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Five Tips for Great Thanksgiving Photos

Follow this practical advice and take better pictures around the Thanksgiving table this holiday season.

It's that time of year again--the local pancake house has put pumpkin pancakes back on the menu, and my family is gearing up for the day when we'll have a turkey feast, a panoply of pies, and, yes, give thanks for another year. If Thanksgiving is a special day to get together with friends and family and share those things as well, then you probably want to capture moments throughout the day with your digital camera. In the past, I've given you some advice on how to get the best Thanksgiving photos--check out my past holiday photo shooting tips, for example. This year, I have a few additional suggestions to help you take some photos you can treasure for years to come.

1. Make a List

First and foremost, it's a great idea to write down a list of the photos you'd like to capture. In the hustle and bustle of the holiday activities, there's a good chance you'll simply forget to take some pictures until it's too late. Take the food, for example: You probably want to shoot the turkey and the pies before they're cut into. Make a list of the important scenes. I like to shoot the fully dressed table, laid out with the turkey and fixings, before the guests invade. I also like to get a few different perspectives of the pumpkin pie, such as from directly overhead and from the side. If there are any groups or combinations of guests you want to shoot, make a list of those as well. Tack the list somewhere you'll see it--like on the fridge--and cross the shots off as you go.

2. Work the Lighting

I know that you're busy entertaining guests, making the big meal, and keeping the family dog from stealing sweet potatoes off the kitchen counter. But amidst all that, you should also remember to optimize the lighting for your photos. As I've said many times before, the camera's flash is really a last resort--your camera will give much better results with ambient light. Turn on as many lights as possible and pull back curtains to let outdoor light flow into the house.

You can also try increasing your camera's ISO setting. This control--which affects how sensitive the camera is to light--is usually best left in its lowest position. But rather than use the flash, it's better to increase the camera's ISO to 400 or even higher so that you can take better advantage of the naturally available light. If it's an option, consider taking people outdoors for their portraits.

3. Use HDR Mode Instead of a Flash

You've probably seen lots of advice from me in years past about how to take better indoor photos, and most of those tips are, like the previous one, about lighting. This year, I've got a new suggestion for you: If your camera has a built-in high dynamic range mode, use it instead of the flash. Some cameras (especially camera phones like some 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).

4. Get Above the Fray

You might be inclined to take the traditional dinner table family portrait from eye level, but that means you've got all sorts of clutter--including candles, glasses, and perhaps even the turkey itself--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. You can do that by setting the camera on a tripod, or you can stand on a chair.

5. Combine the Best Parts of a Group Portrait With Photo Fuse

I've previously recommended Windows Live Photo Gallery's Photo Fuse as a way to more easily take great family portraits. Photo Fuse lets you swap elements among similar photos. So 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.

What you might not realize, though--and indeed, this is a subtle Photo Fuse trick that slips past almost everyone--is that 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, like the recent coin flip episode of the TV show Community. You can swap out clean plates for dirty plates on the dining room table, put the dog in the background even if he got up from his nap by the time you snapped the "best" shot of mom; the choices are endless.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "End of the Line" by Julie Finley, Easton, Pennsylvania

Julie writes: "I took this photo while enjoying a quiet day of photography. It caught my eye because you don't often see the end of train tracks. I took the photo with a Canon Digital Rebel XSi and then edited it to black & white.

This week's runner-up: "Snow White" by Chris Matthews, Reidsville, North Carolina

Chris photographed this duck with a Canon Digital Rebel.

To see last month's winners, visit our October Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week

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