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11 ways to photograph memorable holiday moments with your phone

Take a look at your Instagram shots from these past two months of holiday feasting and regaling. Did they come out as well as you had hoped, or are they as forgettable as that weird side dish someone brought or the sloppy, slurred toast from a tipsy uncle? Although our phones help us capture and share the wonderful moments of the holidays, they have limitations, especially under extra challenging conditions, such as a dimly lit room or large group shots. As you prepare for New Year’s or any other festive celebrations, here are some basic tips to keep in mind when shooting with a phone. Plus, check out some fun examples from photographers of all levels. (Of course, these tips can apply to any type of smartphone photography.)

Try a different perspective

There are nearly always kids at family gatherings. Oftentimes, in photo, they are captured from an adult’s height. Crouch down to their level to get their smiling faces, instead of the top of their heads.

Different angles can also give new perspectives to something ordinary. Try shooting from above or below, instead of dead on. Add some depth to the scene by moving around or incorporating a foreground element.

Flickr photographer Chris Geatch could have shot this Christmas tree like everybody else – from afar – but getting close (see below) and seeing it from a different perspective makes it visually more interesting.

Flickr photographer Chris Geatch could have shot this Christmas tree like everybody else – from afar – but getting close (see below) and seeing it from a different perspective makes it visually more interesting.

Get real close

While it’s nice to capture all the food on the table, it’s even better to get several up-close shots of that succulent roasted bird or gooey mac and cheese. Throw a salivating kid in the background for extra effect that will light up your Instagram followers.

It’s also common for people to shoot full-figure shots of others, but unless they’re wearing something noteworthy, don’t be afraid to get close for nice portrait shots.

Avoid using your phone’s zoom feature, however. Unlike optical lenses, digital zooms use software to magnify the picture. In our experience, this always creates unwanted artifacts. It’s far better to physically move close to your subject.

You personalize a photo when you get close to your subject, instead of shooting it from a far. (Note: This photos was taken with a DSLR, but it's the idea you're after.)

You personalize a photo when you get close to your subject, instead of shooting it from a far. (Note: This photo from Flickr user Tim Watts was taken with a DSLR, but it’s the idea you’re after.)

You need light, but not the flash

If that shot of the Christmas tree came out dark it’s probably because there isn’t enough light. Most cameras, particularly the small-sensor variants in phones, depend on light; otherwise photos will come out dark, blurry, and noisy. Avoid using the flash in low-lit conditions, as it would only wash out your subjects; in well-lit areas, however, the flash can help bring out faces when used as a fill light. Try illuminating the scene with softer lighting, like this temperature-adjustable Kick LED Color Light from Adorama or Klyp+ LED Light from Manfrotto. If all else fails, use the glowing LCD light from another person’s phone.

Sometimes low light can also work to your advantage. A glow from a candle, for example, can create a surprising effect that plays with shadows.

The photographer (Jim Whitaker) uses a Manfrotto Klyp LED to add fill-in light on the subject (Barry Blackmore).

The photographer (Jim Whitaker) uses a Manfrotto Klyp LED with his phone to add fill-in light on the subject (Barry Blackmore), illuminating the front of his face.

Keep still

Stabilize your phone with a stand (like the GekkopodKenu Stance, or one of these tripods) rest it against something and avoid moving it. This allows the camera to capture as much light as possible, while avoiding any shaking caused by your hand. If you do have to handhold the phone, use both hands.

Leave the selfie stick

As much as we write about selfie sticks, we aren’t big fans. They are annoying when used around people, especially in a public gathering like New Year’s Eve fireworks show. For a large family gathering, do it the old-fashion way by framing the shot, setting the countdown timer, and finding your place in the group, or use that newfangled smartwatch you got for Christmas as a remote control. If you trust the kindness of strangers, solicit someone else to take the shot for you.

And please, no drones. They’re just as annoying. There is a time and place for these things, and the holidays are not one of them.

Obama Selfie Stick

Yeah, not even the president can make this cool (via Buzzfeed).

Shooting fireworks

As we said, shooting in the dark is challenging, but it is possible to capture fireworks with a phone. It won’t come out as well as a DSLR, but for sharing purposes, like posting to Instagram or Facebook, it will look more than fine.

Because fireworks happen in a short duration, take as many shots as you can and worry about quality later; don’t stop shooting. Use your camera’s burst mode (usually involves holding down the shutter button); out of the multiple, sequential shots, you can pick the one you like, or combine them all to create a GIF (Google Photos can actually do this for you). If your phone’s camera has HDR and focus and exposure locks, use them. Or, if you phone shoots in 4K, record a video and extract a photo from it afterward. Try shooting in slow motion for a neat effect, and be sure to hold your phone as still as possible.

Tip: If you plan on shooting a lot of photos and videos, back up the existing content and clear them from the phone, which would give you as much space as possible. Check out some solutions for iOS and Android.

Flickr user Karla captured these fireworks with an iPhone 6, "processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset."

Flickr user Karla captured these fireworks with an iPhone 6, “processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset.”

Take action

We tend to stick with the boring posed shots when it comes to holiday photos (yes, everybody wants to stand in front of the Christmas tree, snooze). Even if your phone can’t shoot high-quality shots, a blurry one with action is far more interesting to look at. Instead of gathering people to stand for a photo, move around the room and capture the laughs, tears, smiles, and even the occasional fights (no family is perfect). Or take a moment from shooting fireworks and capture some of the happy faces in the crowd. We think action shots help you better relive the moment.

This Christmas party photo by Flickr user Richard Peat has lighting challenges, but it's made interesting because of the action. It probably would have been a throwaway image had it been posed.

This Christmas party photo by Flickr user Richard Peat has lighting challenges, but it’s made interesting because of the action. It probably would have been a throwaway image had it been posed.

Filters and post-editing

Remember when filters used to be all the rage? One reason for the popularity is to help mask the inferior cameras of early-gen phones. They’re still useful for improving your less-than-ideal shots. A filter could add a nice effect to a blurry or dark image.

There are plenty of Android and iOS apps that let you edit a photo, including a phone’s native photo or camera app. Employ them to help fix up any images that are salvageable. You can also put them through a desktop photo editing app, like CyberLinks’ PhotoDirector or Adobe’s Photoshop Elements (or these free options).

Flickr user Jim H. shot this photo with an iPhone 4S. Although the phone is a few generations old, it's hard to tell. He wasn't happy with the original photo, but sent it through Photoshop and made it spectacular.

Flickr user Jim H. shot this photo with an iPhone 4S. Although the phone is a few generations old, it’s hard to tell from the photo. He wasn’t happy with the original photo, and sent it through Photoshop and made it spectacular.

Bring out the big guns

OK, perhaps you aren’t satisfied with your previous holiday attempts, and you want something more powerful. You can use add-on lenses, but they won’t actually improve the quality of the camera. What you need is a camera with extra horsepower. We have plenty of them to recommend, but if you’re attached to your phone, check out the Olympus Air, Sony QX, or DxO One, which are equipped with large sensors but utilize a phone for framing and control.

Olympus Air A01 smartphone camera (0)

Olympus Air, paired with an iPhone.

Mouth-watering food porn

With New Year’s celebrations, there’s plenty of food and drink. For all you #foodporn obsessed, Alexa Mehraban, who heads up the popular @EatingNYC Instagram page (she also runs a food blog), offers some tips to how her food pics have garnered more than 130,000 followers.

  • If you’re celebrating at a restaurant or with a large gathering, it’s not easy to set the scene. Mehraban says you’ll have to move things around to get that shot.
  • Great food photo requires natural lighting, but good luck trying to get that when you aren’t in control of the lights. Reiterating what we said before, Mehraban recommends using a secondary light, like another person’s phone, but beware of shadows. Adjust the brightness or cover the phone with a napkin if you must.
  • Three angles to consider include: bird’s-eye view (overhead), up close (to create depth), or holding up food or beverage in the air.
  • If you aren’t sharing right away, and have time for some image manipulation, use a photo-editing software’s removal tool to clean up any crumbs or unwanted objects; the lighting tools to adjust tone, brightness, and saturation; and increase structure and sharpness for a clean look. Mehraban recommends the desktop and mobile apps from CyberLink.

Officially hot chocolate weather ☕️❄️ #EATINGNYC

A photo posted by #EatingNYC: NYC Food & Travel (@eatingnyc) on

Experiment

The beauty of digital photography is it allows anyone to experiment with the medium. There are certain rules to photography, but digital cameras let you break some of those rules. While digital has contributed to a lot of noise online, you should not hold back. Tilt the phone to create an interesting angled shot, or play around with different lighting. Just keep shooting. (With that said, just make sure you clean out your phone’s camera roll once in a while.)

Perhaps one mistake people make is expecting too much out of their phones. Understand the limitations: Cameras in phones have come a long way, and they are capable of taking stunning photos and even Hollywood-style films, but they aren’t full-frame cameras. But once you work around those limitations, you should be able to capture any memorable moment.

Flickr user Lynda Bullock captured this image from her TV. Sometimes, the best photos come from unexpected places.

Flickr user Lynda Bullock captured this image from her TV. Sometimes, the best photos come from unexpected places.