How Take Great Holiday Photos This Season

Everyone wants beautiful holiday photos. But not everyone knows how to take them. Now of course, your best option for having great holiday photos is a Holiday Themed Portrait Session! But you probably don’t want a professional photographer there at every family gathering this holiday season, so I wanted to share a few tips to help you make the most of your holiday photo opportunities.  

Even if your experience with cameras is limited to pushing the shutter button on your smartphone, you can make a huge improvement in your images by taking a second to try some of these basic techniques.  

1. Avoid Using The Flash On Your Camera (When You Can)

Using the flash that is right on your camera in a room with low light can ruin a photo. 

Story Time By The Christmas Tree
In this image I created for a client, I hid a cell phone in the book with an app that turned the screen into a warm light source to add a glow to their faces.

Of course, not all cameras can take photos in low light without creating a lot of noise/grain in the image. But popping a flash from right on your camera pretty much guarantees that it’s going to look like a boring old snapshot.

Avoid it if you can. Maybe try taking one without the flash and then one with the flash and seeing which one you like better. That way you won’t miss capturing the moment, but you’ll also give yourself the opportunity to make a better looking photo. Try to find other light sources to use rather than flash like holiday lights, candles, or lamps and have your subject sit near them. As long as it is bright enough, it almost always looks better than a direct flash.  

If you want to spend a little more time setting up a portrait of the family or the kids, then learn to use a flash that is off the camera. Just a little bit of knowledge of off camera flash can make a tremendous difference in your photos. 

Check out my Beginner’s Guide To Off Camera Flash by CLICKING HERE.

2. Use Window Light

Even professional photographers use window light in their studios because it usually looks great. 

You probably have a window, so you can achieve this same look when all you have is a camera phone. 

Photographers spend a lot of money on lighting equipment and creating large light sources called softboxes to create soft, flattering light. You can get virtually the effect of a giant softbox simply by posing your subject near a window. 

Experiment with rotating their pose so that the light hits them at different angles and see what you like the best. Generally speaking, having them facing directly at the window will be a softer even light and having the window to the side will create more shadows and make the image look more dramatic. 

Just be careful if the sunlight is shining directly through the window. Then you will have a harsh direct light source and lose all the benefits of shooting by a window. 

3. Look For The Shadows

Shadows can be a photographers best friend and worst enemy. 

Like I mentioned above, the angle that the light is coming from can increase or decrease the amount of shadows. 

There is no wrong or right way to angle the light and create or eliminate shadows, as long as you pay attention to where they are and how strong they are. 

On a person, more shadows (light coming from the side) will accentuate wrinkles and skin imperfections. Having more flat light (light coming more straight on) will hide them. Of course if you are shooting small details and not people, you may want to create more shadows to show intricate details in an object. Those decisions are up to you as the photographer.

4. Get Unique Angles

This one is especially important with little kids and pets. Get down on their level. Everyone has photos of the little ones from adult eye level. Kneel down and get on their eye level. It makes the photo more personal and usually encourages the kids to engage more with you when you are taking the photo. This always leads to better photos. 

You can also be creative with your decorations. Use some lights or the tree in the foreground of the photo and put your subject behind it (not totally behind it…you know what I mean). This will do two things. First, the lights will be blurry (assuming you remembered to focus on the subject) which adds a cool effect. Second, it adds a sense of depth to the image which makes it look more dynamic and real. 

5. Learn To Edit Your Photos

This may not be for everyone, but learning just a little basic photo editing can really take your images to the next level. The best part is, you can even go back to last year’s photos and make them a little better.

Chances are your smartphone comes with some basic photo editing capability. Basic photo editing can be an entire series of posts, so I’ll keep it simple here. Start off by learning to adjust exposure, shadows, and highlights. Those three adjustments can do the majority of what you may want to do with any photo. 

If you want to take your editing to the next level, I recommend checking out the Adobe Photography Plan. It includes Lightroom and Photoshop which are pretty much the only two programs I ever need for image organization and processing. It’s a low monthly charge and you get all you probably ever need to go from beginner editing to high end professional work. 

6. Avoid The “Everyone look at the camera and smile!” Shots

Nothing creates a deer in the headlights look more than telling people you are taking a picture.

If you want to really capture the mood and emotion of the holiday season, try to take some candid photos. Don’t tell people you are taking a photo. 

Look for moments to capture. Maybe it is the kids opening a present. Grandma and grandpa looking at each other smiling. A wide shot of the family dinner table as everyone is engaged in conversation. Maybe even catch an uncle napping on the couch after a big meal. These are just some of the moments I can think of from my holiday experiences. 

Everyone’s family is different, but the idea is the same. It’s hard to capture real emotion and personality when you ask someone to pose for the camera. Look for these little moments and do your best to capture them without any announcement. Chances are these will be your favorite and most memorable images for years to come. 

7. Don’t Forget The Details

Look through the portfolio of any good event or wedding photographer and you will see that there are plenty of photos that don’t have any people in them.

That is because holidays or events are almost as much about the setting as the people. That’s why we spend so much time and money decorating our homes during the holidays. It creates an atmosphere and gives a feeling of something special.

These details can be decorations both outside and inside the house, a Christmas tree, a specific tree ornament that has special meaning, presents all wrapped up, details of a meticulously set dinner table, and even the food itself. 

Don’t forget to take photos of these details that are all around you. You’ll be happy you did when you go back to make a photo album and you have all these images that capture the feeling of what it was like to be there just as much as the photos of the people. If you are putting an album together, these little details can transform a book of snapshots into an image book that tells the story of that holiday season. 

They also make good background images for Facebook!

Bonus Tip…Don’t Get Stuck Behind The Camera!

Photographers tend to get lost behind their camera. 

Make sure you remember to be a part of the holidays with friends and family. Get yourself in some photos. Interact with everyone. 

And remember to put the camera down too. Spend some time just enjoying the time.