The Ingredients of Fantastic Festive Photos

The Ingredients of Fantastic Festive Photos

This is an excellent time of year for photography. Here are some tips for getting better photos to help preserve your memories of these celebrations.

Of course, it's not just Christmas, but Hanukkah, too. The Buddhist and Chinese New Years are close as well. Eid Al-Fitr and Diwali are later in the year. Whatever religious holidays you observe or celebrate, there are opportunities for preserving our memories of them in photographs.

Making Your Subjects Look Great

We often do not plan great photos but just shoot quick snaps for our memories. However, there is no reason why we cannot do small things to ensure those snaps are worth looking back at.

Christmas is a time that is special for children. For many photographers, it's when they want to capture those private family moments that aren't for sharing with the entire world but for saving to look back on in years to come. Those are not studio shots but informal documentary photos of your life on a special day. Luckily, there are simple things you can do to make the photographs memorable.

There's a long tradition of dressing well on religious holidays. Children and adults look great in portraits when they are clothed smartly. Even if you are not religious, by dressing up, you are helping maintain what is also an important cultural festival. Smart clothing not only shows respect for your religion or culture, but it makes the festive days feel extra special and, in doing so, adds to the magic you can see reflected in the faces of the children in your photographs.

Get down on the same level as children to take their picture; portraits usually look much better when shot at eye level. Try to position yourself, so light is reflected in the children's eyes. Be ready for that moment when their faces suddenly burst with joy.

It's a good idea to pass a camera around so others can take shots. Your family wants to see you in the photos too. Furthermore, you might inspire another family member to take up photography. What more fabulous gift could you give than that?

Camera and Exposure Settings

Using a standard kit lens works well, as focal lengths in that zoom range are what you need for most of your shots. However, a faster lens works well too. The affordable "Nifty Fifty" 50 mm f/1.8 on a full frame, 35 mm f/1.8, and 25 mm f/1.8 for Micro Four Thirds work well. With these setups, I know that I will get good pictures when I grab the camera and snap children unwrapping their presents.

Check over your camera a couple of days beforehand. Ensure the lens is clean, the batteries are charged, an empty memory card is fitted, and you have dialed the settings you need to get the photos. The last thing you want to be doing is changing the settings on the camera and missing the action. If your camera has a custom mode, it is worth recording the settings there.

There is more than one way to set your camera. Children move quickly, and those movements can become blurred at slower shutter speeds. Therefore, I prefer to use my camera with aperture priority with auto ISO. I set the minimum shutter speed of at least 250th of a second. Use manual mode if your camera does not allow you to set a minimum shutter speed. Set your shutter speed to 1/250th, your aperture wide open (the lowest f-number, e.g., f/3.5 on many kit lenses), and your ISO on auto. If you live farther South and you will be shooting in bright daylight, you need to increase the shutter speed.

 If you are unsure of those settings, there's no reason why you shouldn't use the camera's automated night-time mode if you are shooting indoors in low light.

At least some of your photos, if not all, will be shot in low light. If you are unfamiliar with it, learn how your camera performs by doing some test shots a few days before. Newer cameras give excellent results at high ISOs, but older models may be more restricted and produce too much noise. However, the latest AI-based noise reduction does a great job tidying up noisy images.

High ISOs allow you to get low-light photos without a flash, and subjects illuminated by the Christmas tree's lights can look enchanting.

Using a Flash

If you must use a flash, remember that it will produce intense light. The light from candles and fairy lights will pale in comparison. I try to avoid flash when I can, but sometimes it is necessary. Luckily, there are things you can do to improve the flash's harsh effects. Adding a diffuser will result in the light being less severe. This could be a small piece of greaseproof paper taped in front of a pop-up flash. Many years ago, I made an emergency diffuser for my separate flash. I cut and folded a plastic milk bottle; it worked well.

Using a diffuser might require increasing the exposure compensation of the flash's power. This setting can either be on the flash or camera settings. I usually add + 1EV, but this will vary depending on your system. Some great low-key shots can be achieved by combining flash with reduced exposure in the camera.

If you have a hot-shoe flash, it may have a tilting or a rotating head so that it can be bounced off a wall or ceiling. Be aware that the flash's light intensity landing on the subject will be reduced, and you might have to increase its power accordingly. If you can, mount the flash off-camera and trigger it remotely, you can also achieve better lighting and avoid red eyes in your photos. Make sure you have sufficient AA batteries for your flash. Your children won't thank you for taking the batteries out of their new toys!

Creative Camera Effects

There are special effects you can employ to improve your shots. An old trick is having a 100 dernier black stocking stretched over the lens. It produces soft, dreamy-looking portraits. Alternatively, cut a small star or heart shape into a piece of paper and secure it over the front of your lens. Unfocussed pinpoints of light will appear in that shape. Try it with portraits with fairy lights in the background.

Get close to the tinsel, or mount it around the lens around the edges of the lens. Use a single focus point to focus on a more distant subject. In this way, the decoration will be out of focus.

If you are going to produce an album of your Christmas shots, do take some close-ups of the tree, decorations, and presents. They add context to the collection.

Going Outside at Christmas

Going for a walk is an integral part of many people's celebrations. However, if it is winter where you are, there are some precautions you should take.

Firstly, the air inside your house is relatively warm with high humidity, especially if you have been cooking a festive meal. When you attach your lens, you are trapping that damp air inside. Consequently, on heading out into the cold, that water will condense. The inside of the camera may warm up from your hands and the electronics, but the glass of the viewfinder or lenses will remain cold, and water will condense on them. This is especially a problem with weather-sealed cameras where the damp gets trapped inside the camera with no chance of escape. Try to find a dry, well-ventilated room before fitting or changing lenses. Avoid the kitchen where the cooking is happening.

Similarly, before you come in from a winter walk, it's a good idea to secure your camera in a plastic bag with a silica gel packet or a ball of kitchen tissue. Leave it for an hour in a dry room to acclimate before opening any ports or removing the lens. This helps prevent electronics-wrecking condensation from forming inside your camera.

But most importantly, put the camera down and enjoy the day with your family. Photographs are fantastic, but those special memories your family want of you are far more important.

We wish you all the very best for the season and a peaceful New Year from everyone at Fstoppers.

An old film photo of Christmas in Amboseli National Park with Mount Kilimanjaro behind.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Ivor Rackham earns a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer. Based in the North East of England, much of his photography work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography.

Log in or register to post comments