Christmastime (and winter) is the most energetic and exciting time to take photographs for a variety of reasons – the natural elements, the captivating and imaginative decorations (including Christmas lights) and the festive mood that overcomes whole communities. You can photograph during the day, but some of the most evocative images can be found at night. The brilliance provided by the pure white snow adds some challenges, but there are some benefits too. Let’s take a look at how to get the most effective Christmas photos.
The cold chill of winter brings a certain purity to the air. Even the light usually has a different quality to it. This is all great for your photography. Get out in the brisk air and take photos of the snow-covered homes and lawns in your area. Most neighborhoods have several families that nearly go overboard with their enthusiasm for the season and have decked out their homes with intricate lighting and prop arrangements – these make excellent backdrops for your photos – seek these out. Also shoot at night where the whiteness of the snow elevates the overall light level (sort of like an environmental reflector). You’ll want to use long shutter speeds – below 1/15 (which might require a tripod) – to get some spectacular shots of the lit-up houses and the sky.
Christmas Lights & Ornaments
Christmas lights and ornaments are the holiday decorations you’ll find in nearly every Christmastime photograph; they’re a staple, but they’re also a cliché staple. You’ll want to find ways to utilize them in inventive ways – extreme close ups or just having them dominate the frame where the “subjects”, the people, populate the background to give dimension and suggest depth. Don’t be afraid to unplug lights so they might be off directly behind your subject, but turned on in the opposite side of the frame… it’s a way to balance the composition and not add a distracting element. Another interesting and effective technique you can employ when photographing ornaments and Christmas tree lights is the Bokeh technique. With Bokeh, you use the blurred or soft focus part of an image (that’s just outside of the depth of field) as part of the image composition. One way to enhance the effect is to place a piece of black paperboard with a shape cut out of it in front of the lens, and the soft-focus/blurred light halos will take on the shape of what you cut into the paperboard. It’s a neat effect that can add character to your photographs.
Holidays are days that highlight the importance of relationships, with Christmas being the granddaddy of them all. The stress and pressure of the passing year may wear on everyone, yet everyone is glad to relax and spend time with family. As with Thanksgiving, you have a chance to take photographs that define emotional moments for years, if not decades to come. The joy of the “giving season” amplifies your subjects, so they’ll be more expressive when you ask them to pose together. Fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives will all be open to suggestions on how and where to stand to enable you to capture the bonds between them. Try to get them to smile and laugh; and suggest that couples stand beneath mistletoe for a holiday kiss. Only Scrooge or a Grinch would object!
Capture the Preparation Stages
Families come together at holidays, but not just for the main event, they come to help decorate… and these are exciting, fun-filled moments, so they’re ripe with photographic opportunity! Trimming the tree is a special moment in creating the atmosphere of Christmas, and most families have a cherished collection of ornaments, lights and stockings – all of which need to be hung on the tree. Try to get people’s faces as they open the ornament boxes. Young children (who might not have remembered the last Christmas) are especially good subjects. When the tinsel goes on, you’re almost done, but there are two more shots to get – the first is when the star (or angel) is placed on the top of the tree; and the last shot is when everything is on the tree and the lights are plugged in for the first time.
Focus on the Eyes
All pictures of people soar when you focus in on your subject’s eyes, and that’s no different with Christmastime photos. It’s critical to compose the image with as little headroom and dead space on the sides as possible, so the image is more about the faces and the eyes than anything else. The rest of the décor will filter into the image on its own. In the photograph on the right all the eyes are in the same plane, and this is effective for this kind of photo as it shows a subtle unity among the family. You can use a flash with most indoor Christmas photos, but use a detachable flash (or an angled flash) and bounce the light off the ceiling. Remember, the ambient light levels will be raised by the Christmas lights (and possibly candles too), and you don’t want the vibrant colors washed out by the flash.
Take Group Portraits
Christmas photos can have dual uses – you take them for the memories/record-keeping and you can use them as your family’s Christmas card. Either way, you want to make sure that you, the photographer, are in some of the important family photos. You’ll want to position everyone by the Christmas tree and have some presents in the composition too. Use a tripod for this group shot, because you’ll want to use the camera’s timer so you can get in the photo too. Your camera’s timer is a nifty little feature that many people don’t use (enough) or even know about. It’s simple to work; you just set your exposure values (shutter, ISO and aperture), compose your frame, set the timer interval (between 3 – 10 seconds), then press the shutter.
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.
A fast zoom lens is great for Christmastime photography, try for a 28 – 80mm or something similar; this way you’ll have a wide angle for group portraits and shooting houses/buildings that are magnificently decorated, and you’ll also be able to grab intimate and inviting close-ups. Consider having your tripod available. Even if you don’t use the timer function the tripod can be helpful for stabilizing the camera for high angle shots (which might be the best/only way to get everyone in a group shot). Use a corded flash or a flash with a tilt/swivel head to avoid having the flash fire head-on at your subjects. A head-on flash will wash out not only the skin tones, but the vibrant color cast from all the Christmas lights as well.
The Christmas holiday is a heavily photographed event, so it’s important to approach the subject with an eye for doing something different and compelling. Utilize the ornaments and the lights to spruce up the background elements of your shots (remember to experiment with the bokeh technique for something subtly different), focus on your subject’s eyes and work to position your family in intimate positions that emphasizes their close relationship and the joy this season instills in everyone. The preparation is just as important as the finished product when it comes to Christmas, so get in there and take photos of the tree trimming activity as it happens.