Spark Up Your Holiday Photos!

By Suzanne D. Williams–

We’ve all done it, taken that endless stream of holiday photographs with the same people doing something, only we can’t exactly tell what. Then there’s the familiar, “Oh look at the tree!” only it’s slightly blurry and the top is missing.

Sound familiar? Who doesn’t have similar Christmas and other holiday pictures somewhere? Believe it or not, there is such a thing as an entertaining holiday photograph! Here are a few of my favorite ideas.

Abstracts. Most any type of object can be used to create this effect but the most popular are lights and objects with bright reflections. Out of focus colored holiday lights become interesting shapes and lovely meshes of color. Experimentation is the key to dazzling abstracts. To begin with, turn off auto focus. Then manually throw lights out of focus setting your zoom to various focal lengths.

You can also zoom your lens while the shutter is open. Set it at 1-second, press the shutter release and zoom at the same time. Or you can move or jiggle the camera to get a different abstract effect of light streaks. Try enough of these different techniques and you’re sure to end up with an image good enough to print on high quality Red River Paper, frame and hang on your wall.

Lights. Speaking of light, perhaps you want to photograph the lights and have them actually be in focus. My first tip is to use a tripod. Lacking a tripod, look for a solid surface– a table, fence post, or railing, instead. It is most important to give your camera a solid support and therefore prevent unwanted camera shake. If you can, use a remote shutter release or the built-in self-timer. Hand-holding a camera in low light fails for most people.

For lights, I prefer to adjust my shutter speed manually and to spot focus my metering. Spot focus concentrates the exposure onto the light itself and prevents blown out highlights. In situations like these, though, another method is to use your camera’s exposure compensation button to bracket your exposures.

After shooting an image at the camera’s auto-exposure setting, shoot another at +1 and then –1. You can even shoot two additional exposures, one at +2 and –2 for a total of five. One of them should be perfect. NOTE: When you’ve finished bracketing, make sure to return the exposure compensation setting to “0” or subsequent images will be exposed at the last setting.

For a fun light experiment, stop down your aperture to f-8, f-11 or f-16. A smaller aperture will usually create a star effect from each light. Finally, don’t use the flash or it will negate all your creative endeavors.

Food and Table Decorations. What about that giant holiday turkey, ham or prime rib? Never forget to photograph the food. Take pictures of Grandma’s famous cake and Aunt Maude’s strange paper Pilgrims. Those are as much memories of the occasions as anything else!

When photographing food, your camera angle is key. Place yourself so that the angle features the product. Zoom in close and eliminate any distracting elements. Also, take more care to find the correct exposure. If you are indoors, an increase in your ISO can eliminate the need for a flash. Flash photography in food photographs, unless done correctly, usually makes it look unappetizing.

The Tree. For Christmas, there is always the obligatory tree photograph. Trees are often an odd shape in a photograph, so pay attention to the surroundings. Perhaps you don’t want the ceiling fan in the picture. Depending on the size of the tree, horizontal or vertical format might work better. I find most people forget they can hold their camera vertically, just as those who shoot iPhone movies forget to turn their phones to a horizontal position.

Re-read the tips about lights again. A lighted tree, however, is a “whole ‘nother thing” when it comes to proper exposure. Again, bracket, bracket, bracket and you’ll come up with a winner. Avoid using flash with artificial trees; it tends to make artificial trees look just that– artificial. Ultimately, you want the tree to look natural.

Since trees are three-dimensional, you’ll probably want the whole tree to be in focus. To achieve this, you’ll have to use a small aperture to get the required depth of field. Unless you shoot with a really high ISO, it means your shutter speed will be slow, causing the tree to be blurred from camera movement, even with lens stabilization. So use a tripod, monopod or just brace the camera against something solid. Believe me, it’s worth the effort to capture the perfect tree shot.

The Unusual. Look for unusual subjects. Is the dog wearing antlers? Put yourself at her eye level and capture it. Photograph your children or grandchildren in action. Perhaps they are wrapping presents with way too much tape, baking cookies and getting it all over the counter (and themselves), or just jumping for joy when they get a special present.

During the holidays, it pays to think outside the box. Carry your camera with you to parties or gatherings and surprise people. One of the funniest Christmases was the one where my brother continually stuck his camera in everybody’s face. Eventually, everyone was in on the joke and started to ham it up. We still laugh about it.


 As they say, location, location, location. In this case, go to a holiday themed location. Perhaps your local government decorates the park or the downtown area.

Find things unique to where you live. Here in my area, they float Christmas trees at the center of the lakes and hang tinsel decorations on the light poles. In other parts of the country they set out rows of luminaries on the sidewalks.

Another great idea is to go to a holiday parade with a telephoto lens. Photograph the horses wearing Christmas wreaths or Santa in the back of a truck.

Always remember to include the faces of the children. There is something magical about the expression on a child’s face during the holidays. I know my best memories of the holidays are when I was small.

People. Dig out the corny Christmas sweaters, pose your family and capture the moment. Yeah, that knitted beanie is pretty awful, but it makes for a great photograph. Photographs are about saving one’s memories.

This holiday season, your family might not be together like this again. Your photos might capture for all time someone you love so much. I know I miss my grandparents even more during the holidays.

Religion. For so many, the holidays are about their beliefs. Look for photographs that highlight this meaning. Visit a local church during their outdoor festival.

Photograph a lighted menorah or living nativity scene. Along the way, take time to listen to a choir or wandering carolers.

I love the challenge of capturing sound in a still photograph. As you do, always remember to respect the wishes of those worship

Ideas. Sometimes the hardest part of photography is coming up with new ideas for subject matter. It is easy to pick up a camera and wildly snap away at anything and everything around you. Instead, do a little planning beforehand. Sit down and make a list of the types of photographs you’d like to take.

If you are shy on ideas, then do a web search and glean from shots taken by other photographers. Try duplicating something you found especially appealing or use them to create something uniquely your own. Never be afraid to experiment.

Most of all include yourself in the festivities. Your camera is a tool to compose your memories. How good are they really if you are not in them?

About the Author

Suzanne D. Williams is a best-selling author of both nonfiction and fiction books with an avid interest in photography. She also writes devotional and instructional articles and does graphic design for self-publishing authors. Click here to visit her website.



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