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Chapter 4. People Shots, Portraits, and Pets > Creating great holiday pictures

Creating great holiday pictures

One of the busiest times of the year for any camera is the holiday season, when everyone comes together for celebrations, occasions, and parties. With the convenience and capabilities of digital cameras at your side, you can capture the holiday revelry and create some lasting memories through your photography.

The challenges of holiday shots

Holiday shots run the photographic gamut. There are low-light situations, group shots, individual shots, outdoor shots, close-ups, portraits, bright colors, harsh reflections—the list of photographic challenges goes on and on. The varied landscape of holiday photo-graphy requires you to be flexible, understand your digital camera's capabilities, and use your shooting environment to get the best possible shots. So, while holiday shots aren't hard to take, taking the time to plan your shots and prepare your camera will help you overcome these photographic obstacles.

Prepare your hardware

Digital cameras are small, versatile, and easy to use, which makes them perfect for crowded holiday gatherings. To get the best pictures once you arrive, take some time to prepare your camera before you get there.

Plenty of power, plenty of memory

First and most important, charge up those batteries and keep a spare set handy. You don't want to miss Uncle Lou sleeping on the couch after dinner, do you? Next, give your memory cards a good “cleaning.” Using your camera or card reader, reformat your card to maximize the capacity and remove any old files or folders that might be taking up space. Reformatting has the added benefit of giving your digital camera a clean slate, which decreases the time you have to wait while a picture is saving.

Clean up your act

You should also make sure you clean your camera's lens. Remove any smudges or specks of dirt that can spoil a batch of great photos. Make sure you use a good lens cloth, lens brush, or cleaning fluid designed for camera optics. Avoid the temptation to use something like a paper towel, as it can cause permanent damage to your lens. Bring your camera, your external flash (if you have that capability), and perhaps a wide-angle lens. Keep it simple and bring only what you're going to use—you'll have more fun and increase your chances of actually being where the action is.

Educate yourself

Finally, take a few minutes to flip through your camera manual. Make sure you understand how to adjust the exposure levels and look for special scene modes that might benefit your situation. Many digital cameras have a Party or Indoors scene setting that will optimize the exposure settings to fit the environment.

Arriving at the party

The best holiday photos are candid, so stopping to adjust your camera settings before a shot can spoil the moment. Get your camera ready to anticipate the shooting environment—then you can click away without worry.

Make a resolution

Your first decision is to choose the quality and resolution settings for your camera. We're firm believers that you should always shoot at the highest resolution possible, but this increases memory consumption and the time it takes to save your files to the memory card. Lower resolution settings save quickly and take up less room, but they aren't as detailed and can look pixelated when printed. Try to find a happy medium that maximizes the capabilities of your camera, your storage size, and your shooting style.

I'm dreaming of a white balance

Next, take a look around you. What type of light is dominant? If the holiday party is during the day and natural light is everywhere, you'll want to set your white balance for a daylight setting. However, during the winter holidays you're likely to be indoors under incandescent or fluorescent light. Adjust your white balance accordingly and you'll save yourself from having to adjust the images later. If you aren't sure what to choose or if you have a mixed-light situation, select the automatic white balance setting and let the camera do the work for you. Figure A shows how a proper white balance setting can produce more accurate colors and a better-looking image.

A. By evaluating the dominant light source in this scene, we were able to adjust the camera to a white balance setting that matched the environment.

Auto white balance

Incandescent setting

Flash considerations

Another big variable is which flash setting to use. An external flash is really the best option, but if you don't have this capability, think about your flash range and how it will affect your image. The built-in flashes on most digital cameras are extremely bright, so keep some distance from your subject to allow the light to diffuse. Otherwise, you could get hotspots and harsh shadows. Back up and use your camera's zoom lens to compensate, and you'll get more evenly lit scenes. As shown in Figure B, in some cases, turning the flash off can produce images that capture the mood of the holiday much better.

B. The first shot is overwhelmed by the bright flash, while the second shot uses the ambient light to create a better representation of the occasion.

Another issue with the flash is the dreaded red eye. If you plan to concentrate on shots of people, seriously consider using the red eye reduction mode on your camera. A brightly lit room will make your subjects' pupils smaller and reduce the chance for reflected light from the retina.


Another technique that's easy (if you have the equipment) and natural looking is to use professional strobe heads for lighting your shots. Instead of using them as a direct light (very unflattering) or using light modifiers, such as soft boxes and umbrellas (too cumbersome), try taking the strobe heads and bouncing the lights directly off the ceiling.

Exposure settings

Finally, let's quickly discuss ISO settings. Holiday parties are usually slow-moving affairs, so shoot at ISO 100 or ISO 200. Higher ISO settings invite noise to the party, so keep your images as clean as possible with a low ISO. If the party moves outside for sledding, change to a higher shutter speed, but change it back once you head inside for hot chocolate. Once you've set your camera, take some test shots and preview them on your LCD. If you see problems, adjust your settings before the rest of the guests arrive.

Getting down to business

Of course, you'll have to ask people to pose now and again, but try to capture natural shots of people talking and laughing. A good photographer blends into the background and captures people in a more relaxed mood.

Think about the details that make the holiday special and try to capture them in your pictures. Lights, candles, special foods and desserts, wreaths, and the like can help tell the whole story of an event. Don't be afraid to get close and record smaller details like ornaments or bows—anything that defines the moment is fair game, as shown in Figures C and D.

C. Photographing detailed images, such as this individual place setting, record special touches at a particular event.

D. Grabbing a few shots of the food before everyone digs in helps preserve the memories of the dishes served.

Simplicity is best

When framing your shot, try to keep your subject centrally located and avoid clutter in the background. Use your camera's LCD panel to preview your shot, and explore different perspectives to remove any unwanted details in the background or you might end up with cluttered images. Shoot horizontally as well as vertically to best fit your subject matter. By simplifying the shot, you'll end up with a stronger image.

Anticipate the shot

While some of the best shots are spontaneous, anticipating a moment is a skill that can be developed. Be ready when a child is opening a gift to capture the look on her face. If you're waiting for the punch line to a joke, focus in on a jovial relative and capture his laughter. In essence, be ready. You never know what's going to happen.

Group shots

With the whole family together, it's time for a group shot. However, most people find setting up a group shot to be boring, so try to plan your group shots all at once. Get everyone together before sitting down to eat. That way, everyone will be motivated by food and behave for you. You'll also be able to set them up, knock 'em down, and send everyone to the table for some good eats.

Sharing your photos

One of the benefits of digital cameras is the ability to instantly share your images with the partygoers. Instead of using your tiny LCD panel to share, however, bring your video cable along to display your pictures on the television. Then, the whole crowd can see your shots. Unfortunately, your vertical images might display horizontally onscreen, but if you don't have too many of them, your friends and family will forgive you.


When shooting holiday parties, give up the role of photographer every now and again and get some shots of yourself. If you want to maintain control, use the camera's self-timer feature or the remote control, if available, to get yourself in the shots.

Is that a tree growing out of her head?

When framing casual portraits, make sure there isn't anything growing out of your subject's head. Tree limbs, signs, flowers, window frames—these are just a few of many items that can distract from the strength of your image. When framing your image, check your viewfinder or LCD preview to see if any objects are popping out where they shouldn't be. If necessary, move your subject in front of a simple, neutral background that will emphasize the foreground, not the background.

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