The Beginner's Guide to Taking Great Holiday Photos

The Beginner's Guide to Taking Great Holiday Photos

Jeff Heaton
Nov 30, 2011

Tis the season for receiving the same ole photos of friends and family in matching sweaters, just a little bit older than the year before. Frankly, it's kind of boring. With a little extra planning, holiday photos could avoid their short holiday shelf life (like the purrfectly awesome photo above). And it's really not too hard to get great looking photos yourself rather than shelling out a bunch of money for studio shots...

The Right Gear
The one definite thing you'll need outside of a camera is a tripod. You can try and set your camera on a chair or table, but a tripod makes this process a million times easier as you can adjust the legs (key if you're shooting outside on an uneven surface) and most have levels to ensure you're getting the right angle. We like the Canon Deluxe 200 ($38.95) as a good starter tripod. You can easily spend hundreds of dollars on a tripod, but for our purposes, we found this model sufficient.

If you've got an SLR, the lens is a key consideration. Telephoto lenses create a lovely flattening effect — we like 85mm or 135mm or their equivalent. If you've got a huge family then a wide angle lens might be the only option. And of course if you've got the cash some external flashes, beauty dishes, and soft boxes are always nice to have, but that's probably more money than most people are willing to spend. If nothing else cover your hot-shoe/on-camera flash with some tissue paper to soften the light or make your own flash gear.

A Good Background
We can often tell a photo was shot by an amateur when we note something obtrusive in the background: a pole sticking out behind a head or a random object in the background messing with the subject. Be sure to review everything in the frame; take a test shot to check if the background and any nearby elements are detracting from your photo subjects.

Interesting textures like ivy covered walls or wooden siding can be lovely, but require serious attention by the photographer. The safest bet is to have plenty of space between the subject and the background behind them. This will give it a nice bokeh if the camera is stopped down to f/5.6 or less. A backdrop will also ensure an even, unobtrusive background. This muslin one from DMKFoto ($23.85) is wide enough for about five people.

Going Different
Sure you could all wear matching sweaters and stand near the tree or stagger yourselves on the front steps, but there's so many more interesting options available. Akihiro Furuta (the photographer of this photo) used many unconventional stylings in his portraits of his family to lively and colorful results. Sadly his Flickr is no longer available but collections of his work can be found on blogs around the web for inspiration.

This is just a starting point for telling the story of your family this year. How can you differentiate this year from all those previous? What major events affected you and your loved ones? And how can you capture this in your annual mailer? Answering these questions through your images will help you make a photo that is not only interesting and informative to those you send it to, but a moment of reflection for your own viewing in the future.

Proper Retouching
The best photos start strong in camera, but sometimes you still need a little help of the sort that Photoshop can provide. There's a ton of videos on youtube on how to enhance your photos like a professional photographer. While we're more keen on the true-to-life photographs because they capture a moment, who needs to know you had a zit that day? Or that those stray hairs were floating about? This tutorial offers tips about softening the skin, which can make everyone look better. Just don't go overboard, people will know you weren't on the cover of Vogue last month.

More Photography Tips
The Supplementary Photography Gear List
Photography Friday: The Web's Best Tips for Great Photos
Final Frame: The Photography Cheat Sheet

(Images: TooToo, Flickr users Richard.Fisher and Wonderlane under creative commons.)

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