Holiday Photography Tips | Pittsburgh Portrait Photographer

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It’s official, December is upon us and the holidays are rapidly approaching. Everyone takes a ton of photos this time of year, photos of your family, Christmas lights, snow, the Christmas tree and all sorts of things. Most of these events are photographed in difficult lighting, whether it’s christmas lights in the dark, your lit up tree, kids in the snow or your family crammed into your living room lit by 2 lamps. I’ve been there for it all.

I have compiled some great holiday photography tips and websites for you so your photos come out so good your family is begging you for copies! There are some basic concepts to master that will help you in any situation. From there you can build and actually understand what those buttons on your camera mean and what they do.

Happy Picture taking!

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White Balance

This is the setting on your camera that tells it what color white should be. Your camera probably has a bunch of settings for this, and maybe you’ve seen them but have no idea what they are for. Here are a few of the settings you may have on your camera:

  • Auto – this is where the camera makes a best guess on a shot by shot basis. You’ll find it works in many situations but it’s worth venturing out of it for trickier lighting.
  • Tungsten – this mode is usually symbolized with a little bulb and is for shooting indoors, especially under tungsten (incandescent) lighting (such as bulb lighting). It generally cools down the colors in photos.
  • Fluorescent – this compensates for the ‘cool’ light of fluorescent light and will warm up your shots.
  • Daylight/Sunny – not all cameras have this setting because it sets things as fairly ‘normal’ white balance settings.
  • Cloudy – this setting generally warms things up a touch more than ‘daylight’ mode.
  • Flash – the flash of a camera can be quite a cool light so in Flash WB mode you’ll find it warms up your shots a touch.
  • Shade – the light in shade is generally cooler (bluer) than shooting in direct sunlight so this mode will warm things up a little.

Tungsten may give you the best temperature, but play with them all. Read more in this helpful article on adjusting your white balance in camera. And make sure you play around with it. Take a couple shots and see what looks best to you!

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Aperture

Want to know how to get those great photos with your subject in the foreground and the pretty lights or bright colors all blurred in the background? Aperture. This tells your shutter how much to open when snapping the photo. The higher the number (like “f 11”), the less the shutter opens up and the more of your shot you will have in focus. The smaller the number (like f 2.8), the more the shutter opens and the less you will have in focus. So if you want to take a detailed photo of decorations and have your tree out of focus in the background, use a small number like f2.8 or smaller. If you want to take a family shot of everyone at the table though, make sure you use a higher number like f 11 or so to make sure everyone’s faces are in focus. If you want to try this, but are hesitant to shoot in manual mode, try out “Aperture priority mode” on your camera, usually marked “Av” or “A”. This lets you pick your aperture and the camera will set everything else for you 🙂

Try it out to make average shots bump up to the next level and get a new perspective

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Bokeh

Um, what??? “Boh-kah”. This is that really neat effect of little soft light spots. You can do some really great things with this once you understand it. Bokeh is achieved by using a really large aperture (the smallest number you can, like “F 1.8”) I’ll spare you my details and let you check out this great tutorial with some really great photos here.

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Photographing Outdoor Lights

Ironically, the best time of day to photograph Christmas lights is not in the dark. The best lighting is either right before sunrise or right after sunset, when the sky is still lit and you can see details around you. The window is short (about 15 minutes or so), so timing is everything. Get there early and compose your shot. Look around for things such as trees or a fence to frame your subject, and include some sky in the shot. Make sure your flash is turned off!! Take a few test shots to get everything just right. When you are ready, snap away to make sure you get that perfect one! You can always delete later. Having a tripod or something to steady your camera on is key to avoid blurry shots, since the exposures will be close to a second. When you are done, take a minute to just appreciate the lights, you earned it 🙂 If you want to read more, here is a great tutorial.

 

Photographing Your Tree

There are many “looks” you can achieve when photographing your tree. I set up my camera after putting my kids to bed to try and show you some different looks. I have my settings on each photo and I didn’t edit any of these so what you see is what you get. To do this, I would recommend using your aperture-priority mode (“A” or “Av”) so you can determine the look you want and let the camera figure out the rest for you. You will need a tripod or something to set your camera on, since these all require longer shutter speeds. (TIP: To further help, put your camera on the timer mode so you don’t accidentally shake it when you press the shutter release!) You can see that the wider aperture (smaller number) results in a more blurry effect while the bigger number results in a starburst effect. All really cool if you ask me. If you are just photographing your tree and want to get the blurry look, turn off your auto focus and make it blurry (or focus on something close to you).

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Other Tips

  • Photograph the details: Ornaments, cookies, presents, dinner, whatever! Everything is so colorful that these detail shots could look great blown up!
  • Photograph the preparation: So many good moments happen during the prep, don’t neglect this quality family time
  • Photograph the giver: Half of the joy is in the giving. The looks on those faces are sometimes just as priceless as the recipient.
  • Focus on the eyes: Family photos are all about the faces, so making sure you focus on the eyes ensures no one gets blurred out (even if you do wish you could do that…wait, what?)
  • Fill your frame: It’s ok to not include your entire living room in the photo of your kid wearing his new hat. Get in close, we want to see that hat, not the collection of knick-knacks on the shelf behind him! (And you can also try using a wide aperture to help blur out that shelf). It also makes for a cool shot of a “regular” subject (see below)
Just your average wreath…

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From a different perspective

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And I can’t leave you without helping you photograph maybe the most difficult subject….

KIDS!

Those darn kids haha. Trust me, photographing my own kids is no easier than it is for you. Unfortunately I don’t have magical photographer powers to make kids behave! (Secret: It only seems that way because when I photograph your kids, I am new to them and we can team up on them) Make sure you check out my post of my not-so-great kid Christmas photos, trust me it will make you feel better 🙂 But so you don’t lose all hope, I’ll post a few of the good ones here, along with how I got them.

Setup

To start, here was my setup. Yes I have big rolls of paper and vinyl on a stand, but you can use a white blanket or even buy a couple yards of fabric for real cheap! Next, white Christmas lights. Here I am using icicles but I have since moved to white corded normal strands (mini lights for $1.99/box at Lowes) and I zig zag them across my backdrop. I found I have much more control this way, but use what you have! Also for that glassy look in a couple of the photos, I sat them on a sheet of plexi-glass. Now you officially have all my secrets 🙂

Positioning

Make sure you have some distance between your kids and the backdrop. You can see in this photo they are too close and you can see the lights in full focus. Give at least 4 feet between them and the backdrop, more if you can.

Settings

Open up your aperture as much as you can (smallest “f” number) and let your camera do the rest. Make sure you are in a well-lit area (but not in direct sun as that will make harsh bright spots and shadows) since you will need a faster shutter speed if you have fast moving kids like mine. Shoot away and check your LCD screen as you go to see if you need to adjust anything. A faster shutter speed will make it darker, and so will a smaller aperture (larger f number). Have fun and don’t stress, sometimes the best photos are not of the kids smiling!

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