Christmas (ugh!) will be here before you know it, so let me be the first to suggest taking that photo this weekend instead of waiting until late November.
Our budget doesn’t allow a pro photographer this year and I like to think of myself as pretty handy with a camera. I know at least I can take a picture as well as the photo guy at the department store. With new digital cameras that take 100s of photos for free, there’s no reason most people can’t do this as well.
My wife always loves the finished product, but she always laughs at me for two things: my equipment and my setup.
First, she thinks it’s amazing that I bother with a tripod and also that I clean my lens obsessively with a little blower brush. Anyone who does much photography knows though that a tripod really frees you up to shoot at slower speeds which means more control over light and depth of field. A blower brush means less wiping of the lens, which can introduce little scratches that will permanently scar all of your photos.
Secondly, she always wishes I’d get out of the box of always shooting out holiday shot in the same way with the same props. She’s partly right on that — we all need to break out of the rut, but there are some time-tested suggestions on taking photos if you want to get good results. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Ready for your close-up? Whether you crop later or start close in, you want to fill the frame with your subjects. It’s less important to capture their knees (unless they have super cute ones) than it is to focus on faces.
2. Keep your background neutral and blank. Light colors are best. Avoid trees in the background unless they are just providing a green background. Cityscapes are nice, but it’s better to see the Empire State Building peeking out behind someone’s shoulder than it is to capture all of midtown, for example.
3. Use natural light. Shoot outdoors if the weather allows taking advantage of either early morning or late afternoon light. Photographers refer to this as the “golden” or “magic” hour, the hour or so after sunrise and just before sunset when the light is less harsh. Plan your shot also so that your subjects will not be staring into the sun while standing in front of your perfect background.
4. Shoot at eye level. If you’re taking a picture of little kids or babies, don’t shoot from above. Get down at their level, which will motivate them to interact with you and the camera. Move away from the viewfinder so they can see your eyes.
5. If you’re taking a picture of a baby, consider using a prop that will give people an idea of his or her size.
6. Dress everyone in contrasting colors, rather than busy patterns.
7. Consider sepia or black and white over color
Now here are my own personal routines that my wife wishes I’d shelve, but which have worked for nine straight holiday shots. First, while we live in temperate San Francisco, I dress my kids in heavy coats, scarves and Santa hats. Yep, every year. Second, since before they were born, I’ve used a kitschy little Santa toy that they have held in their hands as a prop. Third, I’ve placed both kids side by side and had them mostly facing forward and smiling at the camera. These photos are never going to make the Museum of Modern Art, but they accomplish my main mission: to capture the kids at a moment of time, happy and together, which is what we can hope every Christmas memory will be.