hanging ornaments on the christmas treehanging ornaments on the christmas tree

Image Credit: Sinziana Susa

From multi-generational Christmas lunch feasts to New Year’s Eve celebrations on the town, festive gatherings are rare chances to get everyone together – both in person and in photos. However, getting said photos comes with its challenges, not least of all tricky lighting conditions and awkward, camera-shy subjects.

Capturing images that live up to these memories takes practice and skill. Luckily CameraPro team member Rob has a few tricks up his sleeve to help you do just that.

As a professional photographer, Rob spent more than a decade documenting the moments within milestones of people young and old, at gatherings big and small, in light glorious and unforgiving,

Read on for his tips on how to take photos that you’ll cherish as much as the people/events they capture.

Please note: All focal lengths are expressed as 35mm/full frame equivalent

1. Decide on Your Story

simple family dinner in the gardensimple family dinner in the garden

Image Credit: Ines Castellano

What’s your story, why are you shooting it, and what are the important elements?

Different events move at different speeds. Is this the office Christmas party with tequila shots at the bar and drunken dancing; your child’s first Christmas pageant; or a traditional, full Christmas lunch with three generations of the family, perhaps for the last time?

Knowing the story in advance allows you to focus on the important shots. It stops you from needing to just shoot everything and prevents you from missing something. If you’re shooting the event to share with other people, then how do they see the story?

2. Decide What Gear You Need

pentax slr with christmas lightspentax slr with christmas lights

Image Credit: Noah Silliman

What gear do you really need?

As modern photographers we have access to such an enormous range of professional-level gear, each more specialised than the last, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of bringing everything, just in case. But that 600mm lens isn’t going to help much at Christmas lunch, and that 85mm might take a magical portrait but is it the best choice for the children’s choir? And the 28-300mm covers such a huge range but if the party’s rocking out a dark club, are you just going to be pushing your ISO into space?

If it’s a family Christmas, you’ll probably want a lens wide enough to get most, if not all of the room (maybe 24mm or wider), as well as something a little tighter (something in the range of 50-200mm) and faster to single people out and separate them from the background (I’ll talk more about this in tip 3).

For drinks at the bar with your workmates you might want a lens wide enough (say 35mm) for a couple of people interacting but also something that can handle the low light.

If it’s a performance you might want some reach (100mm+) to get a couple of closeups of the performers but also a wider angle (24mm or so) to show the whole stage. Will there be other people there? Consider whether your holding up a gigantic zoom lens will affect their enjoyment of the show.


3. Depth of Field Part 1 - Signal to Noise

three dogs waiting under the christmass treethree dogs waiting under the christmass tree

Image Credit: Jasmin Schuler

A lens with a wide aperture range affords you more control over the story you’re trying to tell.

A higher f-stop number helps to ensure everyone’s in focus and can tell a whole story in one shot: a sea of Christmas decorations, children under wrapping paper mountains, half-eaten bowls of cherries, and a snoozing grandma with her teeth hanging out.

A lower f-stop number narrows down the focus. It says, in all this sea of Christmas this is the piece I want the viewer to focus on. A really shallow depth of field can pull your subject forward, turning the background into a wash of colours.

Christmas lights and Christmas trees look great out of focus in the background, but don’t overlook foreground blur. Try shooting with some fairy lights between you and your subject.

4. Depth of Field Part 2 – All the Small Things

delicious dinner passed arounddelicious dinner passed around

Image Credit: Christiann Koepke

A gallery full of portraits of everyone at the event certainly tells a story, but it’s a limited story.

Anchor your gallery in time and place. Why are these people together? Christmas is easy; there’s a tree and decorations, but there might also be a lavish meal, which could mean a busy kitchen – perfect for preparation shots. With drinks at the bar, don’t forget that you’re at a bar. What does that involve? Drinks, sure – but is there an epic pool table battle? Why was this location chosen? How does it fit in the story?

Keep in mind that details on their own look like little more than stock photography if taken out of context. A beautifully cooked turkey could be any turkey, until it’s placed on a table and surrounded by a family. Try your shallow depth of field on the details but leave just enough of the people in the background to give it relevance.

5. Look for the Light

two chidlren hanging ornaments on the christmas treetwo chidlren hanging ornaments on the christmas tree

Image Credit: Jeremy McKnight

Understand how your camera sees light. Modern mirrorless cameras with their ‘what you see is what you get’ viewfinders make things a little easier, but you’ll still need to know what settings are going to work best to capture what’s in your mind.

If the light is part of the story you need to work with it, not against it. A big flash can certainly light up a dark room but at dinner it’ll overpower all ambience of the Christmas lights. At a performance the flash might be an unwanted distraction to everyone else. And in a dark and dingy bar, too much light may show up true horrors!

Learn to see where the light in a room is coming from and work with it. The light of Christmas morning to a sleeping child lit by the tree’s lights, carols by candlelight, the neon glow from the bar… Many locations and events are lit consciously to create the right effect so it’s a part of your story. A fast aperture (i.e. low f-stop number) lens will ensure you’re covered for a variety levels of light.

6. If You Need to Use Flash, Can You Bounce It?

candid portrait of a happy womancandid portrait of a happy woman

Image Credit: Kim Carpenter

Sometimes you’re just going to need to use a flash – be it your camera’s built-in flash or an external speedlight.

Built-in Flash
Is your flash built into the camera and not able to be angled upwards? Holding a small white card, like a business card, in front of it at 45° to the roof can bounce the light upwards but you will lose a lot of flash power. If your camera is in an auto mode your camera should compensate for this, but once the flash is at full power there’s nowhere for it to go.

Speedlights offer a lot more power and flexibility. Avoid the ‘deer in the headlights’ look by simply aiming your flash at the roof and letting the light bounce back more softly. Simulate more natural lighting by angling the flash up and off to the side a little so it bounces from a better angle than straight overhead.

If you do need to point the flash at your subject, experiment with zooming your flash head (i.e. using a longer zoom setting to create a narrower light beam) while using a wide lens. This creates a tight circle of light with a large vignette zone (similar to early instant Polaroid cameras) and is especially useful for highlighting that the action is taking place in a dark environment – perfect for dance floor and party shots.

7. Learn to Wait for Real Moments

two children playing on the backyardtwo children playing on the backyard

Image Credit: Ashton Bingham

Watch the interactions between people. Is someone telling a funny story? The camera click might break the emotion so wait until the point where the audience reacts. This is where knowing your camera settings lets you trust that you can get the shot the first time without needing multiple, distracting, test shots.

If asked to smile most children will put on a cheesy grin, but they have trouble hiding the real emotion of opening the present they’ve waited all month for.

In group shots, get one of the subjects to tell you something about one of the other people. It could be funny or personal but if it’s real it’ll bring out the emotion.

If people keep trying to do fake or boring poses, try telling them that you’re just doing some test shots for the light level first and they can talk amongst themselves until you’re ready. Hopefully they’ll let their guard down.

8. Who are the Stakeholders?

pool party with friends during sunsetpool party with friends during sunset

Image Credit: Eric Nopanen

Posed group shots aren’t that fun to shoot and they’re usually not that fun to be a part of, but it can be nice to have a record of everyone who was there.

Obviously you don’t wanna shoot all 5000 people at a carols by candlelight but if you’re there as a family, you could try a quick shot of the family gathered together within the crowd. It probably won’t be your hero shot but the same shot, every year, for 10 years can create its own story.

Your workplace can be like a family too, but it can also change drastically from year to year. A group shot with the team anchors the time and place. Who’s important? Get a shot of them. Are you part of the story? If so, how’re you going to get a shot of you?

9. Have Fun with It

two stand up comedian on stagetwo stand up comedian on stage

Image Credit: Anna Earl

Most people aren’t used to being the focus of a lot of photos. So if you’re stalking around the edges of the room staring at people through your camera, people will alter their behaviour towards you.

Interact with people. Ask them if they want a quick portrait or couple shot, get them to do a silly pose, ask them what they’re doing and if you can shoot it. By connecting with your subject and allowing them to take a little control at the start, they can relax knowing that they’re not under any psychological threat and you’re more likely to get better candids later on.

With groups of children (if you’re brave enough), let the kids take photos of each other. They’ll usually act up to the camera if a peer is holding it and once they know the rules, they might just act up for you as well.

10. Be Present

photographer taking pictures on guys running to the beachphotographer taking pictures on guys running to the beach

Image Credit: Pim Chu

Studies have shown that photographing an event weakens the forming of actual memories of the event.

If this were the last time that your whole family was to be together for Christmas, you wouldn’t want your pervasive memory to be how you struggled balancing the light. If you’re supposed to be part of the party, remember to put the camera down occasionally and be present in what’s happening.

Written by Rob Mynard

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