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Tips for Taking Holiday Portraits

Updated on December 17, 2013
Learn some useful tricks for capturing the best photos this holiday season.
Learn some useful tricks for capturing the best photos this holiday season. | Source


The holiday season is filled with family gatherings and decorations that only come around once a year. Below are a couple tips and tricks on how to get a better show and how to use lighting and holiday decorations to your advantage.

A lot of the following photos are of cats, but the same tips can be applied to human subjects! ;) They're just the easiest subjects that I have access to. I will add a few other photos that I've taken with the help of my remote control.

And for those interested, here's a quick run down of the gear and tools I used for the following photos:

  • Canon T3i with Rokinon 35mm Cine Lens
  • An old vintage metal tripod - for the human photos
  • LIghtroom - for post tweaking

Without further delay, here are some tips for improving your photographs this holiday season!

Use Holiday Lights and Natural Lighting

This is especially useful if your subjects are wearing black, have black hair (or fur!) or are wearing a dark color. The lights from trees, wreathes and other decorative lighting will create a rim lighting, separating your subject from the background.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The light coming in from the window separates the subjects from the background. Without this light, the photo would not look as good.The lights from the tree help create a rim lighting effect that helps separate the subject from the background.
The light coming in from the window separates the subjects from the background. Without this light, the photo would not look as good.
The light coming in from the window separates the subjects from the background. Without this light, the photo would not look as good. | Source
The lights from the tree help create a rim lighting effect that helps separate the subject from the background.
The lights from the tree help create a rim lighting effect that helps separate the subject from the background. | Source
Behind the shot look at how these photos were created. The kittens were placed on top of the makeshift "pedestal" to create the desired backdrop.
Behind the shot look at how these photos were created. The kittens were placed on top of the makeshift "pedestal" to create the desired backdrop. | Source

Blur the Background by Moving Your Subjects Forward

One way to get a better bokeh effect (blurred background) is to move your subject away from what you're trying to blur. This is an easy fix and will give you better results that if you try lowering your shutter speed, especially if you've chosen to shoot hand-held.

To the right you can see that I have the subjects, in this case my two kittens on top of a pedestal and then I pulled them forward a good 3-4 feet from the tree in the background. Because of this distance, I was able to blur the tree and get some very stunning results.

For these photos I was using my Rokinon 35mm Cine lens. I was maybe a foot away from the kittens as I shot them, dangling a string with the hand I was focusing with.

Christmas Lights make Excellent Backgrounds!

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Moving your subjects away from your background, allows for a better bokeh effect.Moving your subjects away from your background, allows for a better bokeh effect.Moving your subjects away from your background, allows for a better bokeh effect.
Moving your subjects away from your background, allows for a better bokeh effect.
Moving your subjects away from your background, allows for a better bokeh effect. | Source
Moving your subjects away from your background, allows for a better bokeh effect.
Moving your subjects away from your background, allows for a better bokeh effect. | Source
Moving your subjects away from your background, allows for a better bokeh effect.
Moving your subjects away from your background, allows for a better bokeh effect. | Source
Click thumbnail to view full-size
Use the burst mode to increase your chance of capturing the perfect photo.Use the burst mode to increase your chance of capturing the perfect photo.Use the burst mode to increase your chance of capturing the perfect photo.Use the burst mode to increase your chance of capturing the perfect photo.
Use the burst mode to increase your chance of capturing the perfect photo.
Use the burst mode to increase your chance of capturing the perfect photo. | Source
Use the burst mode to increase your chance of capturing the perfect photo.
Use the burst mode to increase your chance of capturing the perfect photo. | Source
Use the burst mode to increase your chance of capturing the perfect photo.
Use the burst mode to increase your chance of capturing the perfect photo. | Source
Use the burst mode to increase your chance of capturing the perfect photo.
Use the burst mode to increase your chance of capturing the perfect photo. | Source

Use the Burst Mode on Your Camera

If your camera has the capability of shooting multiple frames for second, use it. It may be more work later on when sorting through photos and it does take up more space on your memory card (be sure to invest in a large memory card or bring a spare), but you'll be happy when you sort through your photos and that 1/8 of a second makes all the difference between the your subject looking in the right direction or not. This also is helpful for capturing the difference between a smile and almost a smile.

If your camera doesn't have a burst mode, snap more than one take of a photo as quickly as you can. Or just make sure to take more than one photo of the same person, group or subject. If you have to, you can always use Photoshop to supplant heads and fix blinking eyes.

Tips for Babies, Toddlers and Pets

There's a lot that goes on with family gatherings. There's a lot to look at, people talking in the background....all of this to a small child or a pet will be distracting. To increase your chances of maintaining their focus, use toys, strings, bright colored objects and your own voice to get their attention.

Keep in mind...

  • Babies, Toddlers and pets (especially young pets) have less focus. Being patient and working with them is the key to a good photograph. All them to play and use their personality.
  • Give your subjects breaks! If you're teasing your cat with a string, let them play with it as a reward. If they're restless, give them some play time and then try again.
  • Again, be patient.

If you're taking a photo of your sister's baby, have her stand behind your camera to draw the baby's eye. Have her make noises, calls and move around. If you're photographing your pets or little one yourself, trying dangling a string and holding an object in one hand while taking the photo. It may be hard, but it's worth the shot. Strings definitely attract the attention of kittens and weird noises (such as sheep calls, ducks, ambulance sirens, high pitches noises) all will draw the attention of dogs. Use a combination of the above for maximum results.

Be sure to be quick and snap the photo. Learn how to focus quickly. These tricks usually don't keep their attention for long! If you're manually focusing, try taking a step back and using focus peaking to help quicken your focusing and reduce the amount of time it takes to pull focus.

Shots Like This Will Be Plentiful!

If you're using a toy to tease your kitten, this kind of shot is likely to happen. Go with it and be patient.
If you're using a toy to tease your kitten, this kind of shot is likely to happen. Go with it and be patient. | Source

Use a Tripod to Help with Depth of Field

If you use a tripod (or a monopod) you'll be able to use a slower shutter speed and thus be able to increase your depth of field. This allows for a better bokeh effect and will also allow you to make Photoshop changes easily if you need to.

Use Natural Lighting to Your Advantage

One of the many overlooked aspects of photography is the lighting, but there's such great opportunities, especially with an abundance of lights during the holiday season that is should be considered.

The contrast between the cool natural lighting coming in from an open window and the warmth of a white string of lights can be used for a dramatic color shift in your photos. Below is a demonstration and how it can be enhanced with filters and post-color tweaking.

Tweaking Your Photographs

Lighting is an important part of every photograph. Use the contrast between warm and cool for dramatic effects.
Lighting is an important part of every photograph. Use the contrast between warm and cool for dramatic effects. | Source

Watch Funny Objects in Your Compositions

It's nearly impossible to get this right all the time, but before you have your subjects stand in front of the tree, make sure that there are no decorations that look weird behind your subject.

This includes, but is definitely not limited to:

  • Decorations seemingly growing out of people's heads
  • Other people walking by in the background (be sure to check windows too)
  • Objects cut off in the backround
  • Make sure if you're cropping your subject that you crop well. (ie. make sure to crop a foot all the way and not have it barely cropped)
  • Check to make sure everyone fits comfortably in the frame. Use a smaller lens or step back if needed.
  • Unintentional foreground objects, like an accidental wrapping paper or a finger over the lens

Woah! Look out mom, something's in the foreground!

Beware of photobombing kittens!
Beware of photobombing kittens! | Source

A good way to develop your eye for composition is to always review your photographs after you take them. The more you look at your photographs after a shot and see what you can do better the next time, the better your photos will be the next time.

If your first instinct tells you that something looks funny, try changing your camera angle. Your first instinct is one that you don't want to ignore.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts

Taking photographs during the holiday season gives many opportunities to play around with lighting and props to enhance your photos. Feel free to try different compositions. If it doesn't work, just delete it. No one but you has to know! (trust me, I've had a lot of those)

If you want some practice, you can always photograph a still object to begin with. Even a simple figurine will do. And if you're hosting a party or know that people will be photographing in a particular room, like in front of the tree, you may find yourself trying out how your photos will turn out. Should you open a window for more light? Is there enough room to create a good difference between the foreground and background?

Finally, have fun! Use a decoration on the wall as a fun backdrop, or keep your coat and scarf on for some in-season photos.

© 2013 Noelle

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    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 3 years ago from the short journey

      An interesting look at taking holiday photos. Some nice shots, too! Thanks for sharing your experience here.

    • jainismus profile image

      Mahaveer Sanglikar 3 years ago from Pune, India

      Useful Hub with nice photographs, thank you for sharing.

    • mbyL profile image

      Slaven Cvijetic 3 years ago from Switzerland, Zurich

      This is a great hub! Especially now, many People shoot photos of their loved ones, pets and so on and such a hub can give great advice on how to shoot nice pictures! Well done!

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      What a great tutorial. I love taking holiday pics in front of the decorations and it's always hit or miss. I'm going to try some of these tips.

    • Hugo Furst profile image

      Hugo Furst 3 years ago from Australia

      What a great hub! Thanks for this, pal :)

    • noellenichols profile image
      Author

      Noelle 3 years ago from Denver

      Thank you all for the comments. I'm glad it was helpful and interesting!

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