Five Quick Tips for Better Holiday Photos

By now, you've either gotten your first snowfall of the season, or local shops have at least sprayed some fake snow in their windows to simulate the effect. Either way, there's no doubt that the holiday season is here, and you should be readying your camera for action. If it's chilly where you live, be sure to read about how to winterize your camera--and read on for five tips on how to get the best holiday photos this year.

1. Take Control of Tricky Lighting With White Balance

Photo courtesy Flickr user Julie.
As you're taking pictures of guests dressed in their festive Christmas sweaters, don't forget about the lighting, which might be tricky--especially if you're shooting a late-afternoon dinner with sunlight streaming through the window, various room lights, and perhaps even some candles all competing for your camera sensor's attention.

Trust the camera, and your photos might have an ugly color cast. Your best bet is to set the white balance manually by taking a reading off a white sheet of paper before you start shooting. Check your camera's user guide for details on how to do this. And remember to reset the white balance back to automatic when you're done.

2. Combine the Best Parts of a Group Portrait With Photo Fuse

Anyone who has ever tried taking a group photo at the dinner table, around the Christmas tree, or at the Festivus pole knows that you have to take a half dozen photos to get one that's barely acceptable. This year, you have a new tool: Windows Live Photo Gallery's Photo Fuse feature, which is part of Windows Live Essentials. (Read "Windows Live Photo Gallery Wave 4: Five Reasons to Try" for more about the Windows Live update.)

Photo Fuse lets you swap elements among several similar photos. Now, even if there's something wrong in each shot--people blinking, sneezing, whatever--you can create a composite photo that shows everyone at their best. Load the photos into Windows Live Photo Gallery, then select them and choose Photo Fuse from the Create tab. You can then click around the composite photo to choose among the photos and put together a new version.

3. Shoot Some Candles and Decorations Up Close

Photo courtesy Flickr user Robin Tell.
I love the holidays because it gives me a chance to shoot lights, decorations, and candles up close. Be sure to steady your camera on a tripod, since this is the kind of photo you'll want to take at night. I like to look for subtle details to capture up close, like ornaments, candle flames, and presents.

As with any kind 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, open the aperture a little. If you want the overall scene to be brighter, lengthen the exposure time. You can bracket the exposure for a variety of effects and pick the one you like best afterward.

4. Take Portraits With Holiday Lights in the Background

Photo courtesy Flickr user Luz A. Villa.
Want to cruise your neighborhood and shoot holiday lighting at night? Armed with a tripod, it's easy to do--be sure to read "Photograph Spectacular Christmas Lights."

While you're at it, you might want to put some people in those scenes and shoot some portraits. Remember that you need to combine a slow shutter speed--which exposes the lights and decorations in the background--with a flash to illuminate your human subjects. And don't wait too long to go out: The best time to get these photos is around dusk, when there's still a little light in the sky.

5. Include Your Pets

Don't forget to include your four-legged family members in your holiday pictures. Be sure to consider these "Five Tips for Taking Photos of Animals," and introduce them into scenes you want to shoot.

Also, take a tip from the making of OK Go's dog-infested video White Knuckles. If you want your pet to look somewhere in particular, dangle food. You can have a helper hold a treat or piece of cheese near the camera to get your dog's undivided attention.

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: "Common Puffin" by Emily Mabee, Lewiston, Maine

Emily says: "I took this photo on Machias Seal Island, which is off the coast of Cutler, Maine, with a Canon 50D."

This week's runner-up: "Flowers and Bees" by Jill Ooms, Sidney, British Columbia

Jill captured this photo in her front yard using a Nikon D60.

To see all of last month's winners, visit the October Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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