A Professional Photographer's Advice on How to Take Memorable Holiday Photos

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There are moments I can't help but photograph. My 100-year-old grandmother holding both of my children. My toddler's first steps around the lit Christmas tree. The way my husband and daughter sing and dance with the lighting of the menorah. During the ever-famous carving of the perfectly-cooked Thanksgiving turkey. Whether these moments are small and large, one thing for certain is that they are poignant to my family. They are photos I want to be able to show to my kids and grandkids one day.

As a professional photographer, I often struggle to find the balance in my personal time between how much I use my camera when I'm with loved ones, and how much I leave it tucked away. I don't always find it easy, but there is a happy medium -- there's that in-between space of being together just enough and of also finding moments that belong in photographs forever.

The holidays are ultimately a time to be together, with your family or with the family you have made through friendships. Here are tips to take great photos of these memorable times.

SET THE STAGE

I'm embarrassed to tell you that I have run to grab my camera for something exciting only to find that my battery wasn't charged or my memory card was full. You do not want this to happen during a holiday party or on Christmas morning! Have a charged battery and a formatted memory card. Pay special attention to your location, and make sure rooms are as clutter-free as possible, so you can focus more on the people and decorations you want to photograph. Also plan ahead to use a "shutter buddy" or stuffed animal above your camera to get the delighted attention of babies and kids. And I confess that I'm not above using some holiday treats as bribery for the older kids. Lastly, use a simple, neutral background so as not to distract from your subject(s).

All photos by Tamara Bowman

LIGHTING

It can be a little daunting to know how to best utilize light in a photograph, but the main thing to understand is that you do need light. Lots of it, in fact. It's what makes this wonderful photography world go round. The first thing to do is to turn off or disable your pop-up flash. It will most likely wash out your subjects and is too harsh for holiday photos. Natural light is often best, so position your subjects close to and/or facing a window, and even go outside if you can! Put on heavy sweaters, hats and coats and find open shade if it's a very sunny day. If it's overcast, you will probably have the same amount of light anywhere you take pictures. If it's night out or inclement weather, turn on as many lamps as you can indoors. If you can change the ISO on your camera, using a high ISO will give you less grainy photos than you would get from not having properly lit photos. For extra light, I have an external flash unit as well as an inexpensive lightscoop, which can fit on top of many DSLR cameras.

WHICH TECHNOLOGY TO USE?

It's important to know the ins and outs of the camera you are using. The quote is, "The best camera is the one you know how to use." I personally have a pro camera, a high-end consumer level Canon Rebel, and an iPhone. And I sure do use all three! An iPhone itself might not allow you a lot of control over your photos, but you can download free or cheap apps such as Instagram or Camera+. And does your iPhone have panoramic capability? That can make for some interesting group photos or if you have a particularly steady hand, you can use your iPhone camera to pan over a whole holiday scene! I even use a Pocket Light Meter app on my iPhone to then manage the settings on my DSLR camera. And if you are using a DSLR, use a shutter speed of at least double the focal length you're shooting at, and use a minimum of 1/250th of a second if you're photographing children and animals.

DON'T STOP SHOOTING

Does your camera have a continuous or burst shooting mode? Now would be the time to use it to shoot everything you want to shoot. Repeatedly. Special moments, hugs, facial expressions, smiles, etc. don't last very long. Sometimes I'll shoot 20 photos at once, to ensure that at least one of them comes out clearly. For all of my professional and non-professional photo shoots, I get a pretty even split of candid photos and posed photos. Keep all of your funny blooper shots too, because they are fun to look back on. When you combine children with sugar, excitement and a camera? Trust me on this -- you may find some hilarious results.

GET IN THE PHOTO

Whenever you can, however you can, get in these shots! For years I would forget to do that and then I'd be sad to see myself missing from photos. Ultimately I can't wait for my kids to one day read my blog and go through photos, but I shudder to think of them wondering where I am in all of these memories. So that said, get in there! Use a self timer and jump in. Hand your camera over to a friend or neighbor, or do variations of family photos in which you get in them too. Also, be sure to take photographs of relatives or friends who don't see each other often.

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO REMEMBER?

Take a moment to look around the room and find the moments that are unusual. One of my favorites is the multi-generational photo, such as my 100-year-old grandmother with my son. Holidays are full of those not-too-often moments.

DETAILS

This is your time to capture photos of traditions and unexpected moments. Capture excitement! Take candid action photos of kids ripping into gifts and then playing with new toys. Get on their level and get silly. Take photos of presents piles, carolers, and cookies and pies on cooling racks and ornaments. Expect the unexpected and don't forget to take photos of all of the aspects that make your holidays so special. A shot of a folded napkin can be as meaningful as a group shot of the holiday dinner table, and why not do both?

We'd love to see YOUR photos. How do the holidays look through your eyes? Show us your favorite shot by providing a link to your image in the comment section below.

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