Wondering how to take your holiday photographs from ho-hum to holly jolly?
NewsTribune photo editor Amanda Whitlock sat down and shared some tips to capture the best images this Christmas.
NewsTribune: What’s the biggest mistake(s) the home photographer makes during the holiday season?
Amanda Whitlock: Taking pictures in front of something that is extremely bright, such as a window or television screen. Doing that results in backlit photos, in which you can’t see the faces of those you intend to photograph. Your camera will adjust to the brightest spot in the scene, not always what you want it to. Some smartphones on the other hand will adjust for light; all you need to do is click on the darker part of the image. This will result in blowing out your background (if it’s that horrible bright spot like a window or TV).
Not repositioning yourself around the scene is another mistake people tend to make. Get off the couch and move around the room or party. Looking at the situation from a different perspective can really make a difference.
My last bit of advice is: come prepared. If you’re going to bake a cake you wouldn’t do that without the flour, would you? Make sure you have an empty memory card and fresh batteries in your camera. And don’t leave your camera in the car, because your batteries will die in the extreme winter cold (just like your electronics can melt in the extreme summer heat). Beyond battery life, taking a cold camera into a warm house can cause your lens to fog up and delay how soon you can start shooting photos.
NT: Some members of my family hate having their photos taken, what do I do to get a good shot of them?
AW: You have to convince them. That’s the only way you’re going to get a good photo of them — and take multiple photos. It’s the only way they’re going to relax. If you get a good one, show it to them. They’ll probably still tell you it’s horrible, but you’ll know better.
NT: If I’m shooting some holiday group photos, how should I position my subjects or myself?
AW: Take multiple angles of the photo, in other words reposition yourself and recompose what you’re shooting, like the photo of my father and Jean (see left). I shot a photo I was happy with, but also took a step back and shot another one where you can see the whole scene.
It is important to remember, with a digital camera you can review everything you do and correct mistakes. So, shoot as many photos as your card will hold, you can always delete the bad ones.
When framing your shot, it is important to make sure no one’s limbs are being cut out of the frame, unless you want that look. You can always crop later.
Something else I’ve noticed is that people tend to move their camera after they frame their subjects and don’t realize it, so try to focus on standing still until you’ve pushed the shutter button. When you see professional photographers moving their camera around, what we are doing is finding a focus point, and then recomposing how we see the frame; we’re not just moving. Try to keep yourself in a stable shooting position to begin with, and once you’ve nailed making sure all your people are with limbs and heads then you should read about composition in a beginning photography book.
For a large group photo, you want to stagger your subjects so they’re not all in a single file line and so you can see all of them. If it’s two people you want to get close to them (see left)…but if it is an interesting scene (an environmental portrait, if you will) take a few steps back, as stated earlier, and capture that too.
Last, if you’re using a direct flash (which you shouldn’t, but on “point-and-shoots” or a basic digital camera sometimes it can’t be helped), don’t position people against or near a wall, if possible. Otherwise you’ll get hard shadows of them in the background.
Trust yourself, you know what looks good and what looks bad.
NT: How would someone get a good action shot of their child opening presents on Christmas morning?
AW: If you’re shooting with a point-and-shoot your best hope is anticipating what’s going to happen and just hitting the shutter button fast enough to get it. You’d probably want your flash on, because the flash freezes action. If you’re shooting with a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera, you can use action or sports settings, and hopfully you’ll have your ISO (or film speed) high enough, so you can stop the action with a fast shutter speed (250 or higher).
The shortest and easiest answer, without getting caught up in technical details, is to be ready; You never know what someone will go crazy over, like the photo of my mother, Jan (left), and a pack of socks. She was thrilled. And remember my earlier advice, reposition yourself! If it’s a kid, you want to get down to their level, because you want to see their face, not the top of their head.
NT: I want to show off our family feast on Facebook, how do I take good food photos?
AW: Don’t use a flash, especially if you’re using an iPhone. Some smartphones you need to use a flash, but the iPhone is very capable of getting a true-to-life photograph without one.
My advice would mostly consist of not using a flash, if your camera is capable. Depending on the lighting, a flash will make the situation look less accurate and not appetizing at all. Flash also can ruin the depth of field, especially on a smartphone. Depth of field is the area between the nearest and farthest objects in the image that are in focus. A good camera and lens will allow a narrow depth of field (f2.8 or lower, I like f1.8 for food photography), so the focus is only on the people or objects you want to see, not everything else in the background.
If you can get away with no flash, do so, if you have a steady hand or a tripod (and yes, they make them for smartphones) you can handle darker situation, the food’s not going anywhere.
NT: I’ve got tons of photos on SD cards all over my house after the holidays, what do I do with all of them?
AW: You download them to your computer and an external hard drive and burn them to a CD/DVD. You don’t leave them on the SD card.
If you do, the files will start to become corrupt because whenever your camera takes a new picture it takes pixels from your old files.
NT: I have an expensive camera, but my photos never look as good as what I see in the newspaper and magazines. What are professional photographers doing that I’m not?
AW: They’re using manual settings and not the pregrammed functions on the camera. In post-production, we use Photoshop and that’s an expensive program. We do crop photos a lot. It’s very rare that we get the shot we want without cropping the photo afterward, even if it’s just a tiny bit. A lot of what makes photos better is cropping into the action, whether you do this in (moving physically closer to your subject) or out of the camera. And you’ll only get a good image if it’s in focus.
If you have a professional DSLR camera you should be shooting on fine large .jpg settings, so the photo will be as large as possible.
If you’re using a flash on a DSLR, don’t aim it directly at the subject. If your DSLR only has a built-in pop-up flash, you can purchase fairly inexpensive reflectors to soften the light.
NT: How important is the type of camera someone uses?
AW: It’s pretty important, depending on what you’re shooting. You’re not going to be able to shoot fast action photos with a point-and-shoot or a smartphone, but you can still get family photos that you’ll love.
If you have a point-and-shoot, understand your limitations. Know how fast your camera can shoot and how your flash affects photos. You can still get perfectly great photos of fun moments with a point-and-shoot camera, like the photo of my friends and I from a New Year’s party (see below), that was shot with a really old and not very fancy Fuji point-and-shoot camera, and I love that photo, even if the highlights are blown out. It was a dark room, so in that situation, having the direct flash (though the photographer made the mistake of getting us in front of a window) came in handy. You’ll notice the photographer broke another rule in that he cut Kevin’s face in half, sometimes breaking the rules can result in a fun picture, nothing is set in stone.
You can’t get good depth of field with a point-and-shoot camera, but for what it’s worth you can still make images that make you happy.
NT: Many people are like us and shoot photos of their pets as well as human family members, how do you get a good pet photo?
AW: Luck. Pets are unpredictable; some pets are scared of cameras. You just have to keep taking photos until you get one you like. A long lens is useful if you have a DSLR.
If it’s a bright room, turn the flash off to avoid crazy, demon eyes.
Reader questions gathered on Facebook:
Jason Sereno asks: What is shutter speed? How do you increase it?
If you really want to know how to manually shoot a photograph based on the relationship between aperture and shutter speed, you should buy a book on photography or take a beginner’s photography class. You can increase your shutter speed if you’re set at a high ISO, and you’re keeping your aperture low and you have a camera where you can manipulate those functions.
Neil Pleskovitch asks: How do you eliminate red eyes?
Don’t use a straight-on flash. Either go online to learn how to create a softbox for a point-and-shoot or buy a light scoop. There’s a great one for DSLRs, called the pop-up flash bounce, on photojojo.com. Photojojo also has other light reflecting tools and tips.
Basically, red-eye is caused by the direct flash. That’s also what causes the evil cousins behind people – the hard shadows on the wall.
Angie Halbleib asks: How to get the best pictures by a lit tree?
What I would do is turn the flash off and supply the light another way. So try to direct light, perhaps from a floor lamp, onto your family without adding extra illumination to the tree.
If you’re taking a photo with a smartphone, it may automatically adjust. For example, with an iPhone you can touch the screen to adjust for focus and lighting.
Jennifer Piwonski Gunderson asks: When should I use a tripod? How can you take a good group picture without everyone looking like statues?
You should use a tripod when not using a flash and in a low-light situation. Reiterating an important tool of the trade, you should try to stagger people in photos so they aren’t all in a line, and going a bit further you should attempt to shoot group photos of your family candidly. People are generally more relaxed when they aren’t being told what to do. And always take more photos than you think you will need, you are bound to get one you are happy with.
La Salle reporter Matthew Baker contributed to this article.