Three Tips for Taking Great Holiday Photos

Whether you’re a social media fiend or prefer more traditional photo albums, chances are you love to share photos of your kids and adventures with friends and family. What mom doesn’t? Now that the holidays are here, there are photo opportunities everywhere, and with the ubiquity of smart phones, nearly everyone carries a camera in their pocket. Whether you’re wielding your iPhone, a point-and-shoot, or a fancy DSLR, here are three major tips for improving your holiday photos from snapshot to frame-worthy.

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Find the light.

This is by far the most important rule of photography. In fact, the word itself means “light writing.” As amazing as recent technology has become, cameras are still not as good as our eyes at detecting and adjusting to light. This means that a room may seem to have plenty of light to your eyes –for example, you can see everyone really well, even across the room – but a camera may still have trouble letting in enough light to make a clear, bright photo. This is especially true indoors, which is why you may have noticed your indoor photos are blurry, grainy, or dim. The simplest solution to this problem is to step outside! However, that’s not always possible, especially on cold winter days.

In that case, be intentional about finding good light wherever you are. Natural, even light is best, so try putting your subject in front of a big window or open door to really light up the scene. If you have to use indoor lighting, such as incandescent or fluorescent light bulbs, be sure to set the white balance correction on your camera to match the type of lighting, so your kids don’t end up with orange or green faces! Finally, if at all possible, try to avoid using the on-camera flash.

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Flash tends to wash out faces, blacken the background, or create unflattering shadows behind ears and heads. If you’re using your camera’s auto mode, look around at your settings options. Most cameras have an option for auto with no flash (it usually looks like a lightning bolt with a slash through it).

Fill the frame.

It’s tempting to just whip out your camera from wherever you happen to be standing and press the shutter haphazardly. This is quick, easy, and captures the scene just as we are viewing it with our eyes. The problem with this is that these sorts of photos hold all sorts of extraneous information – like background clutter – that distracts from the subject. To solve this, simply fill the frame with your subject, eliminating any extra visual information and drawing the viewer’s focus right where you want it. Just be careful not to get so close that you chop off limbs or heads unintentionally!

I took the shot on the left first, and then adjusted my position to better fill the frame. The shot on the right eliminates a lot of the distracting background clutter and helps you focus on the action.
I took the shot on the left first, and then adjusted my position to better fill the frame. The shot on the right eliminates a lot of the distracting background clutter and helps you focus on the action.

Tell a story.

The best photos convey some kind of message that allows the viewer to emotionally connect with the scene. You can create a story in a single photo or in a series of related photos shown together. For example, in addition to your child proudly holding up a finished gingerbread house, catch some shots of the details along the way – the colorful candy pieces, clumsy little fingers attempting to delicately place them in just the right spot, and looks of concentration on eager faces as they build. When presented together, these photos tell a clear (adorable) story of your child’s experience. You could also consider capturing some of the environment when it contributes to the context of your story.

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It helps if you can quickly brush away any clutter in the scene or move away from distracting backgrounds. Take a second to adjust your position before clicking the shutter, perhaps by squatting down to your child’s eye level or by standing on a chair to catch the scene from a bird’s eye view for a unique perspective.

Photos with a person or body part in them also tend to provide more interesting narratives. (Think of all the “From Where I Stand” pictures posted to Instagram. They always have feet in them, because that’s more interesting than just the floor.)

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You may notice that the main theme in creating great photos is simply to be intentional. This doesn’t mean you have to pose everything. In fact, I almost never do! Just taking the time to make things camera-friendly goes a long way. 

Take a few minutes before your kids start a holiday activity to set the scene. For example, set everything up in a place with plenty of light, and then walk around for a few minutes, thinking about where you could stand/sit/squat/lie down to create an interesting perspective. Get close enough or zoom in to fill the frame and remove distracting background elements, and then let the kids loose. You’ll be ready to catch the magic as it happens.

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And remember, the best camera is the one you have. You don’t need any fancy equipment to use these tips. Most importantly, have fun! It’s okay to love a picture even if the picture isn’t technically perfect – maybe you caught an expression that you love or a sweet moment. Keep it – it’s a treasure!

Want more tips? Here’s a great list. We’d love to see your photos on our facebook page or Instagram!


Kristin Flanary
Kristin met her husband in college at Texas Tech University, and they later moved to New Hampshire, where they earned his-and-hers advanced degrees (complete with matching towels) at Dartmouth. They had their first date on Valentine's Day, got engaged on Valentine's Day three years later, welcomed their first daughter (Charlotte) on Valentine's Day three years after that, and their second daughter (Claire) on Valentine's Day three years after that! Kristin and her family moved to Iowa City in 2014 so her husband could begin his residency at UIHC. She is currently laugh-crying her way through raising a threenager and an infant while simultaneously working full-time at the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development and juggling the crazy schedule of a resident's wife. Kristin has been a stay-at-home mom, a work-at-home mom, and work-outside-the-home mom, so she can officially judge that each scenario is hard and equally wonderful. In her free time, you can find Kristin either taking pictures and learning about photography, reading about how not to screw up her daughters, on her soapbox about women's rights, enjoying a hard-earned glass of wine, or collapsed from exhaustion. Her life is ridiculous and her heart is full.


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