Five Tips for Better Holiday Photos

This season is the stuff that cameras are made for: holiday lights and decorations, brightly wrapped presents, kids anxiously darting around the tree. Your camera is probably getting excited just thinking about the opportunities you're going to give it in the next few days. So as you get ready for the veritable Olympics of personal digital photography, consider these five tips for taking better pictures. Also, if you're shooting outdoors, don't forget my advice on winterizing your camera. And since you'll be taking a lot of pictures indoors, be sure to review my tips for taking better pictures of people and how to get better results in difficult lighting.

Finally, before I get into the nitty-gritty of this week's holiday photo tips, I want to wish each of you a warm, safe, and happy holiday.

1. Set Your White Balance

There are few lighting situations trickier than Christmas morning, with a cacophony of lighting sources competing to confuse your camera. There might be morning light streaming in your window, but also overhead lights, decorative bulbs on the tree, and perhaps even a couple of candles to truly give your camera's sensor a coronary. Your best bet? Set the white balance manually using a white sheet of paper before the festivities begin. Check your camera's user guide to see how to adjust white balance.

Another option: shoot in your camera's RAW mode, so white balance won't matter. You can adjust the white balance afterwards, on your PC. You'll get better results, but it's more time consuming. Read "Fix Your White Balance" for some more pointers.

2. Fire and Forget

If your camera has a time lapse or intervalometer mode, you can set it on a tripod in a corner of the room and let it take a photo every minute or so. There are two cool reasons for trying this.

First, interval shooting might allow your camera to snap some interesting moments you'd have missed if you were trying to open presents, enjoy the festivities, and be the family photographer, all at the same time.

Second, you can use your camera's automatic abilities to take the few hundred photos and then turn them into a stop-motion movie. Especially neat if you have young kids, a stop motion video can be an awesome remembrance of this year's holiday. You can combine individual photos into a movie using Windows Movie Maker; see "Make a Stop Motion Movie, Part 1" and part two for details.

3. Pass the Camera Around

Not enthused about leaving the framing and timing of your holiday photos up to the camera? Then break out of your standard routine and pass the camera around the room. Let everyone take a few pictures to give you a break and to get some different points of view. You can even make a game of it; each person has to take five photos, for example, and pass the camera to the person to their left. If your camera has a beefy memory card, you should have room for hundreds of photos.

You do have a big memory card, right? Remember that you can get an 8GB CompactFlash card for as little as $20. You can find your camera's memory card at PC World Shop & Compare.

4. Shoot Holiday Lights

Make sure you photograph the tree in all its illuminated beauty. You should steady your camera on a tripod, since this is the kind of photo you'll want to take at night.

Like most kinds of night photography, there's no right or wrong exposure. Set your camera to manual mode, pick a midrange aperture (like f/5.6) and then try a several second long shutter speed. Check your results. If you want brighter, more dramatic lights, extend the exposure time some more. You can "bracket" the exposure for a variety of different effects and pick the one you like best afterwards. To take this tree, with the fireplace in the background, I used a 6-second exposure.

I used a much longer exposure--30 seconds, in fact--for this close-up of a few lights and ornaments.

5. Get Up Close and Personal

If you ask me, closer is always better. I generally like shots that are tight and emphasize the subject, rather than wider angle photos in which the subject gets lost in the background clutter. This is especially important in holiday photos, because there is a lot of clutter to get lost in. Zoom in tight for your people shots, and look for subtle details to capture up close even when shooting still life shots, like the tree, ornaments, and presents.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Old Jeans, New Pencil," by Shaun Shafer, Amsterdam, New York

Shaun writes: "I've been intrigued by High Dynamic Range photographs and how they can change the look of a scene. For this one, I used the auto bracket mode on my Fuji FinePix 6500FD and shot 3 exposures. Then I combined them using Photoshop's Merge to HDR feature. I used a new pencil because I liked the contrast of old and new."

This Week's Runner-Up: "Look Out: Novice Photographer!" by Bart J. Hopkins, Caledonia, Mississippi

Bart writes: "I saw thousands of birds on the beach while going down Highway 90 in Biloxi. I pulled over and ran out amongst them, taking pictures while they scattered. I imagined they were fleeing from this fledgling photographer."

Bart used a Nikon D90 to take this photo.

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

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