Tips For Taking Holiday Photos

We've all done it, taken that endless stream of holiday photographs with the same people doing something, only we can't exactly tell what. Then there's the familiar, "Oh look at the tree!" only it's slightly blurry and the top is missing. Who doesn't have similar Thanksgiving or Christmas pictures somewhere?

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as an entertaining holiday photograph! Here are a few of my favorite ideas.


What is bokeh? Bokeh takes an object and makes it deliberately out of focus. This gives an image a more abstract feel. Most any type of object can be used to create this effect. However, the most popular, especially during the holidays, is with background lighting. Out of focus holiday lights become interesting shapes and lovely meshes of color. Their indefinite form work well as the background to those required family portraits too.

Not sure how to create bokeh? The best way to learn is through experimentation. Try a telephoto lens with a larger aperture. The shallow depth of field often gives a bokeh effect.


Perhaps you want to photograph the lights and have them actually be in focus. My first tip is to use a tripod. Lacking a tripod, look for a solid surface - a table, fence post, or railing - instead. It is most important to give your camera a solid support and therefore prevent unwanted camera shake. Another prevention is to use a remote shutter release or built-in self-timer. Hand-holding a camera in low light fails for most people.

For lights, I prefer to adjust my shutter speed manually and to spot focus my metering. Spot focus concentrates the exposure onto the light itself and prevents blown highlights. Manual shutter speed control is important because the longer the shutter is open the less definition you'll see in the lights (which takes you back to bokeh in point one).

For a fun light experiment, stop down your aperture. A smaller aperture will create a star effect. Lastly, avoid using the flash. This will negate the purpose of the photograph.


Food and Table Decorations

What about that giant holiday turkey? Never forget to photograph the food. Take pictures of Grandma's famous cake and Aunt Maude's strange paper Pilgrims. Those are as much memories of the occasions as anything else!

When photographing food, your camera angle is key. Place yourself so that the angle features the product. Zoom in close and eliminate any distracting elements. Also, take more care to find the correct exposure. If you are indoors, an increase in your ISO can eliminate the need for a flash. Flash photography in food photographs, unless done correctly, usually gives the wrong effect.

The Tree

For Christmas, there is always the obligatory tree photograph. Trees are often an odd shape in a photograph, so pay attention to the surroundings. Perhaps you don't want the ceiling fan in the picture. Depending on the size of the tree, horizontal or vertical format might work better. I find that most people forget they can hold their camera in a different direction.

Re-read the tips about lights again. A lighted tree is a "whole 'nother thing" when it comes to proper exposure. With an artificial tree, avoid using a flash. Flash tends to make artificial trees look just that - artificial. Ultimately, you want the tree to look natural.


The Unusual

Look for unusual subjects. Is the dog wearing antlers? Put yourself at her eye level and capture it. Photograph your children or grandchildren in action. Perhaps they are wrapping presents with WAY too much tape, baking cookies and getting it all over the counter, or jumping in the leaf pile you just created.

During the holidays, it pays to think outside the box. Carry your camera with you to parties or gatherings and surprise people. One of the funniest Christmases was the one where my brother continually stuck his camera in everybody's face. Eventually, everyone was in on the joke and started to ham it up. We still laugh about it.


As they say, location, location, location. In this case, go to a holiday themed location. Perhaps your local government decorates the park or the downtown area. Find things unique to where you live. Here in my area, they float Christmas trees at the center of the lakes and hang tinsel decorations on the light poles.

Another great idea is to go to a holiday parade with a telephoto lens. Photograph the horses wearing Christmas wreaths or Santa in the back of a truck. Always remember to include the faces of the children. There is something magical about the expression on a child's face during the holidays. I know my best memories of the holidays are when I was small.



Dig out the corny Christmas sweaters, pose your family and capture the moment. Yeah, that knitted beanie is pretty awful, but it makes for a great photograph.

Photographs are about saving one's memories. This holiday season, your family might not be together like this again. Your photos might capture for all time someone you love so much. I know I miss my grandparents even more during the holidays.


For so many, the holidays are about their beliefs. Look for photographs that highlight this meaning. Visit a local church during their outdoor festival. Photograph a lighted menorah or living nativity scene. Along the way, take time to listen to a choir or wandering carolers. I love the challenge of capturing sound in a still photograph.

As you do, always remember to respect the wishes of those worshiping.


Sometimes the hardest part of photography is coming up with new ideas for subject matter. It is easy to pick up a camera and wildly snap away at anything and everything around you. Instead, do a little planning beforehand. Sit down and make a list of the type of photographs you'd like to take. If you are shy on ideas, then do a web search and glean from shots taken by other photographers. Try duplicating something you found especially appealing or use them to create something uniquely your own. Never be afraid to experiment.

Most of all include yourself in the festivities. Your camera is a tool to compose your memories. How good are they really if you are not in them?


Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.