9 Tips to Make Your Holiday Photos Amazing

The holiday time is such an amazing time for photos, and for creating lasting memories. My favorite photos to look back on from my childhood have been those taken over the holidays. While having the right equipment helps, what is even more important is thinking about what we’re doing, what story we’re trying to tell before we push that trigger.

After all, family photography is creating a legacy, telling our story in a way that can be passed on to future generations, and is appreciated even more as time passes. Here are tips for making these magical times extra special.

Tip #1 - Use the gear you have

You don’t need expensive professional gear to take amazing photos. We can take almost any camera and make it work. The holidays are a fantastic time to pull out a fixed prime lens like the 50mm f/1.8. Shooting “wide open” will allow for so much more light, and with the shallow depth of field we can get some delicious bokeh from all the twinkling lights and the surroundings. These photos have a lot of color and depth and are really fun to edit to bring out and highlight the story you want to tell.

Tip #2 - Take the light as it comes

Shooting inside or even in the low light of the winter nights can be challenging AND fun. I always recommend getting a flash with a head that can rotate point and turn. In many cases, you’ll want to point it UP to avoid a harsh light. And, don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be a name brand flash and you can pick one up for less than $50 if you look hard. Even if you don’t have a flash handy, it is okay to turn up the ISO on your camera. A well exposed grainy photo is far better than a dark one. Finally, be confident that we’ll be able to fix any photo afterwards, boosting the brightness and de-noising, using software like  Luminar.

Tip #3 - Think like a Director - Composition

Holidays are a perfect time to tell the story of our lives and I’m a huge fan of having one or two images from a day characterize and tell the story of our lives.

Composition plays a key role in this. By thinking of what we’re trying to achieve, we can create something that is more than what a security camera or simple snapshot camera can take. We become the director and the movie maker, but thankfully, we only need to preserve a split second in time. So, think like a director. If you want the person viewing the photo to feel close to your subject, to make the photo feel intimate, you’ll want to shoot at eye level.

In this photo of my daughter, Emery, I’ve got my camera set on the countertop as I’m shooting. The candles are lighting up her face with the Christmas Tree creating a bokeh behind. Because Emery is much closer to me in relationship to the tree, I do get that lovely blurred out effect on the tree. So pretty as it really emphasizes the holiday but without becoming distracting. Emery being at my eye level with her staring into the candles makes the light flattering, and the photo welcoming. I also used a great filter called the Orton Effect to make the image soft and beautiful.

Tip #4 - Steady as She Goes

Sometimes when the light is a bit darker, especially if we are shooting in auto mode, our cameras will drop their shutter speed too low and we end up with blurry photos. When my shutter speed drops too low, I either raise my ISO or open up my aperture to let more light in. However, sometimes, neither of those options are viable. So, if you don’t have a tripod handy (what?!), try a bag of rice. Sounds funny, but a bag of popcorn, rice, or beans makes for an incredibly flexible and cheap tripod while at home. I set my camera to a two second delay when shooting, so the lens doesn’t wiggle when I press the shutter, and I can create some totally fun things.

Tip # 5 - Practice Beforehand for the 5-minute Rule

I often will experiment with my settings one night without the kids, and figure out what works best for my gear and my home. The next night, I can quickly get the shot that I want without causing too much stress on the evening routine. I have a rule in my house that my kids really like. Camera is up to my eye for 5 minutes, and down for 20. In 5 minutes, I can tell a pretty good story, and then the next 20 minutes, I’m mom. They like it, and I do too. It lets people relax and feel like they don’t always have to be “on cue”.

In this photo, I've used the new Facebook Cover cropping option in  Luminar Pluto and rotated the image so my subjects aren't covered by the Cover Badge!

Tip #6 - Holiday Playtime

I often hear parents tell me that their kids don’t want any part of family photos, that they hide, that they fight it, that they groan when the camera comes out. That is tough. But, it is often because the kids feel like they are being over-directed when the camera appears.

Why not let them take ownership of part of the creative process? One idea is to get them to help Dad decorate the Gingerbread House (because he needs LOTS of help!). Or, explain that I’d love to tell a story of our holiday baking so when we send cookies to your favorite cousin or the neighbors, she can see how they were made. Ask them what type of cookies they want to make, what steps of the process are important to tell, etc. By the time I’ve got my kids on this track of mind, they are begging for more photos of this cookie, or that one that they’ve made. They take ownership of their project, and the story you are trying to tell. And, while telling this story that your kids are involved in, you can practice shooting from different perspectives, you can practice macro, wide angle, or a shot looking directly down. Or, be completely wacky and snap a photo of your kids with oven mitts on putting cookies in the oven! Be sure the oven is OFF, place the camera on a bag of rice w/ the self-timer set. You’d need a wide angle lens, (and a bit of practice the night before). But, I guarantee it will induce a lot of giggles from your kids, and maybe even some funny faces and memories to share.

My original photo needed some help removing Color Cast (white balance) and then I decided a "glowy" look would be the way to go.

Tip #7 - Oh, those Beautiful Lights

If you want to get the tree lights looking all twinkly, you’ll need to use a longer exposure, so you’ll need something to stabilize the camera. Some lenses make the lights twinkle more than others, so you’ll have to play around with what you have to figure out what works best. I’ve found that the starburst effect starts to hit when you are around f/11 for your aperture. It is fun to think we can go from big giant balls of bokeh to twinkly stars of lights using the same gear and just changing a few settings.

Tip #8 - Epic Snow Images

Who doesn’t love snow? However, it can be maddening to make your image look like what you saw through the viewfinder. Try putting the subject in the center, use a bit of exposure compensation and metering on the subject. This can make the overall image turn out underexposed, but that’s easy to fix in Luminar by pulling up the Highlights and Whites using the Tone filter.

Tip #9 - Simplifying Backgrounds

With a big tree full of decorations, presents all around and a room full of people, it can be hard to create a simple, elegant background. One idea is to place kids in front of open windows with them looking out. The light from the window will be much stronger than the background as the fall off of light is so dramatic when they are close to a window. Shoot from the side, down the wall, not looking out. You'll catch some strong side lights on the kids, and it is very flattering. Another idea is to make simple background from a sheet and have kids pose in front of it.

Above all, remember that you are the director of your family memories during the holidays, telling a story that will last generations. Oh, and don’t forget, be sure to share on social media so we can all enjoy your creative talents!

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