Photographic Techniques

Indoor Holiday Photography Tips

Published November 15, 2009

Sometimes I get busy and my articles get a little late. This one is extremely late – I started it about this time last year. My idea was that I’d put all the Holiday Photography tips I knew into one space. It turns out that after taking horrible holiday photographs for many years, I’ve learned a lot about what not to do, and the article got a lot longer than I anticipated. So here it is, one year late and longer than I ever dreamed — the ultimate don’t do what I did article on taking Holiday Pictures. But it’s gotten so long I’ve split it into two parts. This part will be about taking indoor shots during the Holidays. Part II will focus on (pun intended) outdoor shots and holiday lights.

The photographic opportunities during the holidays are huge, and not just because of the pretty decorations and the memories preserved for the future. Often it’s a once-in-a-year opportunity to take pictures of relatives and the whole family together. And there are the financial implications. This may be our best chance to show our spouse that expensive purchase really was worth it. Not to mention the opportunity to avoid buying something for your Uncle Fred and Cousin Mary by making nice prints and putting them in those frames you’ve had in the closet for two years, instead of shelling out your hard-earned money for gifts they don’t want anyway.

But many of us, early in our photography learning curve, have entire Holiday seasons where basically none of our 3,000 images are worth looking at (OK, maybe its just me, but please don’t feel the need to email and tell me that). So I’ll share a bit of what I learned through many years of taking many thousands of truly awful Holiday images.

Get Light

Nothing screams “could have done that with my point-and-shoot” like using the on-camera flash for indoor shots. Red-eye reduction is nice and all, but the harsh shadows and dark periphery of an on-camera flash shot are still obviously there. A shoe-mounted flash is markedly better, especially if you can bounce off the ceiling or a wall. Add a diffuser and it’s hard to notice if a flash was used at all. If you really want to be creative, mount a flash on a Gorillapod in a corner of the room, bounced off of the wall and ceiling, and use it as a slave triggered by your camera flash – you’ll light the room with every shot without flashing into people’s faces.

If you want to avoid flash altogether, you’ll need a wide-aperture lens. An f2.8 zoom lens may be enough in a brightly lit room with subjects that are sitting still, especially if you have image stabilization on the lens or in the camera. For spontaneous shots with moving children you’ll probably need a wider aperture (f1.8 or 1.4), and that means a fixed focal length prime lens. Choosing what focal length you need is pretty simple: stand in the doorway of the smallest room you’ll shoot in (dining room probably) with your zoom lens on your camera, and zoom out until you almost get the whole room in the picture. That focal length should be just right—you can back up and get the whole room in the shot when you need to, but when you’re in the middle of things you have the right focal length for closeups. Most of the time this amounts to a 35mm lens on a full-frame camera or a 24mm on a crop-frame.

It never hurts to cheat a little bit, too: Turn up the room lights, put slightly brighter bulbs in the lamps, bring in an extra lamp (Attention Males: from past experience I can tell you this requires spousal approval, no matter how inconspicuous you think it is). Anything you can do to make the room’s light brighter will help make better images. And make sure you’ve set the camera properly. You’ll want the highest ISO your camera can handle with reasonable noise, white balance set properly for the room light (or shoot in RAW), and the lens at widest aperture most of the time.

Speaking of cheating, RAW and Photoshop (or whatever program you use) are your best friends. You can squeeze at least one extra stop of dynamic range out of a RAW image compared to a jpg, and that can be critical when working indoors in poor light. And a tip here: the one “Picture Gift” that everyone seems to love is a large collage of images from last year, or the last several years. Slapping a 30 or 40 picture collage together takes maybe an hour or two in photoshop. Make a collage of your child and POOF! You’ve got presents for your wife and both sets of grandparents — BRILLIANT!!

Get Ready, Get Down, Get Close and Be Spontaneous

Look at most pictures of the kids opening Christmas presents or playing afterwards and you get a good look at the tops of their heads. They’re all taken from the perspective of a tall adult looking down on small children. Sit on the floor or on the sofa and take pictures down at their level. You’ll get a different perspective and a much better look at their faces. The same thing happens at those dinner table photographs: every one is taken by a standing photographer looking down on seated people. Sit down and take the shot!

Other than the obligatory shot of the tree and presents, or the family at the Thanksgiving table, getting close shots of faces or small groups is much more interesting (and meaningful) than 300 shots of the whole room with the people changing positions. And much as we hate to be the Camera Geek at holiday functions, having the camera handy lets you get the spontaneous shots that capture the moment. Camera turned on, lens cap off, zoom set to the appropriate distance, so you can just pick it up and shoot when the 4 year old decides the box is more fun than the present it contained.

Groups and Portraits

One of the best opportunities of the holidays is the chance to get portraits of family members you don’t get to see too often. Handled badly this can be truly awful, as the family gathering is interrupted with multiple photographer’s directions: Go sit by Uncle Bob, Jane move over there – no wait, the other side, Billie look at me. OK, now everybody look natural!! It’s often not long before people stop smiling and start flipping you off with every picture request.

My experience is that the two best ways to handle this are at the extremes. The subtle, photojournalist extreme means just snapping away from a distance and accepting the shots you get. This may not give you every shot you want, but usually prevents your invitation to next year’s gathering getting lost in the mail, and it often gets the most interesting images.

The other extreme is to set up a Portrait Zone. Have a corner of a room set up, maybe with a light, where different family groups can pose for portraits. Many people will jump at the chance to have a quality family portrait or two made, then they can wander off to the photography-free zone and enjoy themselves. And since you took the picture your sister-in-law wanted of her 13 kids, you probably built up enough brownie points to ask a few groups to gather the way that you want. Maybe your brothers and sisters without their kids and spouses, etc.

In theory (I’ve not yet completely pulled it off in practice, maybe this year), you can shoot all the family groups’ portraits early on, before everyone has food on their shirt, tired eyes, and slurred speech (I know you can’t hear slurred speech in the picture, but you can just look at it and tell). Then you can do the photojournalistic approach later, getting spontaneous images for fun and blackmail. (If you can’t get at least 3 blackmail-worthy pictures out of a family Holiday party, your family is boring. The big money, of course, comes from the office Christmas party. In case you’re wondering, getting paid to not put those pictures on the internet does not qualify you as a professional photographer. But it is a start.)

Creative Holiday Photography

Time lapse and remote cameras can be a great idea. Set up a small camera on a Gorillapod or tabletop tripod on the mantle, prefocused with a wide angle lens to capture the center of the room. Hook up a remote shutter release, and snap pictures when the mood strikes you without having to carry the camera around all night.

Macro and close-up shots of the details are often neglected during the holidays, but these can be some of your best shots. A close-up of a favorite old ornament, a child’s hand setting out a favorite decoration, details of decorations, even the holiday food (when it’s first put on the table, not the dregs halfway through the meal) can be awesome.

The Dreaded Full Table Shot can be one of the most difficult pictures to take. You know the one I mean — the shot from the head of the table, showing all the relatives sitting around gorging themselves on enough food to feed an island nation for a week. Trouble is, of course, that the wide-aperture setting you need to get a reasonable exposure means most of the table is out of focus. With a fairly long table, even if you stop down to f11 and use a flash, a lot of people will remain out of focus (I know what you’re thinking, several of your relatives look best out of focus, but work with me here). The solution is actually rather simple: a Tilt-Shift lens. By tilting the lens to put the plane of focus along the table, you can get the whole group largely in focus even at a wide aperture (and for those of you that haven’t used one, a tilt shift can easily be shot hand-held).

Roughly the same photo shot with 24mm lenses at f3.5, all focused on the second fork from the bottom. A standard 24mm lens (left), a TS lens tilted to bring the table into focus (center), and tilted the opposite way to minimize depth-of-field (right). The latter technique is used to focus only on the dish your spouse prepared, demonstrating that all else on the table was unworthy, and getting you major brownie points. Important Safety Tip: never use the latter technique focused on your wife’s younger sister. No matter how pure your intentions, no good can come of it.

We’ve now reached the limits of my attention span, and I’m certain yours as well. Next article we’ll discuss tips for shooting outdoor lights and Christmas trees.

Roger Cicala
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Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

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