Take Spectacular Holiday Photos

Follow these tips to take flattering photos of loved ones at Thanksgiving dinners and other family gatherings, as well as to capture the excitement of holiday decorations.

Capturing the Holiday Spirit

The holidays are coming, and you know what that means: It's overtime for your digital camera. Soon, kids will gleefully tear open presents; families will gather around fancy, festive dinner tables; and houses will be adorned with dazzling lights. It’s a time of fun, joy, and excitement--and as digital photographers, we inevitably try to capture it in pixels for all eternity.

This year, a little planning and preparation can help you take holiday photos that you will be happy to share with family and friends. Over the next few pages, I've collected a bounty of holiday photo tips for you to try out.

Set the Scene at Thanksgiving

A classic shot--no Thanksgiving photos are complete without it--shows the dining-room table, complete with fancy place settings, the main course, and all the trimmings. The formal version of this shot omits people.

For the best effect, take this picture from above. That probably means standing on a chair to get past the tall glasses at the near end of the table and to include the entire spread. You'll need to take the shot right after the last of the food has been served, but before everyone sits down. Try to lock the focus on the near end of the table; the rest of the table will probably stay reasonably in focus as well. If you focus on the far end of the table, the fuzzy foreground is likely to dominate.

Alternatively (and this is my favorite approach), get in low and close, as the photographer did for this shot. Focus on just a few dishes to give the impression that the food goes on forever in front of and behind the scene.

Photo: CarbonNYC

Take Some Portraits

While you'll want a few pictures with everyone in one big group, it's often easier to get good pictures if you take smaller group shots--like just the spouses or the siblings--or even single-person portraits.

You can certainly position your subjects in front of traditional holiday backgrounds; but this year, try to stage some portraits in more organic, natural settings so that they look a bit more candid. Take pictures of people carving the turkey, lighting the candles, washing the dishes, setting the table, and refilling the candy dish. Such images can be more meaningful in the long run, because they strongly connect the people with the event.

If you go this route, though, be careful with the backgrounds. It's easy to end up shooting pictures in front of backgrounds so cluttered that they're a distraction. For the dish-washing pictures, for instance, you may need to move the huge stack of dirty dishes out of the way.

And though your digital camera tries hard, its built-in flash is designed to throw light only about 8 or 10 feet. What can you do? Avoid taking indoor shots of groups so large that you must stand halfway across the room. If you're photographing more than a handful of people, take it outdoors--and shoot in the shade, where direct sunlight won't shine right into the scene.

Watch the Lighting

As you're taking pictures of smartly dressed guests, fancy dishes, and horns of plenty, don't forget about the lighting. Few lighting situations are trickier than Christmas morning, as an array of lighting sources compete to confuse your camera. At the same time morning sunlight is streaming through the window, room lights may be shining overhead, decorative bulbs might be blinking on the tree, and perhaps even a couple of candles may be flickering nearby, overwhelming your camera's sensor.

Your best bet is to 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. Try increasing your camera's ISO setting, too. This control--which affects how sensitive the camera is to light--is usually best left in its lowest position. But rather than relying on the camera's flash, try increasing the camera's ISO to 400 so that you can properly expose your pictures in the limited indoor light of a winter morning. Another solution is to put additional light sources on your subject: I like setting candles near people because they cast a warm, flattering glow onto faces.

When you finally get your pictures onto the PC, you may find that not all of them turned out as planned. Use an image editor to remove any red-eye, which you may have a lot of if you used your flash, and to reduce digital noise, which can happen when you shoot with a high ISO.

Frame for Success

I'm a big believer in crisp, tight framing. My usual advice is to get in close, eliminate the clutter, and focus on your subject so that it's clear what your photo is about.

The holidays beg for a different approach, though. When the children are unwrapping presents, go wide. Include the clutter, because it's part of the story. Take the picture from floor level, where you can see the wrapping paper, empty boxes, and other debris crowded around the kids, for example. Or climb up a flight of stairs and shoot an aerial view of the holiday in progress. It's photos like these that capture the spirit of the day.

Shoot Holiday Decorations

Make sure you photograph your Christmas tree or Hanukkah menorah 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, 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.

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

Capture Holiday Lights

When you head outdoors to shoot some holiday lights, make sure your camera is ready. You can get good results with almost any sort of camera (you don't need a digital SLR), but I recommend using a tripod. Nighttime exposures are always somewhat slow, and it's just not possible to freeze the action when the shutter is open for a whole second.

If you don't have a tripod, consider propping the camera on top of a bean bag (or a bean bag-like gadget, such as The Pod). Bean bags are handy because they conform to the shape of the camera as well as to the shape of whatever you’re placing the camera on.

Photo: Mykl Roventine

When to Shoot

The typical shots of holiday lights--the ones you see all the time--are taken at night, long after the sun is gone and the background is in total darkness. In these photos, the lights are bursting, and the background is completely black. The result has little context, and no drama. These photos aren't bad, but they lack a certain vitality.

The remedy? Shoot shortly after sunset, when you still have some light in the sky.

Set up in front of the lighting display at least half an hour before the sky goes totally dark. You should be able to see the display lights, but they should be fighting the natural light in the sky.

Photo: Elite PhotoArt

Get the Right Exposure

One last thing to consider before you start shooting is the exposure settings. If your camera lets you adjust the white balance, you should set it to Tungsten or Incandescent. Either of these settings will give you a richer, bluer sky as well as better lights.

You can leave the camera on its automatic setting, but if you can dial in manual and adjust aperture and shutter separately, try starting with f/8 and a half second. To change the overall exposure, open the shutter longer (for a brighter scene) or shorter (for less exposure). To make the strings of holiday lights brighter and more dramatic, open the aperture (to a smaller number, like f/4).

Frame the Scene

Getting to the scene early enough is more than half the battle. Start taking some photos, and check the results. As the sky darkens, you'll start to hit a sweet spot in which the background sets a dramatic tone for your photos but the lighting takes over the foreground and becomes the protagonist of your scene.

Be sure to take a lot of photos and try a number of different angles--regardless, you're guaranteed to get some great photos if you "go wide" and include a lot of sky.

Photo: Tambako the Jaguar

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