It’s true that Thanksgiving is primarily an American holiday, but there's no reason why you need to live in America to photograph the things you are thankful for. The sentiment of Thanksgiving is a universal one - we all have things in our lives that we're grateful for, whether we celebrate them with a formal occasion or not. So what better month than November to express thanks through photography? Keep reading for some great ideas.
Photographing “thankful” is not just about the turkey on the table or the annual gathering of family and friends. But because Thanksgiving is such an a important event in the United States, let’s start this discussion with the formal holiday, and then move on to some of the less tangible ways we can acknowledge and appreciate the things we’re thankful for.
First, think about all of the different elements of the holiday you might want to capture. There's home decor, for example—if you're a big decorator, spend some time photographing your Thanksgiving props and displays. Indoors, shoot the centerpiece on your table or the set of mini pumpkins you keep on the mantle. Ideally, you’ll want to place your décor in places where there is good window light—window light is naturally diffused so it will flatter those autumn decorations in a way that artificial lights cannot. Pick a time of day when the light through the window is best—if there are sunbeams shining through the window you can always diffuse them with a sheer curtain or other piece of semi-transparent, white material.
If you don’t have good window light, you may need to use a tripod—remember that the closer you get to your subject, the less depth of field you’re going to have, so if you’re photographing objects up close you’ll want to keep your aperture pretty narrow, and that often means a slower shutter speed. Avoid using flash or turning on artificial lights—at close range, your flash is going to wash out your decorations and produce glare off shiny surfaces like glass, so a tripod and slow shutter speed really is the way to go. Keep your ISO low, too—any time you’re photographing subjects with an eye for detail, it’s a good idea to use the lower ISOs to prevent noise and other quality problems that can be associated with high ISOs.
There will be photo opportunities outdoors, too—even if you don’t really adorn your own home for the holiday, Mother Nature is a pretty enthusiastic decorator, and you’re sure to find Thanksgiving-themed scenes to shoot in your own neighborhood. Fall colors are Thanksgiving colors, so look for red and orange leaves, fall fruits and vegetables like apples and pumpkins and wildlife that we associate with the holidays, too. It’s no coincidence that wild turkeys tend to be pretty plentiful this time of year, so if you live in a part of the world where you often have to slow down to let flocks of them cross the road, make sure you’re always armed with a camera.
If you live in the southern hemisphere, you’re seeing spring colors right now—and there’s a lot to be grateful for in the spring, too. Head out with your camera and capture some fields full of colorful wildflowers, or the new green grass as it makes its first appearance.
When outdoors, choose golden hour light. If you’re planning your photo shoot in advance, think about the time of day when the light is going to be most flattering to your subject—let’s say that you’re shooting the handmade wreath on your own front door, which is eastern-facing. You’ll want to shoot in the morning, because that’s when that golden hour light will fall on your wreath. Be sure to shoot in the first hour after sunrise, because the light at this time of the day is soft and diffused, so it will bring out all of the beautiful details in the wreath and on the door. If you wait until the sun is higher, the light will become harsher and brighter, and some of those fine details will be obscured in shadow or highlight.
You kind of have to have a shot of the turkey. Again, use window light if you can—window light is going to bring out all of those beautiful details in that fresh-out-of-the-oven bird. Place the turkey on a serving platter first, and surround it with some of the things you'll serve with it, such as roast potatoes and parsnips. Place objects in the background that support the theme, like as your Thanksgiving decor, serving dishes full of sides (the cranberry sauce will add a nice pop of color) and glasses of wine. Use a middle-of-the-road aperture such as f/5.6 so that you'll get good clarity across the turkey but those objects in the background will fall into soft focus.
Photographing the family
Photographing the family on Thanksgiving Day is always a bit of a challenge and requires some coordination. Try to capture a few candid shots of your family sitting around catching up or playing with the kids and pets before dinner. And if you can, try to schedule at least one group shot of everybody around the dinner table. That doesn't necessarily mean they should all be seated at the dinner table—standing is also an alternative. However you decide to do it, make sure you include all of that food as an accent to a classic group portrait. If your family is a little too hidden behind that table, consider standing on a stool or elevating yourself a little above their position so that you can get everybody in the frame.
If you don't have good natural light in the dining room, use an external flash to bounce light off the ceiling. Don't engage your onboard flash because that's not going to flatter either the humans or the food they're about to eat. If it's late in the day and there is no natural light, and you don't have an external flash, consider using a lens with a high maximum aperture (a 50mm prime lens can usually go as high as f/1.8 or f/1.4) or simply turn up your ISO. Don't worry that there might be a little noise in the photo—that's infinitely superior to that awful artificial flash look or motion blur in your subjects.
All of this, of course, it doesn't really take into account the reasons for the holiday itself. Thanksgiving is about being thankful, and you don't have to celebrate American Thanksgiving in order feel grateful for things like your friends, your family and where you are in your own life. Start by brainstorming a little—if you were going to make a gratitude list, what would you put on it? Your spouse or children are probably on the top of the list, but there are other things like your pets, your comfortable home and your career. But you may even have things you're thankful for that aren't tangible, such as your health. How can you capture these ideas in a photograph?
First, let go of the notion that you somehow have to express to everyone who sees your photograph that it's about gratitude. Gratitude is an extremely personal thing—you can capture a photograph of your children, for example, and a stranger who sees that image isn't necessarily going to understand that you intended to express gratitude when you took that photograph. But you're personally going to feel gratitude when you look at it, and that's what's important.
There are subtle ways that you can add a feeling of gratitude to your images, too—warm colors, for example are a great way to give your photos a warm feeling, and gratitude definitely qualifies as a warm feeling. Try shooting in RAW and then adjusting the white balance a little to give your images hints of reds and oranges. You can also use post-processing filters to add a vintage look to your photos—nostalgia is a thankful emotion, and that vintage look can make your photographs feel nostalgic.
What about those intangible things that you're thankful for, such as your health? Think about some of the things that represent health to you, such as healthy foods like salads, fruits and vegetables. Consider photographing these things as props for a self-portrait. Exercise is another way that we stay healthy, so try taking a photograph of someone you love out for a morning jog, or shoot another self-portrait of yourself getting ready for your morning exercise routine. These less tangible ideas about gratitude and thankfulness can be a little challenging to photograph but with some careful thought and creativity I have no doubt you'll come up with some interesting and unusual ideas.
Even if you don't celebrate Thanksgiving, there are still plenty of reasons to be thankful this time of year. I hope this exercise will be more than just about capturing some holiday-themed images for your scrapbook—if you really spend some time brainstorming the things that make you feel grateful, then you may find yourself coming away from the experience with a renewed appreciation for the people and circumstances in your life and the world around you. So think creatively, take plenty of pictures, and don't forget that you have your photography to be thankful for too.
- Thanksgiving day
- Photograph decor
- Look for holiday themed scenes outdoors
- Photograph the food
- Photograph the family
- Think about the things you are thankful for
- Use warm colors
- Add a vintage feeling
- Think of intangible subjects like your health
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