Happy Holidays from 39° North Photography!


How are you coming along with the Holidays Photography Assignment? We just have a little over a week left to complete the assignment so keep at it! Remember that you may submit up to TEN of your best holiday shots for the assignment. The original post for the assignment can be found HERE if you need a refresher on how it works. As promised, in this post I’ll offer a few tips to help you get your best holiday shots ever.


You can’t take fabulous holiday photos without a camera so the most important tip I can give you is to make sure your camera is READY and available. Have plenty of freshly charged batteries handy and have more than enough memory card space available. Also, make sure that you actually have a memory card IN your camera. (I speak from experience here). Check the settings to make sure they’re appropriate for the lighting conditions and the type of photography you’re going to do (indoors vs. outdoors, people shots, action, low light, close-ups, etc).

Also make sure that YOU are ready. Get to know your camera ahead of time. Know what it can do and what its limitations are. Learn what all of those buttons and dials are for, know what settings you can change and what happens to your images when you change them, etc. You might be shooting in all different conditions/lighting situations in a short period of time, so you’ll need to know how to change your settings quickly and effectively.

If you’re in an unfamiliar location, scope it out before any action begins. Take note of the lighting, the background, where the windows are, what ambient light is available. If you’re going to use a tripod, figure out well ahead of time the optimal locations to place it and make sure not to set it up in a high-traffic area where it could get kicked over. (That would be BAD). Make sure that major light sources are not in front of you. Take a LOT of test shots.


You don’t have to wait until it’s dark to capture interesting shots of outdoor holiday lights. About 20-30 minutes after sunset is a good time to start capturing the lights along with some of the surrounding details. Fortunately, the shot above of the holiday lights on the Denver City and County Building works well with a completely dark sky.

A slower shutter speed – 1/4 to 2 seconds or longer – will be necessary to get good outdoor light shots, so be sure to use a tripod.

One technique I like to play around with when holiday lights are involved is creating interesting light trails by setting the shutter speed to slow (2-3 seconds) and moving the camera while the shutter is open. You can do this by moving a zoom lens in and/or out or by physically moving your camera. This is a fun technique for both indoor and outdoor lights.


It’s very important that you utilize the flash on your camera as little as possible when shooting indoors to avoid the dreaded red eyes as well as the harsh, unflattering light given off by on-camera flashes. Some techniques to compensate for lower light situations without using your flash are:

  • Bump up your ISO setting. The higher your ISO number, the less light your camera needs. In the old days of film photography, higher ISO values tended to yield very grainy photographs. In digital photography, it’s possible to use ISO values of 800+ without compromising the clarity of your photos.
  • Play with the exposure compensation settings. (Look for the +/- setting on your camera).
  • Use a faster lens if you have one available. I plan to use my Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens for low-light shots. (The f/1.4 is the part that makes it a “fast” lens).
  • Turn some lights on.
  • Use natural light if possible.
  • Use a tripod.

Whether you have a point-and-shoot or a DSLR camera, you will need to take if OFF the automatic (A) setting in order to prevent the flash from constantly popping up. If you
absolutely must use a flash, try to bounce the light off the ceiling or somehow diffuse the light.


When framing a shot, think about what the main subject of the image is and try to fill the frame with that subject. Watch your background to make sure it doesn’t distract from the subject. The simpler the background, the better.

Read up on the Rule of Thirds and try to keep that in mind when composing shots. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but at least try a few shots that conform to the rule and see what you think.

Try shooting from unconventional angles. I’m a big “shoot from your boots” fan myself.

If there are children at your holiday gathering, get down on their level to get the best photos of them.


If you’ve been designated to take the group/family photos at a holiday gathering, good luck with that and here are some pointers:

  • Work quickly as most people, especially children, have very little patience when it comes to group photos.
  • Take the group shots in the beginning of the festivities before the kids spill hot cocoa all over themselves and before Uncle Jack has had too much eggnog.
  • f you plan to be IN the group photo, either have your camera set up on a tripod or scope out a spot where you can set your camera on a sturdy, flat surface and set the self-timer. Know how to use the timer ahead of time because, trust me, it’s embarrassing scrambling to figure it out while everyone is not-so-patiently waiting.
  • You know that when you take group photos, there will inevitable be at least one or more people in the resulting images with their eyes closed. Here’s a simple but generally effective trick to make sure everyone’s eyes are OPEN in the group shots: first have everyone CLOSE their eyes for a few seconds, then tell them, “On the count of 3, OPEN your eyes.” Once their eyes are open, wait a second or two for the “deer in the headlights” look to dissapate, then snap the picture.
  • Try to get candid people photos with real, natural expression rather than the cheesy, fake smiles you get when you say, “Smile!”


If you’re using a smart phone to take your holiday photos, use the composition and other tips above, but also have fun experimenting with various photo apps that let you create some interesting effects. Use your favorite app(s) and especially try out some of these features:

  • Fisheye
  • Tilt shift (simulates miniature scene)
  • Watercolors
  • Black and white/sepia
  • Frames
  • Retro/nostalgic effects
  • “Grunge” effects

My favorite photo editing app these days is Snapseed. It’s packed with all kinds of features/effects and is available for both Android and iOS phones. The photo below was edited with Sketch Guru.



If your camera has a burst mode, use that for periods of high activity, such as during the gift opening.

You can also try “embracing the blur.” Slowing down the shutter speed during times of activity can produce some really cool “motion blur” effects.

Capture the details of the festivities using a macro lens or your camera’s macro mode (it’s the setting that looks like a flower on most cameras).

Watch your white balance (WB) setting. Don’t necessarily just trust your camera’s Auto ISO setting to do the job. Assess the type of lighting in the area where you’re shooting (incandescent, fluorescent, natural, etc) and use that information as a starting point for setting your white balance. Go with what looks good to you. Take several test shots in the different lighting situations you will encounter.

If you’re looking for cute and fun holiday photo ideas, do a search on Pinterest for “holiday photo ideas.” It’s amazing how clever people can be!!

Particularly if you’re going to try something new with your camera (and/or have a new camera), get plenty of practice ahead of time so you don’t blow the shot when that once in a lifetime moment comes.

Don’t forget the video function on your digital camera/smart phone! Take a few short videos and combine them with a bunch of still shots and even some music to make a wonderful video compilation to share with your family and friends.

Keep taking photos even after all of the gifts are opened. Capture images of Uncle Jack trying on his new tie or the kids playing with their new toys.

Take a LOT of photos. And then take some more. But do try to be thoughtful and somewhat selective in your picture-taking. The “spray and pray” method may yield a handful of good photos, but then you end up with hundreds and hundreds of images to go through and that takes a lot of the joy out of it if you ask me.


Whew! I know that’s an awful lot of information to digest, but I never said that getting your best holiday shots ever was going to be EASY, did I? 🙂 But seriously, if you’re just starting out with photography, pick a couple of areas on which to concentrate and go from there. Just keep practicing and keep working on improving your skills, a little at a time.

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