” Maybe the answer is that “these are the most formative years of their life. If their childhood goes well, they’ll likely grow up and become good and strong adults themselves.”

By asking the question, “what about this moment is important to me,” you will discover the deeper themes in your photos. Now you can look for those themes in other moments too. Where else do you find the magic and excitement of growing up?
Get in touch with the things that will shape your children as they grow and the things you care most about.

Instead of a few random snapshots of Christmas morning chaos, you can photograph all sorts of meaningful moments to look back on.

Better Christmas photos 01

This is one of the most meaningful photos I have of Christmas time. Not only do I love the quiet moment and beautiful candlelight, but the photo was taken at my grandma’s church on Christmas Eve. It was my son’s first Christmas Eve church service and it was our first Christmas without my Grandma. The photo reminds me of the traditions and hope that is passed down the generations in our family.

Sick - 5 Ways to Take More Meaningful Photos This Christmas

A tender moment between mom and daughter. Our daughter came down with a fever this Christmas. Giving our kids gifts is an exciting part of parenting, but so is comforting them when they are sick. I knew this was a moment worth capturing.

2. Prepare for the Light

You’ve got your list of moments to photograph and you’ve checked it twice! Now you need to consider the type of light in which you will be photographing. When you’re able to handle the light, your photos will look better.

Go ahead and use the flash on your camera (or phone) if you have to. It’s better to have a photo lit with flash than a dark and blurry photo that isn’t worth looking at.

Better Christmas photos 02

This was our first Christmas together as a family. I had read that you shouldn’t use the flash on your camera, so I didn’t. Unfortunately, the photo is so dark you can’t see us. I wish I had used the flash!

Better Christmas photos 03

I used the popup flash on my camera for this photo. It doesn’t always work out this nice though. If you’re going to use the little built-in flash on your camera, then get as close as you can to your subject. The flash will light them up, but not affect things in the background so much.

If you have a DSLR camera and you’re going to use flash, consider using an external flash called a speedlight. When you use an external flash you can bounce the light and your photos will look far better than the little pop-up flash on your camera.

Better Christmas photos 04

An on-camera speedlight was used to light this photo. It was pointed up toward the ceiling so that the light would become softer as it bounced back down toward my son. The Christmas lights in the background are far enough away that they weren’t affected by the flash.

But whenever possible, use natural light. When you’re taking indoor photos, one of the best sources of natural light during the day is a large window. Many of your holiday events will happen in the living room, and most living rooms have a large window which lets in lots of light.

Place your Christmas tree beside the window instead of in front of it and allow the window to become a large, soft light source, making your photos look beautiful.

Better Christmas photos 05

Here the kids are at Grandma’s house. There is a large window to the right which is lighting them up. The Christmas tree is tucked into a corner away from the window.

Better Christmas photos 06

Again, there is a large window providing light for this photo. The tree is tucked away from the window allowing the lights to keep their glow.

When the sun goes down, and you don’t want to use flash, try using lots of lamplight in your photos. The lower placement of lamps simulates the position that the sun is in during golden hour or sunset. The lampshade diffuses the light making soft sidelight for your photos.

Better Christmas photos 07

This photo was lit with two lamps. The warm, soft light provides ambiance for the moment.

3. How to Make Your Photos Look More Exciting

There is a secret that will instantly make your photos look more exciting. Use a low angle! It sounds simple and it is. Just crouch down a little bit and look up at the person you’re photographing. If it’s an exciting moment then use a low angle to make it look exciting in the photo.

You should take note that low angles are not generally good for formal portraits. A low angle exaggerates a person’s size and adults don’t usually like that. But, if it’s a portrait of an athlete or rock star then a low camera angle is a must.

Better Christmas photos 08

We all remember how fun it was to play with the empty wrapping paper rolls as kids. I wanted to make this moment look epic so I crouched down for a low angle.

Better Christmas photos 09

When my son unwrapped his emergency set he wanted to play with it immediately. I went for a low angle because in real life we always look up to see a helicopter flying. It’s just a photo of a boy with his toy helicopter, but I wanted a more dramatic effect. Notice the burst of backlight coming from the big window in the background.

Better Christmas photos 10

This low angle gives us the fun perspective of the toys looking up at everyone.

4. Tell a Story With Your Photos

As you’re photographing your most important moments, in beautiful light, from interesting angles, be mindful of the fact that you’re photographing a story. Your story is filled with characters (your friends and family), with an emotional plot that takes place in many settings (around the dinner table, the Christmas tree, at church, in front of the fireplace).

Photograph the unique personality of each character. Take more than one photo of each moment and link them together to show the plot-line. Make sure to include the background as part of the setting for your character’s story.

The photos below illustrate a story being told over time.

Better Christmas photos 11

This was the year that my son first learned to print letters and read simple words. Here, he’s writing the tags for Grandma’s presents.

Better Christmas photos 12

The following Christmas he had begun to spell out words on his own.

Better Christmas photos 13

After our family Christmas trip to Grandma’s house was over, both of the kids were really sad. So as they went to bed that night, they drew pictures to mail to Grandma. But my son wrote her a whole letter. He had never done anything like that before.

It’s exciting when we bring our kids into our traditions. Something as simple as filling out a gift tag is a huge step in their growth and part of a bigger story.

5. Practice Before Christmas Day

Christmas isn’t just about what happens on December 25th. For most families, Christmas has a month-long lead up. So work on your list of things to photograph, but remember to start photographing Christmas before it even gets here.

Practice looking for deeper moments in beautiful natural light (or using your external flash). You’ll be far more confident when the big day arrives and you don’t have time to over think the photos you’re taking.

Better Christmas photos 14

This was my first Christmas using a speedlight with my camera. As soon as our tree was up I began experimenting so that when Christmas arrived I would know how to use it. This shows a pretty good balance of ambient light from the tree mixed with the light from my flash.

Listen to Your Heart

When your heart tells you to pick up your camera and snap a photo, do it. Don’t hesitate, just take the photo. It may not turn out to be the perfect moment or the best angle. But at least you’ve got a photo.

Better Christmas photos 15

This is one of the most precious photos I have.

The photo above is my daughter and my grandma. It was just a fun little moment that they were having together. My camera is never out of arm’s reach at Christmas time. I saw this moment and clicked a few photos. I didn’t know then that these would be the last photos I would take of my grandma. My little girl won’t remember this moment, but she will always be able to look back and see the love that her great-grandma had for her.

Your Checklist for Deeper Christmas Photos Than You’ve Ever Taken Before

  1. Make your list of important moments
  2. Look for beautiful light and have your external flash ready
  3. Use low angles to make exciting events actually look exciting in your photos
  4. Tell a story with your photos
  5. Practice before Christmas day

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mat Coker is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.

  • Sheryl Kittrell

    I so appreciated everything you had to say in this post. I have been behind the lens for the last 45 years, and truly agree with your perspective. Your techniques are “spot on” and every photographer reading your post will benefit greatly from your ideas and forethought in preserving the memories. The photo doesn’t have to be perfect, but it helps immensely to have these techniques, which you have articulated so well, in your “arsenal”. I have recently been putting together a power point of my son’s life, for his upcoming wedding, and some of the powerful images of him interacting in a personal way with those who have passed on brought tears to my eyes. When you have a passion to preserve the memories, and you are in the process of capturing the image, you know they will be important “down the road”. Your precious image of your daughter with your grandma illustrates this so well. Thanks for your thoughtful, insightful post. Merry Christmas!!

  • Margaret

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  • Mat

    Hi Sheryl,
    Thank you so much for leaving a comment 🙂
    What a wonderful thing you are doing for your son’s wedding. I can’t imagine there will be a dry eye among the guests!
    I remember putting together a collection of “first year” photos of my son. Just that first year seemed like a whole life time.
    What a wonderful gift photography is in our lives!
    Mat

  • Grace

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