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Pro’s Guide to Holiday Photography

How to use your camera to hold onto the spirit of the most festive time of the year.

holiday photography

The month of December is filled with decor, festivities, traditions and excitement, with ample photo opportunities throughout. Capture the beauty and cheer of the season with these holiday photography tips. 

Traditions 

The holidays are always rich with family traditions. Whether you are lighting menorah candles or hanging tinsel from the tree, make sure to document how your family celebrates. 

Get Candid

I find that family traditions are best documented from a candid perspective. Don’t pose people, just sit back, observe and click away. Moments that evoke the sense of awe like opening presents, decorating the tree or visiting Santa are all great times to bring your camera out. 

holiday photography

Raise Your ISO

If you are indoors make sure to have your ISO up high to avoid blurry photos. I would start at 1000 ISO and if you find you are still getting blur, bump it up even higher. Alternately you could use your flash to help with low light. 

holiday photography

Go Wide

Use a wide-angle lens for any indoor shots. This will allow you to capture the whole scene. Choose a focal length anywhere between 14-24mm.

holiday photography

Its All in the Details

Try out a macro lens or adapter to capture the little details that make up the bigger picture. If you don’t have a macro lens you can try using a zoom lens, just make sure you are standing far enough away for it to focus. Christmas tree ornaments, snowflakes and the needles of pine trees all have great detail when photographed close up. 

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Get in the Frame

I can’t stress the importance of this enough, especially for holiday photography. Make sure that the whole family is present in your pictures. To achieve this, use the timer feature on your camera or a wireless remote. Many of the newer cameras have a built-in intervalometer. An intervalometer allows you to set your camera to take pictures on a cycle. For example, you can set it to take five pictures every five minutes until it gets to 50 shots. You can customize the time in between shots, how many shots at a time and the total number of shots. Check your camera manual to see if your camera has one.

holiday photography

Christmas Lights

Christmas lights are really fun to photograph and experiment with. Look for light displays around your home or neighborhood to photograph. I also like to search for local events or displays online. If you check the Facebook events near you, you’ll often find impressive home displays in your area.

Vary Your Aperture

Varying your aperture when photographing Christmas lights will yield completely different results. Look at the photo examples below to see the difference. 

holiday photography
In this first photo, I placed my subject in front of the lights and used a large aperture of f/1.8 (small number). You can see that the lights look like orbs in the background. The larger your aperture the larger the orbs will be. This is referred to as bokeh.

holiday photography
In the second photo, I used a smaller aperture of f/18 and you can see that the lights now look more realistic.

Focus

For some artistic images of lights, try switching your lens focus to manual. Aim your camera at the lights and move the focus ring around; watch how changing the focus affects how the lights appear.

holiday photography
Twinkle Lights

To capture lights with a twinkle you are going to need a tripod. You are going to want it as dark as possible in your room, so turn off any ambient light. Put your ISO way down, like to 100, and choose an f/stop around f/14-f/22. You will also want a slow shutter; I recommend anything between four to 30 seconds. 

holiday photography

Weather

While the weather outside may be frightful, the photos are so delightful!  For the best holiday photography, you have to get outside and capture the winter wonderland. Here are some tips for photographing snow.

Double Up

Not only should you double up on your clothing to stay warm, but also your batteries. Camera batteries drain quickly in cooler weather. Make sure your batteries are completely charged before heading out. Place your spare battery somewhere it will stay warm. I like to use the inside pockets of my jacket for this.

holiday photography

Photographing Snow

When it comes to photographing snow, fresh is best! Pure white snow photographs much better than dirty white snow. If you’d like to capture falling snow, I recommend a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion. Pick one above 1/200th of a second. 

holiday photography

I leave you with a list of some of my favorite holiday photo opportunities

  • Visiting Santa.
  • Lighting the menorah candles.
  • Decorating the tree.
  • Baking cookies.
  • Gingerbread houses.
  • Hot chocolate.
  • Unwrapping presents.
  • Christmas lights.
  • Sledding.
  • Snowball fights.
  • Cutting down the Christmas tree.
  • Building a snowman.

May your holiday season be warm and filled with joy! Happy snapping! 

Giving a camera as a gift this year? Take a look at out guide to camera buying for beginners.

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Tell us your holiday photography tips in the comments. 

Beth Mancuso is a professional photographer. All photos are hers. 
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