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How to Take Great Holiday Photos

how to take great holiday photos

Shot with Fujifilm X-T1.

To take great holiday photos, it’s all about mood. It’s a warm and bright season with so many colors and lights. Yet, in many places around the world, it’s cold and dark, which means taking holiday photos indoors. It can be tricky to take photos when in a room that has poor lighting, artificial light, and/or competing hanging lights. But, when captured well, they can work together beautifully to reflect a cozy and festive feel.

In this article I’m going to give you 7 tips on how to take great holiday photos. (For more tips on taking great photos and managing your iPhone’s camera roll, check out our course in the box below.)

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Tip 1: Turn Off Overhead Lights

how to take great holiday photos

Shot with Fujifilm X-T1.

When shooting around competing indoor lights — whether they’re artificial overhead, from a fire, or strings lights — it can be difficult to get a shot that isn’t too cool or warm in color temperature due to varying light temperatures and directions. I turn off overhead lights almost all of the time when I shoot indoors, no matter whether it’s night or day or which camera I use.

Aside from temperature troubles, direct overhead light can also create shadows on faces that aren’t flattering. (An off-camera flash can fill shadows and fix this. However, unless you’re very practiced, using a flash just right can be tricky and take so much set-up, you may have missed the moment altogether.) If it’s daytime, just turn your subject so that her face is toward a window and let the natural light fall on it. Expose for her face and the light will be beautiful, natural, and flattering. If it’s dark, turn your subject toward a from-the-side light source, like a lit-up tree as in the photo below, and again expose for her face.

how to take great holiday photos

Shot on iPhone XR.

Even when you do these things, your shot may end up a bit blue in color/white balance. This is easy to fix: Just add warmth (yellow) to your photo — in other words, adjust the white balance when you edit. Slide until anything blue that should be white in the photo looks white (or even a bit creamy if you want a warmer feel to your image). Be careful not to go too warm — always watch the skin tone!

how to take great holiday photos

Shot on iPhone XS.

If all else fails, and the colors are too wonky, a black and white conversion will remove that struggle. This also creates a completely different feel, focusing on the light and emotion of a shot. Plus, black and white photos are always classics!

Tip 2: Use the Drama of the Darkness

Shot with Fujifilm X-T1; freelensed.

If it’s dark, there are so many interesting things to do with light (and lack thereof). The first thing to do is expose for the light source you do have, so the light itself isn’t blown out (lacking detail in the bright spots). When you expose for light in a dark setting, you instantly create a dramatic mood. Pay attention to angle as well — if you move lower or higher, you can get more light by way of a reflection on the floor, table, or picture frame. Unexpected light is always visually interesting.

how to take great holiday photos

*Shot on iPhone XS. Used Halide to shoot RAW.

I always shoot RAW with my Fujifilm X-T1, but with iPhone, I don’t usually shoot RAW because I almost always use the native camera app. However, when it’s very dark, as in the iPhone image above, I use Halide to shoot a RAW image and retain more data and details in the photo. Shooting RAW makes editing easier because it allows you to recover details a JPEG won’t record. It gives you smoother tone transitions, higher dynamic range, and an overall higher-quality image. Yes, RAW will make the image flatter (less contrast) and less sharp, but those are things you can fix easily when you edit. Because details are already more difficult to capture in the dark, shoot RAW and you’ll have much more control over the edit of your image.

how to take great holiday photos

Shot on iPhone XS using Halide to shoot RAW.

Keep in mind that photos taken in the dark will have grain — sometimes a lot — and that’s OK. Grain gives a photo more feeling, feels like film, and adds texture and life. If you don’t like how much grain is in a shot, try converting it to black and white — grain looks different and very natural in black and white.

Tip 3: Framing the Shot

how to take great holiday photos

Shot with Fujifilm X-T1; freelensed.

Shooting inside comes with all kinds of things to think about when framing a shot. Always consider what you want to be part of your story in your frame and try to shoot thinking that you won’t crop later. This is so important in lowlight situations where the image quality may already be compromised — you don’t want to crop later and lose even more of the image, so move back or closer before you snap.

There are lines everywhere, from walls, trees, picture frames, etc. Watch your angle as you set up to capture your shot and make sure your background isn’t distracting. Sometimes, depending on your angle, some lines will just not be perfectly straight, so pick something to line up that feels the most natural. In the above shot, the picture frame isn’t perfectly straight because of my angle. But, my chair and tree trunk are straight, and this feels more natural.

how to take great holiday photos

Shot on iPhone XR.

You can create a compelling frame within a frame and light your subject by shooting through things like a string of lights around the face, a lit up doorway, through lit candles, or through the branches of a tree.

(The above shot was taken with my iPhone XR, and it’s a shot I can only get with the XR or a DSLR because it requires a wide open aperture, or portrait mode, and focus on the face. Portrait Mode on dual lens iPhones, like my iPhone XS, will instead focus on the thing closest to the lens: the lights.)

how to take great holiday photos

Shot with Fujifilm X-T1.

Lights also work well if you hold or tie them close to your lens and let them trail toward the subject, like in the shot above. They give great bokeh and brightness to a holiday shot. Use this time of sparkles and lights everywhere to your advantage and incorporate them in your shot!

Tip 4: Be Creative

how to take great holiday photos

Shot on iPhone XR.

Along the lines of playing with your light source and learning to use it in interesting ways, taking photos in the dark allows you to play with slower shutters. Try light painting: have your subject hold any (safe) light source (a flashlight, a string of lights, even a sparkler if they can do so safely and outside) and move it quickly as you take the photo. The magic in this is you won’t know exactly what you will get until you’ve shot the photo! Little ones especially seem to be willing participants in these fun shots.

how to take great holiday photos

Shot on iPhone XR.

Another creative trick is to shoot purposefully out-of-focus. With a DSLR this is easy: just shoot in manual and out-of-focus. With iPhone, it’s trickier because of the autofocus feature. But, using an app like Manual (used for the image above) allows you to manually focus with iPhone.

how to take great holiday photos

Shot with Fujifilm X-T1; freelensed.

Speaking of purposeful blur, something I do for about half of my holiday images is freelensing. An intentionally out-of-focus image isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it. To freelens, use your camera in manual mode, set your focus to infinity, and your aperture pretty open. Sometimes I freelens at f1.2 for super bokeh blur, but often I’ll shoot at closer to f2.8-4 so that I have a slightly wider line of focus. Then, remove your lens from your camera, but hold it so that it’s basically still on the camera, and ever-so-slightly, tilt it. You’ll see exaggerated blur with just a tiny line of focus, and the way you tilt, up, down, or side-to-side will change where that line falls. How much you tilt your lens will change how much blur you achieve.

how to take great holiday photos

Shot with Fujifilm X-T1; freelensed.

A tiny adjustment goes a long way with freelensing, and it’s a bit of a learning curve, but the dreamy feel freelensing creates can be magical.

how to take great holiday photos

Shot on iPhone X. Bokeh adjusted with Focos app.

For those who want to try some more fun blur effects with iPhone, there’s an app called Focos that allows you to adjust the bokeh in any Portrait Mode (only) shot. You can adjust the strength of the bokeh, change the shape of it to fun things like stars or hearts, and/ or give the image a tilt shift look.

Tip 5: Shoot Outside

how to take great holiday photos

Shot with Fujifilm X-T1; freelensed.

Of course, light is always best outside during the daytime. Shoot some holiday photos outside if you can, just be creative to make sure your outside shots look festive. Try and incorporate lights in the shot, shoot by a door with a wreath, next to your house lit up with lights, or next to a window with a menorah or Christmas tree lit up inside. You can even add lights to an outdoor tree or have your subject hold fairy lights. If you’re lucky, you have snow and that already looks festive!

how to take great holiday photos

Shot with Fujifilm X-T1.

In shooting snow, you’ll get amazing bokeh if you can shoot while the snow is falling. The wider open you can shoot, the better the snowflake bokeh. Be sure to underexpose a touch to avoid blowing out details in the bright white snow.

Tip 6: Capture Emotion

how to take great holiday photos

Shot on iPhone XR.

At its heart, each holiday celebrated this time of year comes down to love and togetherness. Holiday photos are about these feelings, capturing them, and the cozy mood they evoke.

how to take great holiday photos

Shot on iPhone XR.

In addition to using your dramatic light to visually express that cozy mood, snuggles, hot cocoa, fires in fireplaces, holiday PJs, and anything that feels just a touch saccharine is entirely what this time of year is about. Embrace it!

how to take great holiday photos

Shot with Fujifilm X-T1; freelensed.

To get kids to cooperate, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. I often tell my girls a joke or have them whisper a joke to each other, or I have them hug and touch their noses together. I have also given them something to do, like sip hot cocoa, untangle lights, play I-Spy to find one specific ornament on the tree, hang an ornament, or (of course) open presents, and then I just sit back and capture what naturally unfolds.

how to take great holiday photos

Shot on iPhone XR.

The photos I end up loving the most are those where my subjects aren’t looking at me and smiling, but instead are interacting or reacting as I capture a genuine emotion between them. A lot of times these shots aren’t technically perfect, but they’re full of emotion and perfect to me. In the end, that’s what counts.

Tip 7: Get in the Frame

how to take great holiday photos

Shot on Fujiflim X-T1. Self-portrait with handheld remote.

My last tip is this: if you’re the designated family photographer, get yourself in the frame! Your family wants to see you there as they look back at these memories in the years to come. So use the tripod and remote, or use a timer on your iPhone, and make it a point to get into an image or two. You were there too, after all.

how to take great holiday photos

Shot with Fujifilm X-T1; freelensed.

Use the drama and emotion, see the light as a tool, capture with your heart, and enjoy this holiday season as you create memories to keep forever.


Get Our Best Photography Tips & Workflows

Transform your photos and edits from average to awesome with our in-depth, mobile photography course. It’s jam-packed with training, ideas, and lessons that can literally transform your photography overnight.

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