Quick Tips for Photographing the Holidays (While Staying Sane)

The holidays are a classic time for photography, but they are also a time of obligations and everything else that detracts from warm holiday feelings.

This post will lay out some quick holiday photography tips to help you get the photographs you want while maintaining both your sanity and the sanity of everyone else involved!

House decorated with bright holiday Christmas lightsPhotos via Boost Your Photography

Shoot RAW

If your camera has the option, I strongly recommend shooting in the RAW (or RAW + JPEG) file format. RAW files contain significantly more information than JPEG files, as JPEG is a compressed file format. RAW files also allow you to tweak the white balance of your files afterward. This is especially useful if you are shooting indoors or in varied lighting situations, as indoor lights often lend a yellow or orange hue to your images.

Comparison of an indoor shot using JPEG vs. RAW file formats

Make a shot list

A little bit of planning and preparation can make a huge difference in your holiday photographs. Before you set out to capture any type of holiday photographs, take a little time to put together a shot list. A shot list is a list of the types of photographs that you want to remember to capture.

Keep your shot list simple: the kids in front of the tree, highlighting a favorite ornament, the house with all the lights aglow. Focus your photographic energy on the shots that really matter for you.

Try a dress rehearsal

If there is a specific shot or set up that you want to capture, set aside some time to practice or rehearse that shot. Consider using yourself as a stand-in as needed. Make your mistakes now so that you are ready to go when the actual time arrives.

Silhouette selfie while gazing at a lit Christmas tree

Here I was rehearsing for a “kids in front of the glowing tree” style shot. From this frame, I learned the importance of closing the distracting window behind me and that using the chair distracted from the silhouette effect I was seeking. I also tried several other versions with brighter exposures to enhance the tree.

Quick tips for specific holiday shots

1. Group photographs

Posed photographs of the entire family or smaller family groups are often a staple at holiday get-togethers. Have your shot list of must-have groups for family portrait photography and think about how to cycle through as quickly as possible. When shooting, keep an eye on your aperture and make sure you have enough depth of field to keep the whole group in focus. Try around f/5.6 to f/8 if you have a larger group or staggered subjects.

It is often easiest to start big and work smaller. Get the whole group shot out of the way first and then focus on smaller combinations. If you are working with babies or children, give them priority. You have a much better chance of getting a quality shot of grandma with all the grandkids if the kids are still interested in the process.

A school desk used as a stand-in for practicing a bokeh photograph

2.Bokeh portraits

Bokeh blur is created by shooting at a wide aperture (like f/1.8). The trick to this type of shot is to keep your subject (above, the desk used for practice) as close to the camera as possible, while keeping the background lights in the distance.

3. Candids

Candid family photography is those shots taken in the moment, rather than more formal or posed shots. Give people a chance to get involved in other activities before jumping in with the camera. If possible, use a longer lens (say, 50-85 mm or longer focal length) to allow you to shoot from a little farther away and draw less attention to yourself and the camera. Use a faster shutter speed (above 1/250 is ideal) to avoid blur if people are moving.

Festive holiday pillows, looking like presents and decorated with bows

4. Detail shots

Decorations can be an important part of the holidays, especially if you have certain items that have a family history or story attached. Set aside the time to feature these special items. Choose a simple, uncluttered background and try utilizing natural light, if possible.

5. Outdoor holiday lights

Shoot holiday lights outside during the blue hour, just after sunset’s golden hour or just before sunrise. The blue hour keeps a deep blue hue in the sky that really sets off holiday lights. Turn on interior lights or outdoor sconces to give your house a warm, welcoming feeling. Consider shooting with a tripod at f/22 to turn each individual light into a miniature starburst.

House photographed during the blue hour with outdoor holiday lights

6. Relax and put the camera down!

Finally, don’t forget to put your camera down so that you can relax and enjoy the moment. Capturing the moment is incredible but so is slowing down to savor it.

Happy holidays and happy shooting!

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