Holiday photo tips and tricks

Whether you've got an expensive dSLR or a snapshot camera, there are at least a few things you can do to make this year's holiday photos better than last year's.

Lori Grunin
1 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Take it off auto

Automatic mode has its uses, but it rarely makes the right decisions--your brain is much better for that.

2 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Shoot raw+JPEG

If you shoot JPEG, you can't adjust the exposure, white balance, noise reduction, or sharpening without degrading the image. Even if you use a nondestructive process on the JPEG image, you're still performing noise reduction and sharpening on top of the camera's NR and sharpening and on an image with a compressed color gamut and tonal range. You may not care now, but you might in the future. For instance, I shot this at ISO 25600 with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which was state-of-the-art for high-ISO-sensitivity shooting when it first came out. Now, software noise-reduction algorithms can do a better job than was possible in-camera at the time (this was processed with Adobe Camera Raw 6.6 beta). I hope that soon software will be able to help me do a better job fixing the white balance in this photo.

Furthermore, when shooting candids, there's no guarantee you're going to get it right the first time. Raw is a safety net.

(Christmas 2008, 1/125 sec, f5.0, ISO 25600, white balance adjusted in software, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 24-70mm f2.8L lens)
3 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Use spot metering and center focus point

It's always good policy to fix your metering and focus to the most reliable settings and leave them there. I use spot metering, which will set the exposure based on the focus area (unless you change it). It works best in most conditions, except for scenes that are very bright all over or where the subject is the brightest element in the scene--and even in the latter case it might be okay. It's especially useful for daylong holiday gatherings, where the light changes over time from brightly backlit to dim indoor lighting.

Setting the camera to center-area focus can be even more important. If you allowed the camera to choose the focus area in a scene like this, it would likely choose the counter and the cabinets, because they're closest. Use the focus-and-recompose method with center-area focus: focus on the subject, half-press the shutter to lock the focus, and move the camera (always keeping it equidistant from the subject) until the scene is framed the way you want. Once you've nailed this technique you never have to fight with the dumb focusing algorithms in the camera, at least for the easy shots. Of course, this becomes moot if you have touch AF, though I tend to save that for the off-center shots.

(Thanksgiving 2011, 1/50 sec, f3.5, ISO 400, AWB, spot metering, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1, 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 PZ lens. Cropped.)
4 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Use flash as little as possible

As long as it's not too dark, I prefer to underexpose and not use flash (another reason to shoot raw). Flash shots tend to look overbright and throw harsh shadows. They also tend to make photos look even more like snapshots, and you have to worry about red-eye. And it can add yet another white-balance-confusing light source to the scene. Of course, this depends on having a camera that can produce decent shots at midrange ISO sensitivities. Multishot modes in point-and-shoots, such as Sony's Handheld Twilight mode, combine multiple shots to produce a better exposure without flash.
5 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Bounce your flash

There are some times when flash is OK, and even desirable. If you have a camera with a hot shoe, I highly recommend getting an off-camera flash. One of the main benefits is the ability to tilt the flash, which keeps it from throwing all the light directly on the subject. It also allows you to bounce the light off nearby surfaces, which produces a much softer effect and produces those attractive tiny light reflections in people's eyes, known as catchlights.

Some hot-shoe flashes have little white cards that pull out from the body for bouncing and producing this effect. If you have a hot-shoe flash without the card and are surrounded by dark surfaces, you can simulate it by pointing the flash relatively straight up and holding a piece of white paper at about a 45-degree angle above it. If you've got a dSLR with a pop-up flash, there are accessories that help diffuse and bounce the light, such as the Lightscoop. Some of the newer ILCs have small pop-up flashes that can pulled backward to bounce as well.
6 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Work with your lens

If you don't accept the limitations of your lens, you'll get a lot of serviceable but disappointing photos. The lights in this photo look soft and round because it's shot with a very expensive lens that has a wide, round aperture; without it, you wouldn't have the nice bokeh that makes it marginally better than a snapshot of an ornament. Some newer point-and-shoot models have "defocus" modes that attempt to simulate this effect, with mixed results. If you reframe the shot a bit, say, with multiple ornaments in it, you can take advantage of the camera's "weakness" of having more of the shot in focus.

(Christmas 2008, 1/125 sec, f5.0, ISO 25600, AWB, spot metering, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 24-70mm f2.8L lens at f3.2)
7 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Use reflections

The holidays are full of shiny, reflective decorations. Play around with the colors and shapes they create, and experiment with portraits and self-portraits.

(December 2011, 1/60 sec, f2.8, ISO 400, AWB, spot metering, Sony Alpha SLT-A77, 16-50mm f2.8 lens)
8 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Shooting Santa and snow

If Santa puts in an appearance at your midwinter festivities, there are a few things to keep in mind for the best shots. First, Santa has a lot of white on him, what with all that hair and the trimming on his jacket. When scenes have a lot of white in them you generally want to bump up the exposure by about one stop (either by metering manually off a darker subject or via exposure compensation) so that the white looks white; this applies to snow scenes as well. If he's wearing glasses, make sure that you're focusing on his eyes and not the surface of his glasses. And finally, the face of anyone sitting on his lap should be about the same distance from the camera as Santa's, so that it's equally sharp; if you can't position them that way, you can handle this by shooting in aperture-priority mode with the aperture set at about f5.6 to compensate for distance between Santa and his friend.

(Christmas 2010, 1/60 sec, f5.6, ISO 200, AWB, spot metering, flash, +1 exposure compensation, Nikon D7000 with SB800 flash, 24-120mm f4 lens)
9 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Shooting food

I'm not a big food shooter, and in fact don't really get why people enjoy looking at pictures of food. I'm not even sure why I shot this; maybe because it looked so Christmassy? In any case, when you're photographing food, white balance is critical, as the wrong colors can turn yummy to yucky pretty fast. I also find flash makes a lot of food shots unappetizing. Many point-and-shoot cameras have a special Food setting optimized for close-ups and low light. You want to be careful about how high you set your ISO sensitivity; color noise affects the overall color and increases the yuck factor. Since your food isn't moving--I assume--you can get the shutter speed down fairly low.

(Christmas 2008, 1/50 sec, f2.8, ISO 3200, exposure and white balance adjusted in software, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 24-70mm f2.8L lens at f2.8)
10 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Shoot everything

Yeah, when you're at festivities you're supposed to concentrate on the people, but sometimes you'll get a shot you like by just looking around at the colors, shapes, and tchotchkes around you. I shot this when I was killing time and it turned out to be one of my favorite flower shots. Plus, photos like this can work well as what I like to think of as photographic B-roll; for instance, this is something a scrapbooker might use as a background or supplemental photo to show what the flower arrangements looked like.

(Thanksgiving 2009, 1/100 sec, f2.8, ISO 100, AWB, centerweighted metering, Nikon D3S, 24-70mm f2.8 lens)
11 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Funky lenses and effects

As long as you don't overdo it, and do it thoughtfully, using special effects and lenses on the occasional photo can make an otherwise boring one stand out. My sister's prep list conveys a lot about her and my brother-in-laws' entertaining work flow, but ultimately it's just a piece of paper with some writing on it. Using a Lensbaby doesn't turn it into Instant Art, but it made it a little more interesting for me to shoot. And while it doesn't really stand alone as a photo, it serves as B-roll for a scrapbook.

(Thanksgiving 2011, 1/50 sec, ISO 400, AWB, evaluative metering, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1, Lensbaby with Sweet 35 optic)
12 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Find your style

You don't really think about your holiday photos as having a particular style, but I bet if you look back at previous years you'll find that there are certain types of shots you take over and over again. Do you usually make people pose or shoot candids? Do you always shoot dead-on or from odd angles? Do you photograph people when they're bored, or engaged in conversation? Once you figure out what your style is, decide whether you like it or not and whether you're in a rut you want to break out of. Work on turning some subconscious shooting behaviors into conscious choices, get more extreme, get more technically proficient at it, or take the opportunity to change it entirely.

(Thanksgiving 2011, 1/30 sec, f4.7, ISO 400, AWB, spot metering, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1, 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 PZ lens; exposure bumped +165 in Adobe Camera Raw; cropped)
13 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Experiment with dressed up windows

At least here in New York, the stores go all out to create holiday scenes. They tend to be pretty difficult to photograph well, since they usually have funky lighting and reflective glass. But they do provide an opportunity to boost the surreal quotient by experimenting with in-camera special effects and odd shooting techniques. For instance, I played around with zooming while shooting for this scene. (Of course, that will only work with a manual zoom lens, like on a dSLR or ILC.)

(December 2011, 1/60 sec, f4.0, ISO 400, manual white balance, spot metering, Sony Alpha SLT-A77, 16-50mm f2.8 lens)
14 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Shooting through windows

If you do want to shoot scenes in windows, try to match your white balance to the lights in the scene--if you don't know what kind of lights are being used, then just cycle through the white balance options and pick the one in preview that closest matches what you see. In addition, to minimize reflections, see if you can press the camera lens against the glass; doing that also helps stabilize the camera so that you can use a slower shutter speed and increase the amount of light. The slower shutter speed is especially important if you're shooting at night.

(December 2011, 1/60 sec, f10.0, ISO 400, manual white balance, spot metering, Sony Alpha SLT-A77, 16-50mm f2.8 lens)
15 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Night portraits with tree

Many point-and-shoot cameras have a Night Portrait mode for scenes like this; you may want to check your camera to see if it's got one. If not, there are some ways to optimize these shots. First, use spot metering to meter off the person's face. You may even need to boost the exposure compensation by a third or two-thirds stop. More important, don't put them close the tree--move them at least a few feet forward, so that even if you don't have a wide-aperture lens it will help to blur the tree and lights slightly. (And pay attention to the placement of the lights--there's an unfortunate light halo shining through my friend's hair here.)

(December 2011, 1/60 sec, f4.0, ISO 400, manual white balance, spot metering, Sony Alpha SLT-A77, 16-50mm f2.8 lens)
16 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Big trees

It may seem obvious, but tree shots are more effective when shot vertically rather than horizontally.

(December 2011, 1/30 sec, f2.8, ISO 400, AWB, spot metering, Sony Alpha SLT-A77, 16-50mm f2.8 lens)
17 of 17 Lori Grunin/CNET

Work with your camera

If you've got a slow camera, don't even try to shoot fast-moving subjects. Slow down your shutter and find interesting slow-moving or stationary subjects, allowing the motion around them to blur on purpose for effect.

(December 2011, 1/30 sec, f4.5, ISO 400, AWB, spot metering, Sony Alpha SLT-A77, 16-50mm f2.8 lens, cropped for better visibility)

More Galleries

Yamaha motorcycle and instrument designers trade jobs (pictures)

Yamaha motorcycle and instrument designers trade jobs (pictures)

16 Photos
CNET's 'Day of the Dead Devices' altar (pictures)

CNET's 'Day of the Dead Devices' altar (pictures)

9 Photos
2007 Los Angeles Auto Show: concept cars

2007 Los Angeles Auto Show: concept cars

14 Photos
Best sound bars under $300

Best sound bars under $300

18 Photos
2018 Ford F-150 Power Stroke reports for diesel duty
2018 Ford F-150 diesel

2018 Ford F-150 Power Stroke reports for diesel duty

22 Photos
Music-friendly cell phone accessories

Music-friendly cell phone accessories

11 Photos
Cosplay at Comic-Con 2016: From Stormtroopers to Sansa Stark

Cosplay at Comic-Con 2016: From Stormtroopers to Sansa Stark

34 Photos