Tips for Capturing Christmas

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a tip on my blog, so I thought what better time than Christmas? This time of year, every parent is trying to capture their kids enjoying this beautiful season. I’m writing this blog for all the moms and dads out there who aren’t trying to be professional photographers shooting in manual mode, but rather the moms and dads who want to be able to take the best pictures they can, with the camera they own, set to a semi auto or auto mode.

How many times have you tried to capture your kids in front of the beautiful lights of the Christmas tree in a dimly lit room (or outside in front of your home that’s lit up like the Griswolds’) only to be very disappointed at what you get? Some of you might use a flash which not only lights up the faces of your children, but also lights up the entire room spoiling the mood of the Christmas tree lights glowing. Then there are some who try to capture it without flash, but the shutter is too slow so the photos turn out blurry from camera shake. It’s so frustrating not to be able to capture what you see! Don’t feel alone. These are very common problems and I’m going to address those two problems in this blog post.

For the Griswold Wanna Be’s: If you are shooting outdoors in front of your festively lit home, shoot before it gets totally dark, specifically twilight. This is the time that ambient (natural) light and the Christmas lights balance beautifully. But, keep in mind that you have a short window of time before you lose that perfect light…about 15 minutes. Turn OFF your flash! Set your ISO (light sensitivity) to 400, If you are familiar with your camera settings, choose your white balance as Tungsten. This will make those Christmas lights pop, and as a bonus, your evening sky will be bright royal blue. With your settings set to a semi auto mode, choose shutter preferred (S) and drag your shutter using a slower speed such as 1/25th of a second. This will let in more of the ambient light. Your aperture (or f-stop) will be controlled and set by the camera. Or, do the opposite and choose aperture preferred (A) and set your aperture to f/2.8 or f/4 and your camera will choose the shutter speed. If you are fully auto mode and want the camera to control everything then set it to the night setting. In each of these methods, you must steady your camera so there is no movement when the shutter fires because you will be using a slow shutter speed based on the available light. Steady your camera by using a tripod, the hood of a car, a stair railing, etc. If you can, compose with a little of the sky in the picture and shoot from a low position.

Use any of the above listed methods (all of which can yield the same result) indoors when photographing your children in front of the Christmas tree lights in a dimly lit room. If you have an external flash attached to your camera, you can also turn the head of your flash to bounce it off the wall beside or behind you to get indirect light “fill” on your subjects’ faces capturing some of the ambient light in the room without overpowering the tree lights with your flash. If you do not have an external flash, you can also dial down your flash compensation 1 or 2 stops when shooting with a pop up flash straight on your subject. (Usually the button to do this has a flash sign and a + and – sign with it). Ghostly white faces are caused by too much flash. Bounced indirect flash looks the most natural.

If you want to throw your background out of focus and really draw attention to your subject, shoot in Aperture preferred mode (A) and choose a large aperture (the smaller f-stop number) like f/2.8. If you want to capture the scene of the entire room, keeping most everything in focus, choose a smaller aperture (the larger f-stop number) like f/8. Remember to watch your shutter speed to know if you need to steady your camera with a tripod or prop your arms on something.

When your kids are heading down the stairs to see what Santa brought or opening gifts, set your camera to continuous shooting mode. This will allow you to capture your child’s expressions opening a gift by rapid firing the shutter one shot right after another. This method makes for a great series.

IMPORTANT TIP (even when you are shooting in fully automatic mode): Your focal length is exactly relative to your slowest hand held shutter speed. For example: If your lens is a 24-70 mm, when you are shooting with your lens all the way out to 70mm, you cannot hand hold the camera any slower than 1/90th of a second to avoid blurry pictures caused by camera shake.

Try out some of these methods and experiment on your own! You learn the most by making mistakes and figuring out how to correct them. I can’t tell you how many shots I’m glad I messed up because it forced me to figure out what I did wrong, how to correct it and I nailed it the next time!

Post some of your images to my Facebook page. I would love to see what you get! In the meantime, here are a few images to illustrate what I rambled on about in this blog post! Hope you found it helpful.

Aperture opened up all the way (smallest f-stop) to create shallow depth of field resulting in the background being out of focus
Bounced flash so subjects' faces are more naturally lit and the lights on the tree still glow.

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