Photographing that Indoor Christmas E-mail

Christmas HollySo it's that time of year where you fill your house with various strange ornaments such as a tree, shiny little stars, candy, silver, children, aunts, grandads and the lot.  Everything is probably already set (right?), so all you really need to do now is ensure that you immortalize the event so that you can look back at it in future years and say "hey, what a fabulous Christmas that was".  Unfortunately this is where things usually go terribly wrong with dark patches, vampire pale skin and red eyes, scared rabbit looks and general annoyance with you as a photographer.  Don't worry, that's why this little guide is here to help you get the most out of your nifty little digital camera, whether low-end or high-end, and still enjoy your Eggnog or Gluehwein, turkey or pork.

You're too ambitious

First of all you should realize that unless you're a unique human specimen, then you don't want to spend the evening setting up fabulously complex, ready-for-the-catalogue shots of everything that goes on.  In fact this is a recipe for disaster, it will just kill the mood when you tell people to "no, didn't get it, do it again, I didn't get that shot" while they're opening presents, serving dinner etc. As a photographer on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day you should be almost unnoticed, just occassionally shooting without making a fuzz about it.  Now in order to do that you need to pre-set your camera to something sensible, so you don't have to change the settings all the time.

Light without Flash

This is the ideal, because the light from candles, light-bulbs, christmas ornaments etc. are usually warm and cozy, as opposed to the impersonal white light of a flashbulb.  However, there are challenges you need to handle, just shooting with auto-settings will usually give you underexposed dark fuzzy pictures that will leave your viewers wishing they were somewhere else.

  • Check that your white-balance is set to "lightbulb" or "indoor" (or anything similar), this ensures that your colors will be fairly correct.
  • Set the camera's ISO high, somewhere between 800 and 1600 should do, this ensures that the camera is "sensitive" the reduced light conditions and gives you a quick enough response time.
  • Balance the ISO with shutter speed, you need to get at least something like 1/50 - 1/1000 in order to ensure sharp pictures, otherwise all minor movements (shaking hands, people moving about etc.) will kill your picture.
  • If possible use spot metering and point it at your subjects cheeck, this will avoid measuring the light of candles etc. that will underexpose everything else.

Light with Flash

While it is entirely possible with most digital cameras to shoot without flash, you might end up finding its tempting on occassion to just juice it up. Problem is, all your subjects will generally look like frightened alino-vampire rabbits due to the very intense white light, and most of your christmas mood will be gone forever, never to be retrieved.  There are two simple tricks to help you avoid this, depending on the type of flash you have.

  • If you have an external flash (typically on SLR camera's), then point it not directly at your subject, but at the roof or the wall, using the light reflected light.  This ensures that the light on the faces is more diffused (softer) and gives some more shadow-play, making the light more natural-looking and avoid red-eye syndrome.
  • If you don't have an external flash you can tape a piece of white paper infront, this gives a similar effect, simply reducing the intensity of the flash-light.
  • You can also fiddle with the flash settings, but preset them, don't try to adjust for all shots all the time.

Selecting motives

Photogaph your pet

Christmas is about the poeple, not the things, so make sure you get faces in there.  Don't try to get everything in, nothing is less exciting than a picture of a room filled with random people and objects.  You want to pick out single people or couples that make good motives.  The must-have picture is of course of the children opening presents, focus on the face and include part of the present and part of the tree, not the whole tree.  Put it simply, zoom in and leave out everything but hints of the surroundings.  Avoid asking people to pose, just shoot what happens, it generally gives much better pictures.  Here are some particulars you might want to look out for and try to shoot:

  • Closeup smiling face while opening present, shoot from slightly higher angle.
  • Scale of presents, typically with a small child and a large box, use a low angle to increase the feeling of size.
  • Interaction between people, e.g. two people sitting together fiddling with a present is always good.
  • One or two people decorating or playing with ornaments on the christmas tree, shoot with normal angle, i.e. at their head's hight.
  • Someone serving the christmas dinner (rather than someone eating it), shoot from plate up to head, maybe include one or two guests waiting at the table.
  • Pets (dogs, cats etc.) playing around in the christmas wrappings left over, shoot with a low angle (lie down if possible).
  • Anything else you can think of :)

When it comes to general composition, have a look at my Composition 1-2-3, that'll give you all you need to make this a good christmas memory.


Oh yes, before I forget, one final piece of advice: DO NOT ASK PEOPLE TO POSE.  Nothing spoils a good mood more than the attempts we make at looking good on pictures, if you follow the advice above you should be able to shoot fairly good pictures without having to ask people to stop up and look to the camera. So happy holidays and happy shooting.



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