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20 Digital Photography Tips for Better Christmas Pictures

With Christmas fast approaching and everybody starting to get into a festive mood’ here are some tips and ideas to help you capture the true spirit of the holiday season with your digital camera.

Photo by: Joe Penniston

Recommended Equipment for Christmas Photography

Although you can effectively capture stunning photographs using any digital camera to have complete control over how your picture looks and to get the most out of the holiday season it is better to shoot with a DSLR camera.

 Christmas photography involves a lot of low light shooting both indoors and outdoors so a fast general purpose zoom lens like the 24mm – 70mm f/2.8 will be the ideal choice as you can cover a wide range of shooting angles without changing lenses. Having a fast lens is important for two reasons one it could keep shutter speeds and ISO values within acceptable limits and two it could produce beautiful bokeh photographs. I can’t stress more the importance of Image Stabilization / Vibration Reduction in Christmas photography; when shooting handheld in low light conditions having an image stabilized lens or not could mean getting a sharp shot or not.

christmas photography tutorial
Photo by: Gertrud K.

Keep a tripod close at hand, it will come in handy during many occasions; it is better to shoot handheld during the function as a tripod can get in the way and also spoil the mood but certain shots are impossible to make without a solid tripod.

A dedicated flash unit with a tilt/swivel head is one indispensable accessory. Make sure you gel the flash head to match the color temperature of your indoor lights. Never use direct flash, instead bounce it off the side walls or the ceiling. Use sufficient exposure compensation so that light from flash is subtle and does not kill the ambiance of the scene.

Always keep a fully charged spare battery and lots of memory close at hand, you might need them.

Recommended Camera Settings for Christmas Photography

Camera Settings for Christmas Photography
Photo by:  Edgar Barany

Every camera has a certain ISO range within which it could manage image noise within acceptable limits. As a photographer you should be aware of your camera’s strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t already know try taking pictures in low light with varying ISO settings and find out the upper limit for your camera model. This ISO setting should produce clean images without much visible noise. And this should be your ISO for handheld shooting during the Christmas day. Having a slightly higher ISO setting could get you faster shutter speeds or more depth of field as per the situation demands.

I recommend shooting in Manual mode as lighting conditions indoors are unlikely to change (unless you are shooting in a different location) and shooting manual will ensure consistent exposures.

christmas photography ideas
Photo by: Nick Kenrick

Shoot in RAW file format as this will give you much more control over white balance and exposure corrections in post production.

Set your camera to continuous shooting mode and shoot in bursts (while handholding) this helps ensure sharp pictures in low light conditions.

Christmas Photography Tips

1. Do Your Homework and Prepare Well in Advance

Christmas photography
Photo by: Trey Ratcliff

The first consideration should be the shooting locations, if it’s your house take note of lighting conditions, how it will be decorated what will be the light levels, is it enough for handheld shooting, if not can the ambient light levels be increased either by adding more light sources or by changing existing ones with more powerful ones. Also plan your Christmas decorations and props in a photo friendly manner. You might need a large enough space for guests to interact and have fun and then there is the group photo to think of.

2. Make a List of Photographs you would Love to Take

Photo Tips for Christmas
Photo by: Ricardo Motti

Preparing a list of must have photographs is a great way to ensure that you don’t miss out on any photo opportunity during Christmas and it is also a great way to plan/list out all the props and accessories you might need during the day.

3. Keeping your Equipment Ready

Make sure you have charged all your batteries, camera, flash etc. and have plenty of storage available. Check that you have tripod and a fast general purpose lens; if you do not own one could you borrow or rent one for the occasion. Check and clean both the front and back elements of your lenses there might be finger prints or dust which could spoil your shots, also check and confirm that auto focus and image stabilization is on.

4. Narrate a Story with your Photographs

Christmas Photography
Photo by: Murilo Cardoso

Your Christmas photographs should tell a story to the viewer; the best approach to Christmas photography is that of a photojournalist. Take pictures with the end result in mind; think about your story and how the picture will fit in. Capture people in action, unwrapping presents, showing emotion etc. People are the most powerful subjects; look out for facial expressions, happiness, tears, laughter etc could all make the viewers of your photos immediately relate to the subjects. When your pictures tell stories it makes the viewers relive that moment once again and when this happens you know that you have succeeded in successfully capturing the spirit of Christmas in your photographs; welcome to the pro club.

5. Be Ready – Always

christmas photo ideas
Photo by: Federica Simoni

Be ready to press the shutter at a moment’s notice, great expressions that naturally come to people’s faces when they are surprised, see each other etc all happen and are gone in the blink of an eye so be ready with your camera, split second reactions are the need of the hour.

6. Compose your Shots Carefully

christmas light photography
Photo by: Simon Ingram

There is no excuse for bad composition and even if everything else has come together perfectly, a bad composition could easily spoil the otherwise great shot. So compose your shots carefully, remember all those rules or rather guidelines of photographic composition like the rule of thirds, the golden mean etc, and observe them while photographing. Little things like keeping your subjects off center and shooting kids from their eye level could drastically alter the look and feel of your shots.

7. Pay Attention to your Backgrounds

christmas photography props
Photo by: Jeff Meyer

Background is as important as your subject, especially during festive occasions like Christmas. Don’t shoot your subjects in front of dull backgrounds; find a festive background instead. Christmas lights, props and decorations etc not only make your home more beautiful but they also make excellent backdrops for photography. Use your decor as your background, place your subjects a few feet away from the background and shoot with wide open apertures to get beautiful bokeh backgrounds.

8. Start your Christmas Photography Right from the Preparation Stages

Opportunities for great photography start well before the actual Christmas meal or party. It is a time when friends and families get together, people who are closest come well in advance and help out in various activities like trimming the lawn, cleaning and decorating the house, re arrange furniture, set up lights, hang stars, making of the Christmas tree, wrapping and hanging all the presents, preparing food etc. shoot people who are busy getting things done, having fun, resting, admiring their handiwork etc. make sure you have photographed the setting right after it is complete as things will start to change the moment guests start arriving.

9. Pay Attention to the Details

christmas light photography tips
Photo by: Steve Jurvetson

A perfect story teller pays attention to details and so must you. Switch to a macro lens or if you are using a point and shoot camera choose the macro mode and move in close, it is time to capture the detail shots. The real magic of Christmas lies in its little details like decorations on the Christmas tree, the lights, table decorations, beautiful ornaments, sweets, cupcakes, a bow on a present, Christmas cards etc.

10. Before and After Shots

tips for christmas photography
Photo by: Craig Hodgson

It’s a good idea to take before and after shots of table presentations, the whole room, the lawn and everything else. Take pictures soon after you are done decorating the house, remember the angle from which you took those shots and take another round of pictures of the same subjects from the same angle soon after the party is over and everyone’s gone. Shots taken from the same angle makes it easier to spot the differences.

11. Time-lapse Christmas

Christmas is a great time to try time lapse photography. If you have a spare camera and an intervelometer (else a laptop and the software that came with the camera would do) set the camera up on a tripod with a wide angle lens. Set it to shoot a frame every few minutes and at the end of the day you will have a great series of photographs that you can turn into a beautiful time lapse sequence.

12. Don’t Forget to Photograph Outdoors

christmas picture tips
Photo by: Tom Bricker

The cold winter air and the snow covered roofs and streets take on an ethereal feel when the houses are decorated lavishly with various props and intricate lighting arrangements. These scenes make excellent backdrops for your Christmas photos, take your guests outside especially children to explore the neighborhood, enjoy the scene, have some fun and capture some beautiful pictures in the process.

13. Avoid Posing People for Photographs

christmas photography bokeh
Photo by: Filipe Varela

Posed pictures seldom look good. I admit that taking at least some posed pictures can’t be avoided but they only serve as record shots, capturing the fact that these people where physically present during the occasion. So instead approach Christmas photography like a photojournalist, capture every moment as it unfolds, people being themselves, having a good time etc. Shooting candid is the right approach here.

14. Peak Action Moment - Opening Gifts 

tips for photographing christmas celebrations
Photo by: Stephen Vance

The highlight of every Christmas is the time of opening gifts, this is especially so when you have lots of kids around. Be ready, switch your camera to continuous shooting mode and try to capture the various emotions and facial expressions that happen right from the anticipation of getting the gift through the excitement of finding out what’s inside. Shoot reactions of both parties (those who are giving away gifts as well).

15. Focus on their Eyes

christmas portrait
Photo by: Bogdan Suditu

While photographing people always make sure you have focused on their eyes. People (for that matter any living creature) look good when the eyes are sharp. Having the eyes sharp is essential as un-sharp eyes could spoil an otherwise beautiful picture.

16. Watch Your Aperture

christmas portraits
Photo by: sbluerock

When composing frames with more than one person, you should watch out the aperture setting, to make sure there is enough depth of field to get everyone in sharp focus.

17. Capture Relationships

christmas ideas for a photographer
Photo by: D. Sharon Pruitt

Try to photograph the bond between people, Fathers and Daughters, Mothers and Sons, Brothers, Sisters, Husbands and Wives, Uncles and Aunts the list is endless.

18. Get in the Pictures

christmas selfie
Photo by: guilherme pavan

After the party is over and the guests are all gone, when you browse through all the Christmas pictures you will be in for a little shock, yes it is true you are no there in even a single shot. It has happened to me and believe me, this could easily happen to you as well. So make sure to get in some of the pictures instead of being the one taking them all. You can either handover the camera to another person (it’s worth even if the picture is not as properly composed as you would have done or is a little blurry) or simply use a tripod and set the camera on timer. 

19. Don’t Forget the Importance of Group Photos

christmas group photo
Photo by: VancityAllie

Taking group photos when friends and families get together on festive occasions was a job reserved for professional photographers until recently. These group shots are important as they are carefully preserved as memories or at times even used as the families Christmas card. Position everyone carefully and make sure you include some Christmas decorations like the Christmas tree or some presents in the composition to bring that festive feel to the shot. This is one shot that needs to be paid a lot of attention to, use a tripod and trigger the camera using self timer or a remote so you could also be in the picture.

20. Put the Camera Away

How to Photograph Christmas
Photo by: Éole Wind

When all the guests have arrived and settled, the party is in full swing and you know you have captured some really great shots, put your camera away safely. Let go of the idea that you need to capture each and every moment, having a good time with your friends and family is far more important. A photographer with a camera around his/her neck will only be focused on one thing and that is to seize an opportunity for a great photograph and make the most out of it. But in the process you end up having missed the opportunity to have some real fun. So consider this the most important tip, put your camera away and simply enjoy being in the moment.

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