Better holiday photos
“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.”
~ Norman Vincent Peale
The holidays are upon us, and just about everyone will try to get a family photo in front of the Christmas tree. Yet undoubtedly, there will be cursing instead of caroling when you just can't get the tree and the people looking good!
Why is a tree so difficult to photograph?
To get a tree looking its best, you have to wait for it to be dark, so you can turn on all the lights and get that wonderful glow. But at the same time, this works against you because there is very little light in the room to photograph people. So then we turn on the flash, and we get this flat, bluish looking tree.
Why does the flash make a tree look so horrible?
Photographing Christmas Trees
A flash is a very powerful burst of light. When the flash goes off, it overpowers any ambient light in the room, including those tiny, Christmas tree bulbs (as seen in the photo; left side with flash and right side without). And because the colour temperature of a flash is more like daylight (which looks bluer as opposed to the yellowish glow of tree lights), it will neutralize any soft glow you are trying to achieve. So you end up being able to light up your family, but then the tree looks terrible!
So what to do to improve your chances of a good portrait?
Use a slower shutter speed. Shutter speed is what controls ambient light. The faster your shutter snaps, the less light comes in. You want to lower it as far as you can without creating blur, so that it remains open a bit longer to let in the light from the lights on the tree. Using a tripod comes in handy because at low shutter speeds camera shake becomes an issue so you always want to stabilize. A rule of thumb is to try not to shoot below the focal length being used. So if you are shooting at 50mm, you can't go too much lower than 1/60 of a second on your shutter in order to avoid blur.
Up your ISO. The ISO is your camera sensor's sensitivity to light. Because you are shooting in low light and you need to keep your shutter speed low, bumping the ISO will help. However, be aware that at high ISO values, you risk introducing noise. These days, many photo-editing applications have noise-reduction capabilities, so you can push ISO a bit and if noise is really bad, make some slight corrections in post-processing.
Use a large aperture. Aperture refers to the size of the hole that lets the light into your camera. The larger the hole, the smaller the F number. Using a value of F4 or lower, lets more light in. In combination with the higher ISO and slower shutter speed, will allow you to find a good recipe for a nice photograph.
Although it may be difficult, try to have those posing for a portrait stand as still as they can. With a lower shutter speed even slight movement can create a blur. For kids, this means remaining patient with them, catching them in a cooperative mood, and taking several photos in a row to cover your bases. Having people sit can also help because they will move less.
Add flash. Using an external flash is better and you can reduce its power so it reaches only the faces and not the tree (and you can move your family one step away from the tree to help with this too). Ideally you would have a diffusion of some sort on the flash to soften the light, and not pointed directly at people but either bouncing off the ceiling or off a wall. Subtlety is the key in adding flash.
If you are using a point and shoot camera, avoid using the "auto" setting because it will trigger the flash in low light. Instead, most cameras have special settings like night-time, and sports. Try the night-time setting, which essentially does all of the above for you. But don't forget to stabilize, even if it's a table or a chair!
Although a family portrait in front of the tree may be a challenge, it is doable with a little bit of experimenting and some cooperation from family members. Try achieving your settings without the family first, or with an adult who can be patient, so that once you're good to go you can just bring in the rest of the family. Settings somewhere around ISO 800 or 1600, aperture of F4 or lower and a shutter speed of around 1/60 or slower, with some stabilization, can yield you a much more successful photo than using automatic features and pop-up flash. Happy experimenting!