12 Christmas Photography Tips and Ideas

by David Sornberger about a month ago in how to

How to Capture the Holiday Season as a Storyteller

12 Christmas Photography Tips and Ideas

Christmas and photography have a special connection. With many of the most important people in your life together with you, this is a special time to capture and share. You might use a tiny digital camera, your smartphone, or a DSLR. It doesn’t matter, because the principals of photography are pretty similar regardless of the equipment you’re using. You can photograph during the day, but some of the most evocative images can be found at night. Here are 12 Christmas Photography Tips and Ideas to take your holiday photos to the next level.

1. Bump your ISO

The key here is finding the right ambient-to-flash balance. Don’t worry about increasing your ISO to 1600, 3200 or even 6400 depending on your camera body. This is especially true if you’re using a full-frame professional camera, like the Sony A7R IV, Canon 5D Mark IV, or Nikon D850. If you are using an entry-level camera, like the Sony 6500 or Canon Rebel, keep your ISOs at 1600 and below to avoid too much image degradation.

2. Use Lower Apertures

If you love that beautiful bokeh you often see with the sparkly holiday lights, then you’ll definitely want to drop your apertures. One of my favourite lenses for creating silky bokeh is the Sony FE 35mm f/1.8 Lens. A fast f/1.8 maximum aperture provides the ability to create images with a shallow depth of field as well as work in low-light conditions. This is ideal when you’re trying to capture those beautiful background.

3. Use Natural Light (Avoid Flash)

To create natural, warm and moody images, try keeping your flash off for most of your photos. This will highlight the ambient light from the Christmas lights or fireplace as part of the natural scene.

4. Diffuse/Reflect Your Flash

If you find yourself in an environment where you need to use a flash, be careful not point the flash directly at your subjects or scene, which will result in having harsh shadows in the background. An easy way to avoid this issue is to use a flash diffuser. If you have an external flash, try bouncing it off the ceiling or walls.

5. Check Your White Balance

Although some of your photos might be outdoors, many people celebrate Christmas indoors in unnatural lighting. Whether the majority of your photos are indoors or outside in a winter wonderland, set your white balance settings accordingly. If you’re fortunate to have a camera that shoots in RAW, you can shoot away and set your white balance later. If it has snowed, and you're outdoors, make sure the snow doesn't end up looking more blue than white.

6. Capture the preparation stages

This tip could probably go unsaid, but Christmas day goes by so quickly that it’s important to plan your photographic strategy or you might miss the key parts of the day. Some of these preparation stages include:

  • Food preparation
  • Setting up decorations
  • Wrapping gifts
  • Setting the table
  • Lighting candles

7. Close-Ups Of Detail

Portraits are great but don't forget about the smaller details around your Christmas party. Switch to a macro lens or macro mode if you're using a compact camera and look for tree decorations, snow globes, poinsettias, festive garlands, centrepieces and ornaments. Be sure to check your white balance as photos taken indoors can sometimes have a warm, orange tint to them.

8. Christmas Lights

Photographing Christmas lights is something that can be tricky to do. Photographing Christmas lights at dusk does have one distinct advantage, and that’s the benefit of more light in your shot. Even if you’re shooting at dusk, though, when there’s more light, you should use a tripod, beanbag or Gorillapod. If you don’t have something to stabilize your camera and you’re shooting handheld, I would recommend trying to brace the camera as best as possible, and using a shutter speed (1/30th to 1/10th of a second), wide-open aperture (the lowest number your camera has; it should be around f/2.8), and high ISO (ISO 800 to ISO 1600).

9. Find a Point of Interest

All good shots should have a focal point that holds the attention of those viewing your images. The problem with Christmas is that there can often be too many competing focal points in shots with people, colour, decorations, food in every shot. Work hard and ensure you frame a point of interest in your photos.

10. Shoot in Continuous Mode

Stay ready and actively anticipate smiles and laughs. Keep your camera up as your family and friends open their gifts and snap away at the reactions. Switch your camera to continuous shooting mode (also called “burst mode”). Some of your best shots from Christmas will be the non-posed images. Don’t forget to shoot the reactions of those who GIVE the gift as well.

11. Recommended Settings

There’s usually going to be a lot of additional, practical light sources “on” during Christmastime (all those Christmas lights) and these will probably bump up the ambient light level to a certain extent, but not so high that you can shoot at ISO 100, so go for 200; even when you’re inside. Shutter speeds between 1/30 and 1/90 should suit you the best, as you should try for aperture settings of f/2 to f/5.6; you’ll get shallow to moderate depth of field at these settings, which will add to the ambiance, by keeping the illuminated background just out of focus.

12. Be a Storyteller

In my opinion, the most important tip here is "be a storyteller". Each photo or sequence of photos should tell a story and should capture the feelings and emotions from the big day.

Christmas Photo Tips Conclusion

The most important rule for Christmas photos is to have fun. It’s a wonderful time to experiment with different camera settings, play with the bokeh of Christmas lights and tell the story of the holidays through photos. Please share your magical images with me on Facebook or Twitter or in the comments below.

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David Sornberger
David Sornberger
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David Sornberger

David Sornberger is a self-taught Canadian photographer whose work is layered by surf, landscape, city and travel subjects | www.davidsornberger.com

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