Remember your last holiday family photo? Whether it featured a screaming toddler, a pet photobomb, or an awkward angle that made the tree appear to be growing out of Grandpa’s head, seasonal photo-fails aren’t uncommon.
With the holidays just around the corner, many of us will once again be attempting to capture a few precious moments—whether to share on cards or simply preserve for memory’s sake.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to look back at family pictures and realize too late that they were blurry, out of focus, or just not all that interesting. Here are a few simple tips and techniques that can help even photo-newbies to capture an image that will stand out for all the right reasons.
Tip 1: Don’t Forget to Focus On the Kids
You might be tempted to pass the evening visiting with adults and catching up with friends, but some of the best photos years down the road often end up being those focused on kids. When browsing photo collections, it’s fun to see how your family’s children have grown and changed over time. Plus, kids often bring a levity and visual interest to a series of party pics that could otherwise get stale.
What’s the trick to shooting kids? Get on eye level with the little ones!
While you might be inclined to shoot down at kids from your height, this often results in unflattering pictures that seem cold and distant. Putting yourself physically at the same level as kids offers a much more interesting view of their world, and makes for photos that are far more personal.
Tip 2: Memorable Photos Are Often of Moments, Not Poses
When put in charge of taking photos of any family gathering, it’s tempting to run around with your camera, commanding groups of unsuspecting partygoers to “Smile,” “Look here!” and “Say Cheese!” While there isn’t anything wrong with posed photos or having people look at you and smile while you take their picture, these often lack context and real interest.
A better option is to practice being discreet, snapping pics of moments instead of poses and allowing those in the frame just to be themselves.
Capturing the essence of your friends and family engaging with each other—talking, laughing, carving a turkey, or opening presents—often makes for much more interesting photos now, as well as making it easier to remember the experience in years to come.
Tip 3: Move In Close to Compose Creatively
Whether you are photographing an artful display of decorations or capturing your friends and family, getting creative and purposeful when composing images can be a lot of fun!
The trick to artistically organizing the various elements in each image is keeping these two main concepts in mind:
Off-Center Your Main Subject
Instead of placing your main subject in the center of the scene, surrounded by dead space, move your camera until the person or object you’re focused on is off to the side.
This trick works especially well if you can balance your main subject with something in the background, positioned on the other side of the picture. For example, if you are photographing a handmade card or ornament, try placing it on the right with the Christmas tree (or an equivalent supporting element) blurred softly in the background on the left.
Considering positioning and balance lets you capture inanimate objects in an interesting, creative way.
The same concept works well for family photos, in which you should try and position the subjects in your frame to construct a triangle. The best way to do this is to think about levels, with one person standing, one in a chair, one on the arm, one kneeling in front.
Move In Close
Moving in close can make a huge difference in creatively composing an image, whether your subject is centered or off to the side. That’s because the subject of a photo always appears more impressive when made to look larger than life.
When to use this style of composition? Imagine you’re photographing the ornament mentioned above, but don’t have a Christmas tree (or an equivalent element) in the background. Instead of positioning the object off-center, simply move in as close as you can so that almost the entire frame is filled. Getting in close and keeping it simple inevitably results in an image that has a big impact.
Want some extra inspiration? Check out these creative family holiday photos!
Tip 4: Don’t Use the Flash Indoors
Your camera’s flash can be a real lifesaver, no doubt about it. In less-than-ideal lighting conditions, this burst of artificial light can mean the difference between a decent photo and a totally blurry, unusable image.
However, the light from flash units—especially from the tiny flash units found on most every camera—tend to produce harsh, flat, and cold light that rarely complements the subject of any image.
If you’re shooting indoors during the day, forgo the flash and instead, shoot family portrait-style pictures with your subjects standing near a window or door. However, do be sure to get between your subjects and the window, as including the source of light in your composition will throw off your exposure meter.
If you are shooting indoors at night, try to flood the room where you are photographing with as much light as you can, lighting candles and turning on any lamps you have on hand. Doing so will help reduce those harsh, flashed-out subjects, as well as other problems like red eye.
Tip 5: Do Use Flash Outdoors
Looking to snap a family portrait in the freshly fallen snow? Most people think that using a flash is synonymous with photographing indoors at night—at a Christmas party for example. However, your flash can be a big help when it comes to shooting outdoors during the day. Even in bright sunlight, forcing your flash to fire can often mean the difference between a so-so snapshot and an eye-grabbing masterpiece.
How does it work? The bright flash will fill in shadows and even out harsh contrasts that are often caused by direct daylight.
Tip 6: Try Something Different
If you’re tired of the same old Christmas tree photos, don’t be afraid to shake things up—literally!
Set your camera to a slower shutter speed (anywhere from 1/2 second to 2 or 4 full seconds), and then purposefully move the camera while taking the picture. The idea here is to intentionally blur the colorful Christmas lights—and to blur a stationary subject, you need a slow shutter speed and controlled camera movement.
If you use an SLR camera with a zoom lens, you will have a little more freedom and speed with your zoom. Thus, you will not need as slow of a shutter speed as a compact camera. All the same, you can create this effect with either kind of camera. For the zooming effect to look clean, you will want to mount your camera securely on a tripod to keep it from moving while you zoom in or out during the exposure.
Tip 7: Make Sure You’re Powered Up
The last thing you want to have happen is to get all set up for the family portrait or holiday photo, only to realize you forgot to charge the battery!
In addition to making sure your batteries are charged (or you have replacements on hand), you will also want to make sure you have a place for your potential images to be recorded.
If you’re using a digital camera, it’s also smart to offload and archive any images remaining on your storage, so you’ll have plenty of space on your flash memory card. If you use a conventional, film-based camera, be sure you have an extra roll or two of film on hand.
Tip 8: Finally, Know When to Put Your Camera Down
While it might sound like a counter-intuitive tip for how to get the best holiday photos, sometimes knowing when to set aside your camera and simply enjoy time with family and friends is more important than getting the perfect shot.
Consciously taking fewer photos forces you to be a bit more choosy and intentional, resulting in more keepers that you’ll want to look at years down the road, instead of dozens and dozens of images of the same scene. Not to mention, you’ll enjoy better memories of family get-togethers by spending time on the other side of the lens.
What other tips do you have for getting great holiday photos? Leave any in the comments below, and maybe share a few of your favorite holiday memories, too!
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