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Tips for Taking Better Photos During the Holidays

With the right preparations and camera settings, you can get good results in tricky lighting during parties and family gatherings.

We tend to take more photos over the holiday season than at any other time of year. Thanksgiving feasts, Christmas trees, glowing menorahs, and family gatherings all make for compelling photo opportunities. This year, as you dust off the digital camera and charge up your battery pack, take some time to do your homework. Brush up on some photographic basics by reviewing my composition tips, then try using the tips collected in this article to turn your holiday photos into works of art. Happy holiday shooting!

Write Up a Shot List

It's a great idea to draft a list of the photos you'd like to capture before an event begins. In the ensuing hustle and bustles, there's a good chance you'll simply forget to take some pictures. Make a list of the important scenes that you want to capture. For example, I like to shoot the fully dressed table before the guests invade. I also like to get a few different perspectives, such as from directly overhead and from the side. If there are any groups or combinations of guests you want to capture, make a list of those as well. Tack the list somewhere you'll see it--like on the fridge--and cross off the shots as you go.

Set Up the Lighting

Don't forget to optimize the lighting for your photos by turning on as many lights as possible and pulling back curtains to let outdoor light flow into the house. Even if you do your best to optimize your lighting, it can still be tricky--especially if you're shooting a late-afternoon meal with sunlight streaming through the window, room lights on, and perhaps even some candles competing for your camera sensor's attention. Trust the camera, and your photos are likely to come out with an ugly color cast. To avoid such problems, you'll want to use a white sheet of paper to set the white balance manually before you start shooting. Check your camera's user guide for instructions on how to adjust white balance.

Avoid the Flash--or Use It Carefully

Despite what camera advertisements suggest, make no mistake: The flash is not your friend. If you can, turn off the flash completely and try to get as much natural and ambient light going as possible. (If you must use a flash, read "Digital Photography Basics: Using a Flash" first.)

Here's a way to avoid using a flash: If your camera has a built-in high dynamic range mode, use it instead. Some cameras (especially camera phones like some Apple iPhone and Windows Phone models) have an HDR mode that optimizes for light and dark areas to give you a better overall exposure without resorting to the flash. Even better, these built-in HDR modes tweak the exposure of a single photo instead of taking a series of shots and combining them, so the whole process is fairly fast (about the same as taking a normal shot). If your camera doesn't have an HDR mode, try increasing the ISO to 400 so you can properly expose your pictures indoors.

When there's less ambient lighted eye comes out to play. As you probably know, red eye occurs when eyes dilate to see better, but the camera flash fires and reflects off the retina. If you have an external flash for your camera, try to "bounce" it by aiming it at the ceiling instead of straight ahead. Or use an attachment like the Lightscoop[phttp://www.lightscoop.com/] to bounce the flash that's built into your camera. Of course, you can always use your photo editor to remove red eye after the fact--most image editors these days have a red-eye removal tool built in.

Get Up Close With Holiday Decorations

Photograph your Christmas tree or Hanukkah menorah in all its illuminated beauty. You should use a tripod, since you'll want to do this at night. Look for subtle details to capture up close. As with most kinds of night photography, there's no right or wrong exposure. Set your camera to manual mode, pick a midrange aperture (such as f/5.6), and try a several-second-long shutter speed. Check your results. If you want more dramatic lights, open the aperture a little. If you want the overall scene to be brighter, lengthen the exposure time.

Shooting candles is little different than capturing other holiday ornaments. You'll get the best results late in the day or in the early evening. Wait until very little natural light remains, and put your camera on a tripod to ensure that you don't get any shake. Turn off the flash--you'll want all the light to come from the flames. You can get great results with a wide range of shutter speeds, ranging from 1/100 second to a full second or so. Take some shots, vary the exposure, and experiment.

Get a Different Perspective

You might be inclined to take the traditional dinner table portrait from eye level, but that means you've got all sorts of clutter getting in the way. A better solution is to get above eye level and shoot down towards your subjects. Not only does this get you above the fray, but photos from a higher elevation are often more flattering to the people you're photographing.

Another novel idea is to shoot some portraits against the holiday lights. This isn't hugely complicated, as long as you remember that you need to combine a slow shutter speed--which exposes the lights and decorations in the background--with a flash to illuminate your subjects. The best time to get these photos is around dusk, when there's still a little light in the sky. Read "Get Great Shots When the Sun Goes Down" for tips. And if you want to shoot those holiday lights on their own, read "Photograph Spectacular Christmas Lights" for advice.

Read "How to Take Special-Occasion Portraits" for tips on working with your photographic subjects to put them at ease and get flattering photos--and tips on how to fine-tune portraits once you get them onto the computer.

Get the Perfect Group Photo

Photo Fuse, found in Windows Live Photo Gallery, lets you swap elements among similar photos. Even if there's something wrong in each shot--people blinking, sneezing, whatever--you can just select the photos, choose Photo Fuse from the Create tab, and swap in different versions of each person's face until everyone looks their best, as you see this photo of my family.

But Photo Fuse doesn't only let you swap out faces. You can drag a selection box around any part of a photo and instantly choose from different versions of that scene. It's like being able to construct a photo based on alternate realities. You can swap out clean plates for dirty plates on the dining room table or put the dog in the background--the possibilities are endless.

Include Your Pets

Don't forget to include your four-legged family members in your holiday portraits. My family has made room for dogs and cats in our holiday portraits from time to time, with varying levels of success. Make sure to read "Get Great Photos of Your Furry Friends" for advice on getting the best shots.

You can try to take a family portrait with the cats and dogs included, or just get some photos of the pets doing what they do best in a holiday setting. To really make your pets a part of the family photos, get down to their level--shoot from dog height, for example, and make sure the family is sitting our kneeling around the pets, rather than towering over them in a standing position.

The most important thing you can do when trying to photograph your pets is to make sure they're relaxed and not paying attention to the camera. If you want your pet to look somewhere in particular, dangle some food. Have a helper hold a treat or a piece of cheese near the camera to draw your dog's (or cat's) undivided attention. Another tactic:Give your dog a favorite chew toy. At least for my pets, there's nothing more interesting than a toy, which lets me take pictures with impunity.

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