How to take a good holiday photo

By Lifestyle and Budget Consumer Reports

If you’re getting together with family during the holidays, you may want to capture the moments by shooting candid photos or even a formal portrait. To get the best results, try these tips:

Continue Reading Below

Know your equipment

Before you start, take a moment to learn your camera equipment and settings. Depending on your camera or device, you may be limited in the number of settings you can change, but it’s best to understand them before you’re ready to shoot. Here’s a good example: I shot a selfie of my wife and me (see below) with the front-facing camera on my iPhone. That produced a low-resolution photo (around 1.2 megapixels), which is fine for uploading to Facebook. But if I had wanted to make a large print from this photo, I’d be out of luck since it’s not a high-resolution shot. I would have been better off taking the shot with the higher-resolution rear-facing camera on the iPhone (although I wouldn't have been able to see the image on the phone's screen) or, better yet, with a digital camera. So, take a little time to learn about the settings on your camera. (To see what can go wrong when shooting a holiday photo, check out this blog post I wrote about how not to take a holiday photo.)

Seek out good lighting

Whether you’re shooting indoors or outdoors, look for good lighting. Despite what you might think, a sunny day is not ideal for outdoor shots. An overcast day is better, since the clouds filter the sunlight, which prevents harsh shadows from appearing on your subject’s face. If you want to shoot on a cloudless day, plan ahead. Try to take the shot during the early morning or early evening, when the sunlight is softer. The photo will be more visually pleasing.

If you’re indoors, you’ll probably need to use your camera’s flash. First, try using the auto setting on your camera’s flash. If you’re not satisfied with the results, turn on the slow-sync-flash mode, which leaves the shutter open after the flash fires. The downside: If there's any movement in the scene, you'll get some motion blur, although you can also get some very cool effects with slow-sync flash. It's worth experimenting with. If you have an external flash on an advanced camera, such as an SLR or mirrorless camera, try angling the flash so that the beam of light bounces off the wall or ceiling. This creates very natural lighting and helps avoid the red-eye effect. (If you do capture photos that have subjects with red eyes, don’t worry: You can generally correct it by using image-editing software or a mobile app.)

Continue Reading Below

Check our Holiday Gift Ideas page for suggestions of top-rated gifts and expert shopping advice. Or check out our interactive gadget gift guide for a camera that fits your budget.

Get close to your subjects

Whenever possible, move physically closer to the subjects you are shooting. This is known as “zooming with your feet” and lets you fill the frame with your subject or subjects. It’s also a great way to emphasize facial expressions in your photos. Here’s another tip: Try to avoid extraneous or distracting details in your photos.  

Consider composition

Pro photographers will often emphasize that composition is crucial for producing an exceptional photograph. But you may not know what they’re referring to. Composition simply means the placement or arrangement of visual elements or “ingredients” in an image, which is different than simply considering the subject of a work. So, you may be shooting a photo of your son, but how are you capturing him? Is he in the center or to the side of the frame? Is he surrounded by other objects? Does his face fill the entire frame or is he very far away?

For good holiday shots, avoid backgrounds that are too busy or congested. Also, vary your viewpoint: If you're taking photos of small kids, get down on their level, crouching down or even getting below them and shooting up at them; this creates an interesting perspective. Don't be afraid to put your camera right down on the floor.

Also, try turning on the grid on your camera's LCD (that's the tic-tac-toe like pattern). Then compose your shot using the Rule of Thirds to help direct the viewer's focus.

Look for expressive gestures

One way to create captivating holiday photos is to look for expressive gestures. For example, when my relatives get together, their faces can be very animated when they’re engaged in conversation. Also, look for moments when your subjects are joking or clowning around since they’re apt to be less self-conscious, and their faces may exhibit a lot of emotion, which can make for a wonderful holiday shot.

Follow these tips and you could wind up with some great photos for your holiday cards!

—Terry Sullivan

Copyright © 2005-2014 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.