I know I'm always saying to avoid chaos in your photos, and let's face it, what could be more chaotic than Christmas morning? But fear not, you can get great Christmas day images that are unencumbered by mountains of empty toy packaging, Grandma's oh-so-cheesy collection of porcelain elves that seems to be in every single background and the strange, hovering presence of that extra guy your sister decided to bring along this year (who the heck is that guy anyway?) So how do you separate the beauty and charm of Christmas from the chaos of the festivities? Here are a few tips.
The biggie: zoom in
Many hobby photographers make the simple mistake of not filling the frame when they photograph a person or object in a crowded setting. (Of course, having followed my very first tip, you wouldn't be one of those people, would you!) Before you raise your camera to capture your 4-year-old nephew tearing into his gifts, take a quick mental inventory of what is around him, in front of him and behind him.
Is he in sitting just in front of a beautifully decorated, still perfect Christmas tree? Great, shoot a little wider. But in most other circumstances, you're going to discover that there's an empty cardboard box on his right, a half-consumed can of soda on the coffee table in front of him and two quarrelling, formerly estranged cousins directly behind him. If this is the case, zoom in so that you're cropping out all the distractions to the right, left and directly in front. And use a smaller f-stop so that the angry faces of those two arguing relatives will blur out of the background altogether.
Pay attention to the lighting
Indoor festivities pose a fairly substantial set of challenges for photographers, and as for almost all photography situations the first thing to take note of is the lighting. Early morning gift opening frenzies are going to be challenging to capture because the light just isn't that good. If you can calm your kids down (on Christmas morning, easier said than done), try to position them next to a well-lit Christmas tree or near a window, if the sun is up.
Notice the face of the kid above. It's well lit by a window off to the right of shot. This shot looks good partially because his head is tilted towards the window - lighting his face more.
Turn on a few extra lights in the house if you have to (remembering of course to set your white balance to tungsten). You can even use strands of loose holiday lights to help illuminate your subject. Just remember that it's far better to rely on ambient light than your flash, which will wash out faces, kill holiday lights and create black shadows behind everything in its path. If you don't have other light sources that could be used in a pinch, try turning your ISO up to 800 or higher.
Don't just go for the obvious shots
It's easy to just focus on the obvious holiday activities - opening gifts, for example. But there are hundreds of other great shots you can capture with your camera, so don't forget to look at every moment from all possible perspectives. Is your son about to open up his new skateboard? Zoom in on his face. Sometimes the expression on a child's face says more about the moment than the gift itself. And don't forget to take photos of loved ones enjoying their gifts after they've been opened.
Wander into the kitchen and get a few shots of Mom's hands mixing up the stuffing or capture the trays of cookies as they are just coming out of the oven. Is your 18 month old having a tantrum? Take a photo of that, too, and don't forget to capture the dismayed expression on your aunt's face as she watches the drama unfold.
Christmas is not just about the gifts...
Christmas is also about the decorations, of course, so don't leave them out of the day's photos. No, that doesn't mean you have to shoot the cheesy elf collection, though cheesy can have its charm. Instead, you can zoom in on the branches of the Christmas tree, a bowl full of bejeweled glass ornaments or that beautiful centerpiece with its pinecones, evergreen branches and red ribbon.
Shooting holiday lights comes with its own set of tricks and tips, so keep these simple guidelines in mind when zeroing in on the tree or on the spectacular light show at the neighbor's house.
For the love of Santa, don't use your flash. Flash equals poor photos in most circumstances, but when shooting holiday lights a flash will have the exact opposite effect from what you were going for. Adding flash will wash out your tree and make the lights look dimmer than they look to the naked eye. Instead, when shooting lights it is almost a given that you will need to use a tripod and a cable release or your camera's self-timer. Mount your camera on the tripod and experiment with longer shutter speeds. Chances are your meter is not going to give you the correct reading in this circumstance; after all you don't want the whole image to be perfectly exposed. You want some of the detail to fall off a little and for the image as a whole to be somewhat dark, so that the lights will stand out.
Experiment with aperture. When positioning friends and family in front of the tree, try using a wide aperture so that the lights will fall out of focus. Also remember that indoor shots can be tricky, especially when there are a lot of small lights in the background. If your camera has spot metering, always meter for your loved one's faces and take the shot with that exposure.
Check your white balance. Christmas lights, especially the non-LED variety, are often tungsten-balanced, so when indoors, set your camera's white balance accordingly and you will avoid final photos that look too orange. Just make sure you remember to switch back when shooting outdoor displays.
Choose the right time of day. Don't wait until after full dark to go outside and shoot your crazy neighbor's $900-monthly-power-bill collection of holiday lights. Instead go outside about 20 or 30 minutes after sunset (you may need to ask him to switch them on early), so there is still enough ambient light for you to capture some color in the sky and the shapes in the display itself. You want to find that happy medium between enough light to show detail but enough darkness to bring out the brilliance and color of the lights.
Ornaments and other holiday decorations can be good subjects for Christmas day photos, too. The big rule to remember here is to get close to your subject. Try to focus on one ornament or a cluster of them, letting the other ornaments, tree branches and lights fall out of focus. Remember that glass ornaments are very reflective, so you can get some great shots of faces or the lights of the trees reflected on the surface of a single ornament. Now move away from the tree and capture some of the other decorations, too. Again, carry an extra string of lights with you in case you need better light on that centerpiece or on, yes, the cheesy porcelain elf collection.
Christmas is one of the best photo ops of the year, but it can also be one of the easiest to get wrong. Just remember to think before you shoot, and keep these few simple guidelines in mind. Chaos reigns on Christmas morning, but your photos don't have to give that away.
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