Tips for Taking Great Holiday Photos

Everyone has a camera. But not everyone has the knack for capturing interesting photos. With the holiday season just around the bend, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to hone your photography skills. Hopefully with this basic guide, your snapshots will go from boring to lively and vibrant in no time. All it takes is little planning, photo know-how and experimentation.

Photography is much more than pressing a button and hoping for the best. It works for smartphones, sure — open your camera app and take a photo. But there’s a lot more to it than most people realize. Before we get started, I want to explain the very basics of photography in the hopes that you’ll better understand the art’s complexity.

The Basics

First, Aperture (f stop) is extremely important for snapping pictures. It not only affects depth of field, but how much light is let into your camera. Think of it was an eyeball’s pupil. For bright light (daylight) situations, you’ll want to use small f-stops (f/8 and higher) to mitigate the amount of light entering the camera. In low-light, open that f-stop up wider (f/1.4-f/5.6) to allow more light to come in. Typical aperture ranges vary, and not every camera gives users such granular control, but it’s still important to know the function.

Secondly, ISO (film speed) and shutter speed are directly correlated to your understanding of a camera’s aperture settings. ISO is basically how sensitive film (or on digital cameras, sensor data) is to light. The lower an ISO, say, 100, the less sensitive. The higher, 800, the more sensitive. Boosting a digital camera’s ISO settings is particularly important in low-light situations, which is why some cameras have such astronomically high ISO sensitivities.

These two, in turn, affect shutter speed, which is basically like blinking. Shutter speed determines how long your camera’s shutter remains open to let light in. Simple. So, for example, when shooting outdoors, you’ll want to use a lower ISO, and adjust your aperture and shutter speed accordingly. Action shots obviously require faster shutter speeds, while a larger aperture is good for portraits because it allows you to control depth of field.

Knowing the basics won’t automatically turn you into a pro, of course. But it’s a start. Most digital cameras offer Automatic or Program modes that do the legwork for users anyway, but having a grasp of how things work never hurt. Now on to a few tips.

Try Something New

How many times have you looked at a photo, from the holidays or otherwise, and just felt it looked flat? Let’s ignore the typical awkward family photos and the 1-2-3 Cheese. Get creative. Have the kids do something fun. Make faces, jump in the air. The adults should do the same. If your subjects are feeling drab and bored, their emotions will likely translate to your photos, which nobody will want to look at.

Be a Composer

Placing your subject directly in the middle of your frame is safe, but boring. Experiment with angles and framing. Some of the most striking photos typically have a certain balance of subject (maybe someone opening a present) offset by their surroundings. There might not be a lot of surrounding action at home during the holidays, but having a subject in the middle can convey singularity (maybe even isolation), which is the opposite effect you want in holiday photos.

Concurrently, it’s important that your photos move in close to the action. If you’re off in the distance during family gatherings, photos might feel detached. Is little Jimmy about to open a present he’s been dying to get? Get close. Watch your framing. Carefully plan your angles. You don’t want to look down at him.

Be Ready, Shoot More Photos Than You Need

Memorable moments can disappear in an instant. If you know something big is about to happen, be ready. Is Uncle Steve about to do something embarrassing? Don’t wait until he’s falling off the table. Anticipate your shot, be one step ahead. Have your camera in hand and ready to go. And snap a lot of photos. You can always delete the boring ones later. The important thing is that you captured that split second when something significant happened. Those are the pictures that speak a thousand words.

Always Be Prepared

This should go without saying, but make sure your camera’s battery is always charged. And, for that matter, be sure your CF card is properly formatted with old pictures saved on your computer. You don’t want to have to juggle with syphoning through pictures you just took to make room for more. Or running over to Walgreens to purchase a last minute battery. No. Be prepared. Over prepare. It’ll make for a less stressful family gathering, and keep you entrenched in the hijinks happening all around you.

Rule of Thirds

This relates to the Be a Composer portion, but it warrants its own section, particularly for those winter landscape shots. Rule of thirds essentially applies to an imaginary template of composing photos (and paintings, designs, etc.), in which a guideline frames an image. A lot of cameras today actually overlay grids to act as a guideline, making it easier for the user to align their subject to create a better image. In landscapes especially, properly dividing a photo lets user capture more dynamic and breathtaking images.

Do Your Own Thing

You’re the artist. You have the camera. Do what you feel is natural. With some basic knowledge and understanding of photography’s basic principals, anyone can improve their skills. No everyone can be an Ansel Adams, but that’s not the point. The point is capturing the best images possible during the holiday season, and looking back at those memories down the road during your next family gathering. You don’t just want boring old pictures. You want a story, something that evokes emotion. Practice, experiment, and above all, have fun with it.

This post was sponsored by Best Buy.