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How to Shoot Great Holiday Photos

Between now and January 1, you’ll probably take a lot of pictures. These special holiday photo opps—parties with friends, family celebrations, and so on—often come with two special challenges: insufficient light and large groups of people.

To help you meet these challenges, Create Magazine asked three photographers for tips on dealing with low light and large groups. Chadwick Gantes runs the wedding and portrait studio Gantes.co along with his wife, Jenika. Sean Teegarden is a photographer specializing in portraiture, still life, and commercial advertising. Jeff Carlson is a photographer and prolific author of photo-related books and articles.

Let’s begin with some general advice from Teegarden, who recommends that you always shoot in camera raw. (That’s an image format that most D-SLR and point-and-shoot cameras can capture.) Say a white-bearded Santa is in your photo. If your camera is set to shoot JPG files, that beard may be overexposed, and you can’t do much about it. But if you shoot in camera raw, you have more room to improve the image during post-processing. To fix the Santa situation, Teegarden would use the Highlight slider in Adobe Lightroom CC to bring out the beard's texture and the Detail panel to pull out noise. 

HOW TO HANDLE LOW LIGHT INDOORS

Chadwick Gantes: Think about where the light is coming from and what kind of light it is—is it beautiful, is it ugly? If you’re at your grandma’s house and she has those awful track lights but there’s a big window, put people next to the window. Or soften a harsh light by pointing it up.

Jeff Carlson: When I’m capturing my daughter opening her presents on Christmas morning, I follow advice I picked up from David Hobby’s Strobist blog years ago. He put one or two strobe flashes up high, pointing at a white, flat ceiling, and triggered them with wireless triggers. It gives you a nice pool of bright light coming off ceiling, and you can adjust the strength of the light, from stark white to lower and moodier. 

The flashes are out of the way, so all you need is your camera. As long as it’s triggering the remote flashes, you can move anywhere you want. You don’t have to stay close to a particular light source, or worry about how directional the lights are. Unless it’s a really small space, you don’t end up with raccoon shadows under people’s eyes.

Photo by Jeff Carlson.

If the lights are mounted high enough and the action is low enough—toward the base of the tree, for instance—you can even take pictures toward the flash and you won’t see it.

Gantes: I shoot fast lenses, and I stay away from zoom lenses. Fast prime lenses [which have a fixed focal length] are less expensive than fast zoom lenses. If you’re just starting out, buy yourself a “nifty 50.” It’s a 50mm f/1.8 lens that’s only about $100, and it’s a great portrait lens.

HOW TO HANDLE LOW LIGHT OUTSIDE

Carlson: In most cases, it’s important to freeze the action. If it won’t be intrusive, you can use external flashes for that. The basics apply: for example, the light will be less harsh if you get the flash off of your camera.

If flash isn’t appropriate, you can crank up the ISO on newer cameras to 3200. That lets you shoot with a reasonable shutter speed of 1/80 or 1/60 or even 1/25 of a second. The steadier your hand, the slower the shutter speed can be. Shoot with the most wide-open lens you can.

With ISO that high, the shots will be grainy, but they won’t be blurry, and you’ll capture the moment. There are things you can do about grain after the fact in Adobe Photoshop CC and Lightroom. Super-grainy photos can look great in black and white. The grain gives it texture. 

Photo by Jeff Carlson.

Gantes: If you don’t have a tripod, make your body a tripod. Stand with your legs wide, tuck your elbows into your sides, take a deep breath, exhale, and pop off a couple shots. That lets you lower your shutter speed without blurring the shot.

Teegarden: I’m shooting Christmas decorations in an amusement park right now, and it’s mostly in low-light conditions. I rely on pre-production to make sure I get the best shot in the moment. For instance, the night before I began shooting at the park, I took exposure tests to figure out the best points of view and to dial in exposure.

When you need extra light on someone’s face, it’s great to have an LED panel in your back pocket or bag. LED lighting is super compact and battery powered. Just be aware that the smaller the light source, the more it will look like an interrogation scene! If you’re comfortable with strobe, flashes also work.

If you’re going from indoor to outdoor, you can rely partially on the camera’s auto mode, but if there’s only one thing that’s brightly lit—someone spotlighted against a black background, for example—your camera will overexpose the picture if you’re in auto mode.

HOW TO HANDLE GROUP SHOTS

Gantes: Work against the idea that group shots are boring and stiff. Don’t let people stand shoulder to shoulder—that makes the photo flat. Have them stand in a U shape. If there are a lot of people, put them in rows and at different levels so you can see all the faces.

I use what I call “bowling lanes”: I ask each person to imagine they have a bowling lane between their face and me. The lane should be clear; if you can’t see me, the camera can’t see you.

Then I say, “Let’s hug. We like each other, right?” You want their heads to be angled toward the center.

Keep an eye out for things that will distract the viewer, like hands positioned in weird ways. I’ve learned a lot about posing from a New Zealand photographer, Sue Bryce.

Click to view this excerpt from a CreativeLive class, in which Sue Bryce demonstrates how changing a pose can affect a photo.

Carlson: It’s tough to get one shot in which everyone looks good, especially when you’re shooting kids. So if your camera is capable of a high burst mode, go ahead and shoot 75 photos of the group. It’s not wasteful—it’s digital. You might also get sweet or funny moments that you don’t even notice until afterward.

If you’re adventurous, experiment with rear-curtain sync. It lets you get away with a slower shutter speed if you’re shooting with flash. Basically, the flash freezes the action of your subject so it’s sharp, but there’s also motion blur, and the background has some light and detail to it.