For those who celebrate, Christmas may be the most wonderful time of the year, but trying to take the perfect photo around the tree is rarely full of comfort and joy. Use these simple tips – especially if Santa brought you a new DSLR or mirrorless camera this year – to help you save time and reduce stress, and hopefully get you those perfect indoor portraits of your family to remember.
Don’t Force It
As a father of young triplets, I’ve learned that forcing your kids to do something they’re not in the mood to do is never a recipe for success. Every parent knows his/her own kids best, so gauge their mood and interest level when you are setting up the shot. If you mention taking photos and you get a lot of protest, there’s always tomorrow. Alternatively, suggesting a fun pose or holding a to-be-opened present might get everyone where you want them to be in the shot.
Filling your frame with Christmas items makes it burst with holiday fervor, creating a look much more festive than a lone tree. If you don’t have a large amount of Christmas trinkets to fill the frame with, crop close to fill up the frame. If you can, get everyone to wear that ugly Christmas sweater.
For Best Results, Use a Tripod and a Slow Shutter Speed
The problem with many photos in front of the Christmas tree is that strong direct flash completely overwhelms the picture. You went to all that trouble to light and decorate your tree, so why not make sure that it shines through in your photos?
Mounting the camera on a tripod will allow you to use a slow-enough shutter speed to enable your decorative lights to hold their own place in your exposure. If you don’t have a tripod, any flat, stable surface will work. A folding table, ottoman, or even a sturdy pile of hardcover books can work in a pinch.
If you don’t have a remote shutter release for your camera, set the self-timer exposure mode to further reduce camera shake. Many DSLRs have a 2-second timer mode, so you don’t have to wait for a long timer countdown before each exposure. Anywhere from 1/30 to 1/90 is a good place to start.
A 0.3-second exposure should be a good starting point to let your tree lights shine through.
If you don’t have any surface to rest your camera on, a last resort would be to increase your camera’s ISO setting as high as it can go while still giving you acceptable noise results. Most current-generation DSLRs offer acceptable results up into the ISO 1600 and 3200 range. Some, like the Nikon D600, offer very good practical results even at ISO 6400. These high ISO settings will enable you to try handholding your camera while still taking advantage of a slow shutter speed. Don’t try this with a point and shoot though–their smaller sensors are very susceptible to noise at high ISO settings.
Do Your Own White Balance
Indoor shots with Christmas lights often have a wide variety of light temperatures, so mess around with white balance presets, or configure your own, to get a shot with good color.
Use a Flash Diffuser
Whether you’re using an accessory flash or your camera’s built-in flash, it’s always a great idea to diffuse the light in some way. Even though we’re using a slow shutter speed, you’ll still need another light source to light your main subjects. In this case, that’s your children, pets, family members, etc.
The problem with direct flash is that it can be very harsh. For a softer lighting effect, it’s a good idea to diffuse your light source. If you search the Web for “DIY flash diffuser,” you’ll find plenty of ideas. The cheapest and easiest method out there is to simply tape a piece of tissue paper over your flash. Take care to not have any tape covering the tissue over the actual flash because it will add strange effects and shadows to your lighting.
If you want a commercial product, we’ve had nice results with an Opteka SB-1 Universal Soft Box Flash Diffuser. It retails for about $10, fits any hot shoe, and folds flat to fit in any camera bag.
Don’t Be Afraid to Edit
“Fix it in post” is one of the great faux pas of photography, but hey, it’s Christmas, so go easy on yourself. If shooting conditions are suboptimal, try these two things: slightly underexpose, and adjust whatever lights you may have (lamps, camera phone lights, etc.) to give as much of a three-point lighting setup as possible. Underexposing allows you to shoot with a quicker shutter speed and lower ISO, and you can easily bring it back up in most software with negligible ill-effects. Having three-point lighting, of course, makes your subjects look great. (If nothing else, try to avoid harsh ceiling lights.)
Use A Stand-In and Experiment
Before bringing your main subjects into the room, try taking some practice shots first to figure out your optimal exposure settings. Use a doll or a willing test subject so that you can play around with different exposure and flash settings to see what will be best for your final run.
Getting things worked out ahead of time means your kids won’t be sitting around losing patience while you fiddle around trying to get the right settings dialed in on your camera. Hopefully these simple steps will make your holiday photo sessions merry.
(This article was originally published December 18, 2012. It was updated on December 24, 2014, by Cody Brooks.)