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You want to snap a picture of the kids around the Christmas tree. But after finally getting a photo where they’re all looking happy, you’re disappointed with how it turns out.
Why is it so dim? Where’s the ambiance? Why can’t I capture what I’m seeing with my eye?
The classic Christmas tree portrait can be problematic. And many of those problems have to do with light. So today I’m going to walk you through the five major lighting solutions for better Christmas tree portraits.
I want you to be able to set up a quick shot in front of the tree and have it turn out well. And to do that you need to light the people in the photo without ruining the mood of the Christmas tree lights.
There’s a big difference between taking a Christmas tree portrait at night and taking one during the day. What’s the difference? Light. During the day you can make use of natural window light. However, at night you have to create your own light, which means you’re often taking your tree portrait in a dimly lit room.
So let’s cover nighttime tree photos first, then daylight. Because shooting photos in daylight is easy.
Ambient light simply refers to the light already present in the scene – the light from your tree, whatever other bulbs you have on in the room, and maybe some lamps or an overhead light.
Many people prefer using ambient light to their camera flash because the flash often ruins the mood of the scene. Working in ambient light can be wonderful providing you’re intentional about it. You can’t just turn on the tree lights and hope for the best.
If you’re going to rely on ambient light for your photos (rather than using your camera flash), you need to get extra light on the people without it spilling onto the Christmas tree. You don’t want to spoil the mood and glow of the tree lights, but you still want the people to be lit nicely.
Try moving some lamps around. Don’t just turn them on to get more light. Move them closer to the people.
Sometimes the ambient light just doesn’t work. So how else can you light the scene? By using the pop-up flash on your camera.
I can hear you groaning. “But I hate the look of flash.” Me too. But there are things you can do to make it look better. And what you rather have – a photo lit as well as possible with flash or no photo at all?
Remember, the idea is to light the people without ruining the mood of the tree lights.
Here’s how to do it:
Why do it like this? Because when you’re closer to the people, the flash sends out a smaller burst of light. Once it reaches the people in your photo it fades out quickly, which means it won’t light up the tree too much.
If you don’t like your pop-up flash blasting light directly at your subject, you could try using an external flash instead. It still attaches to your camera, but you can aim it at the ceiling or a wall to bounce the light off that surface and onto your subject.
Bouncing light can be tricky when it comes to color. As well as the light, it will also reflect the color of the wall or ceiling it bounces off. (Direct flash is a much cleaner light than bounced flash.) As you can see, the photos I took with the external flash look much warmer. But I can adjust that with a program such as Lightroom.
Tip: If your flash seems too bright, turn down the power with flash exposure compensation.
Window light is is my favorite form of natural ambient light. It’s bright and soft, and illuminates people wonderfully for photos.
This works best when the tree is tucked into a corner out of the window light so it still has some glow for the photo.
Have the light from the window lighting people from the side to create some dimension in the photo through shadow.
Notice the glow of the tree and the nice soft light illuminating the portrait.
However, try not to get split light. Have them look toward the window slightly.
In this group portrait, you can even see catch lights in their eyes.
Remember, your goal is to set up a quick shot in front of the tree where you’re lighting the people without ruining the glow of the tree lights.
Practice using both flash and window light so you’re prepared for anything. Feel free to share examples of your christmas tree portraits that you’ve taken and how you lit them in the comments.