13 ways to photograph memorable holiday moments with your phone

how to take great holiday photos with your phone unrecognizable person taking photography of the family
Anna Bizoń/123RF

Take a look at your Instagram shots of holiday feasting and regaling from last year. 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 challenging conditions like a dimly lit room or large group shots. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, 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.)

Find a new perspective

When it comes to photographing children, nothing will make your shots look better then getting on their level. It’s common to shoot from the perspective of an adult, but if you can bring yourself lower to photograph kids at eye level, you’ll get much more interesting results. This will not only reveal the detail in their expressions, but will also capture their perspective of the world.

Kids aren’t the only photographic subject that benefit from changing up your perspective. Even ordinary objects can be made more interesting by shooting them from a new angle, or by zeroing on a single element of a larger display.

Move closer

This is good advice for any type of photography, but it’s particularly important with phone cameras as they don’t (usually) have zoom lenses. Food photography is one area that will greatly benefit from moving the camera closer to the subject. While it’s nice to capture an entire spread, getting separate detail shots of each dish will reveal the textures of the food. The roast turkey will look even more succulent, the mac and cheese will be gooier, and you’ll be able to all but taste the apple pie.

And don’t forget to include a salivating kid (or dog) in the background for extra effect that will light up your Instagram followers.

Getting closer can also help with portraits. Full-body portraits are great for showing off your uncle’s ridiculous outfit, but getting closer will remove any distracting elements from the frame and make someone’s face the center of attention. One thing to note here is that you shouldn’t get too close for portraits, as the wide angle lens of your phone can distort faces.

Speaking of lenses, we recommend avoiding your phone’s zoom feature at all costs. Unlike optical zoom, digital zoom uses software to magnify the picture. It’s far better to physically move close to your subject. Now, if you have an iPhone 7 Plus, you can switch to the 2x telephoto lens without using digital zoom. This is great for portraits and close-ups, but the 2x lens does require more light than the wide-angle lens, so keep this in mind or your images will have a lot of digital noise (or grain).

Get creative with lighting

Most in-home lighting is pretty bad for photography, but from Christmas trees to candles, the holidays present more interesting lighting. The problem is, these sources generally don’t provide enough light for your phone to get a clean image.

Cameras depend on light, phone cameras especially so. Their small sensors aren’t very good in low-light conditions, leading to photos that will come out dark, blurry, and noisy. Your phone likely has a flash, but using it in dark settings will wash out your subject and cause the “deer in the headlights” look. It may sound counterintuitive, but the flash is better suited to well-lit areas, where it can help lighten up the shadows in someone’s face, especially with harsh backlighting.

But when you’re indoors in the dark, there is one trick you can do to improve lighting that likely doesn’t require anything that won’t already be in your home: turn another person’s phone or tablet into light source. Open a blank webpage or other white screen, turn the brightness up, and you’ve got yourself a miniature soft box. For more advanced control, check out SoftBox Pro for iPad or Softlight for Android.

This trick works best for close-ups, where you can place the light source as close to the subject as possible without getting in the frame. It’s a good way to supplement the light from other sources, like tree lights. Have fun experimenting with this, as it can really add a new dimension to your images that will make them really stand out on your Instagram feed.

Hold steady

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If you can, stabilize your phone with a stand (like the GekkopodKenu Stance, or one of these tripods) or at least prop your elbows on a steady surface. This allows the camera to capture as much light as possible, while avoiding any blurring caused by your shaky hands. When shooting handheld, try to hold your phone in both hands for best results.

Lose the selfie stick

Look, we’re done telling people that selfie sticks are ridiculous. You’re either the type of person who’s going to use one, or you’re not. But we do caution you to at least consider keeping it stowed away when you’re in a public gathering, like a New Year’s Eve fireworks show. Busting out a selfie stick in the middle of this is going to be annoying and distracting for everyone else.

When it comes to a large family gathering, reaching for the selfie stick can again be tempting. However, you’ll get better results if you use an actual tripod and do it the old-fashion way by framing the shot, setting the countdown timer, and finding your place in the group. Heck, you can even use that newfangled smartwatch you got for Christmas as a remote control.

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