Taking Better Holiday Photographs

Categories: Tech Talk Feature Tips DIY

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It is indeed that time of year again.  The sleigh bells are ringing, the snow is glistening, and your holiday pictures are stinking. Wait a second... That isn't how the song is supposed to go!  Its that time of year when you see the people that you only see once a year!  Well at least that's the way it goes in my family and of course every year I am faced with the job of being the family Christmas photographer.  I wish I had told my aunts and uncles that I was a professional food and couch tester, not a photographer, but I guess it is too late for that.  Many of you out there are probably faced with the same task.  Maybe some of you even enjoy taking holiday portraits!  Here is a good link for you.  All kidding aside, memorable holiday portraits are actually quite easy to take.  Additionally you're going to probably want some shots of the decorations outside of your house.  Bright Christmas lights, a dark sky, and snow all over the ground makes the green automatic mode box on your camera turn red with anger.  So let's go over some easy tips to make your holiday pictures a success.

1. Use a hot-shoe mounted flash to create more natural looking photos.  You've probably seen a lot of holiday photos with a super bright foreground with a black background and a few specs of light in the background, some kind of Christmas tree.  Even if direct flash manages to light an entire room, its never going to look flattering for portraits.  All you need to remedy this is a hotshoe mounted flash.  Unless you live in a McMansion with 50 ft ceilings, bouncing a hotshoe mounted flash off of a ceiling (On TTL mode) is going to do wonders for you.  Shoot at a higher ISO around 800 (or higher if you have a full frame camera) and slow down your shutter speed to around 1/30.  Yes you can use slower shutter speeds with flash, just be sure to change your flash settings to "rear curtain" (Nikon) or "second curtain" (Canon).  This effectively lets you freeze motion and illuminate the room with your flash.  The slower shutter speed and higher ISO sensitivity setting allow the background(s) of your photos to "burn in" or look more natural.

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2. As I mentioned, when indoors you should always be using a hot-shoe flash on your camera, unless you unwrapping gifts and celebrating in a photo studio with strobe lights.  If you are a true beginner and don't have a flash, you need to add it to your Christmas/Hanukkah list.  If you really are opposed to getting a hot-shoe mounted flash and insist on using the pop-up flash on your camera, try the Gary Fong Puffer.  It will soften the light and make portraits look more natural.  The same rules apply about using a slower shutter speed and higher ISO.  If you are really confused about all of this, I suppose you should stick to one of the programmed modes. However if you are truly interested in becoming a better photographer, this is an excellent opportunity for you to learn about using "MANUAL/M" mode on your camera.  I know most people want everything to be quick and easy, or a one button fix, but great photography doesn't work that way.

3. Use a fixed focal length lens for portraits.  Just like a hotshoe mounted flash, a fairly inexpensive 50mm f/1.8 lens or 35mm f/1.8 (Nikon) should already be in your bag of photo gear or on your holiday wish list.  There really isn't a good reason for it not to be.  "Oh come it doesn't zoom" isn't a real argument to not have one of these fantastic lenses.  Photographing at f/1.8 or f/2 will allow you to blur out the backgrounds and achieve shallow depth of field in your photographs.  This effect is desirable for all portraiture, and around this time of year christmas tree lights and holiday decorations make for beautifully colored out of focus backgrounds.  If you want to increase this effect even further, have your subjects take a few steps away from the tree/lights.  The further away they are from the background, the more the background will be blurred. The flash techniques I mentioned above, combined with a fast fixed focal length lens will allow you take professional looking holiday photos.  You can get a 50mm f/1.8 lens and a hotshoe mount flash for less than $500, so it should be a no brainer.  When doing group shots, try to NOT use a wide aperture.  While the background will look nice out of focus, chances are if you have more than a few people in the shot, most of them will be out of focus as well.  These kind of shots should be done with a wider angle lens and stopped down to around f/5.6 while still bouncing the flash off of the ceiling and still following the same general thinking pattern with your ISO and shutter speed.  If anything boost your ISO a little bit more so you can use a smaller aperture.

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4. So let's head outdoors.  You probably spent a few awkward and grueling hours setting up your Christmas lights outside.  So you deserve a few decent photographs of the fruits of your labor.  Again lets forget automatic mode here and get your tripod out.  You can also leave the flash inside.  Any attempt to light your entire house with a camera flash is going to be futile and not do justice to the hard work you put in to decorating.  Using a tripod will  allow you to use slower shutter speeds and a smaller aperture opening. (for more depth of field)  This work flow also slows down your entire workflow.  You will be surprised how much more you pay attention to composition when working a tripod.  Again if you don't already own one, you know what to add to the list.  Hey no one ever said photography was a cheap hobby and at least if gives you something besides socks to put on your wishlist.

5. Most of the time photography is about lighting and composition, not what gear you have.  Unless you have a multi-million dollar lighting budget, you'll never be able to get a balanced photo of your Christmas lights in the pitch black of night.  Photographing your decorations and house at dawn/dusk is a much better time.  Even if the sky is barely illuminated and the sun is completely gone, it will be relatively easy to balance the exposure of your lights with the sky in the background.  This allows you to capture much more tonal range and variety of colors.  Again this is an experiment with shooting in manual mode, but it is more dependent on the time of day you are photographing, so the programmed modes should work relatively well to bail out the cowards who refuse to shoot manually.  You want the background to be illuminated, but dark.  So the sun shouldn't be directly setting behind your house, this will lead to white blown out backgrounds.  It may take a couple times to figure out when the best time of day is.

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6. Don't forget the details.  While the most important (or typical, depending on your point of view) shot is going to be the one of your entire house, you should take some details of the decorations you put up.  Again this is more of a technique/composition related tip, but having a macro lens and/or fast fixed focal length lens would be helpful.  Consider what angle you are photographing at and what is in the background.  Just like your decorations indoors, lights and other brightly colored objects make for interesting out of focus backgrounds.