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Holiday Photo Hacks – Tips and Tricks

There’s nothing quite like the holiday season in Orange County. There’s beautiful scenery, fun events like Knotts’ Merry Farm and a whole bunch of tree lightings, the Festival of Lights, the Capistrano Lights in San Juan Capistrano… All these holiday events that are special to Southern California and they’re all things that you and your family want to remember. That means you’re going to be taking a lot of pictures. And that’s before you get to the family gatherings!

Holiday Photo Hacks

The average American takes about 20.2 photos a day… until the holiday season rolls around and suddenly, that 20.2 becomes more like 200.

Not everybody likes taking holiday photos, though. If you’ve got some family members who routinely shy away from the camera lens, you probably already know that it’s hard to get them to sit still for a picture, much less pose. So, what’s a holiday photographer to do?

Don’t worry! We’ve got some tips, tricks and hacks on how to make taking your holiday photos easier and cheaper, not to mention more interesting. Get ready to make your memories, well… really memorable.

Tips and Tricks to Make Your Holiday Photos Awesome

Holiday photos are fun, but they’re no joke. We’ve got some holiday photo hacks and tips that can help you make the most of your picture-taking this year.

  • Do: Capture your subjects in their natural environment. Staged is great and you probably will regret not taking that formal holiday photo if it comes down to it, but you know what you’ll also regret? Not catching the little moments where personality shines through and you actually remember the event you’re capturing for posterity.
  • Do: Get down to eye level when you’re photographing kids. It’s easy if you’re going for a (stationary) action shot. Taking your photos of your little darling as they play with wrapping paper, or their new toy is a lot easier than trying to set them up for a formal picture. Just make sure your present-opening is in front of the tree so the lights can serve as a fantastic backdrop (soft focus, of course).
  • Do: Using visual lures to keep babies’ eyes on the camera. A colorful stuffed animal (not a favorite, because you don’t want to deny the little ones their favorite toy. Tears are not the look you’re going for in those holiday photos) should keep them focused on looking in the right direction.
  • Don’t: Don’t run the risk of missing a truly interesting memory by trying to take a picture of every single present opening. A few select ones will do, especially if the present is really special.
  • Don’t: Forget that you belong in the holiday pictures just as much as the rest of your family. Hand off the camera to someone else for a while so you can make sure you’re part of the family memories, too.

What Kind of Holiday Photo Do You Need?

There are a couple of kinds of holiday pictures you can take: staged static photos and candids.

Candid photos are better for capturing the moment. When people talk about a picture being worth a thousand words, this is the kind they’re talking about. The downside to wanting to take a lot of candid holiday photos is you run the risk of acting like a slightly crazed paparazzi, stalking your family gathering with camera (or cell phone) in hand.

If you’re the designated family gathering photographer this holiday, you’ll be keeping an eye open for unexpected (and unexpectedly wonderful) photo opportunities. Giggling kids with their heads together over a new toy, beloved grandparents doting over a new baby or a loved one they haven’t seen in a while. That new puppy sleeping on someone’s lap or half-buried under a pile of discarded wrapping paper. One thing is for sure… you won’t run out of subjects!

Tip: Shoot early, shoot often… photos, that is. You should have your camera or phone on you, so don’t be afraid to use it. You’ll never regret taking too many pictures (use burst mode once in a while to make sure you catch the absolute best shots). You can always edit them down when the holidays are over. Right now, just focus on getting them.

Since candid holiday photos are, well, unrehearsed and un-staged, all you have to do is make sure you’ve got decent light (if you’re doing an outside shot, the light tends to take care of itself and that can be its own headache) and go for it.

Tip: Your subject doesn’t have to be center frame all the time, every time. Taking photos off-center creates interesting compositions that you’ll enjoy looking at.

I Want Formal Family Holiday Photos, Too!

It happens at least once a year… the family gets together and does the physical jigsaw puzzle necessary to take a formal group picture. Formal photos, whether of the whole family or just one or two people, are more for showing what people looked like at a certain time than telling the story of the family. It takes time, talent, and patience to manage a good group shot, especially with a bigger family gathering, but it’s so worth it!

Formal photos need to be planned out; picking the right place, the right lighting, and then the right place to have everyone stand or sit… that’s part of the fun.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are a lot more variables going into a good group photo, but it’s worth it.

If you’re going to be working with smaller children, it’s best to set their expectations in advance. Letting them know there are clear guidelines to what they can expect lets them set their coping up ahead of time. “We’re going to grandma’s and when we get there, we’re going to take five pictures.” Letting them rest and decompress for a few minutes after they travel might save you some headaches as you try to capture those holiday memories.

Special Needs Pro-Tip: Keep in mind that both babies and people with special needs like autism or sensory issues will already be having a tough time with the lights and busy, colorful decorations, and excited relatives. Be patient, communicate clearly, and recognize that they might need a quiet place to decompress afterward.

If you need to take pictures of very young babies, make sure you time your picture sessions for when they’re fed and not tired… or do it when they’re asleep.

Special Needs Pro-Tip: Whether they tell you this or not, autistic kids (or anyone with touch sensitivity) will have a problem being posed for photographs since the people are normally jammed more closely together than they’re comfortable with. Be aware that your perfect arrangement might need to have some changes.

Don’t worry, you’ll still get a fantastic holiday family photo! If you do have someone with touch sensitivity in your family, posing them on the outside of the grouping is best. That way they have minimal contact and can lean away until the photo needs to be taken.

Holiday Photo Hacks to Make Things Interesting

If you’ve already caught the DIY bug, you probably have a good idea of just what you can do with a few supplies and a little ingenuity. Ideas range from DIY photo booths and props to easy interest walls. There are plenty of ideas out there, but some of our favorites include:

  • simple photo booth prop frames. Repurpose an old frame or just make something from cardboard, heavy posterboard, or even styrofoam strips. Keep it plain or add holiday decorations to add visual interest.
  • seasonal selfie accessories (hats, beards, glasses, etc.). You can make your own if you’re feeling ambitious but it’s just as easy to grab a pack or three at your local party store, although you can also find good deals online.
  • dig through old clothes to find vintage hats, scarves, or costume jewelry… anything that will give your holiday pictures an extra shot of holiday glamour.
  • The simplest DIY backdrop for the holiday season is a pile of bows. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can kick it up a notch by taping together posterboard (gorilla tape or duct tape is best) and attaching that to any handy wall or piece of plywood you have lying around.
  • Too hard to dump bows on the ground (or just don’t want to clean up afterward?). Streamers are easy to get, cheap, simple, and easy to hang (and clean up). You might want some anyway, since nothing says holiday cheer like a little glitter.
  • Got a spare string of Christmas lights? Grab yourself some command hooks and hang your lights in an interesting pattern on any available wall (white walls work best, especially with a string of colorful lights).

If you’re feeling especially crafty or ambitious, or just really like making things, you can make a wrapping paper photo booth. The more intricate the paper, the better. Plain, shiny paper is fine if that’s what you have, but your holiday photos will be more interesting if you have something with a fancy pattern.

Ultimately, holiday photography is about capturing the moment. Whether you’re an experienced photographer or your total camera experience has been with your iPhone, these holiday photo hacks will let you take pictures you can be proud of.

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Kelly Smith
Kelly Smith is lives in Southern California with one dog, two cats, two guinea pigs… and the rest of her family. She writes about Orange County, faith, family, special needs and tea, and world-builds science fiction universes on the side.