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Capturing Great Holiday Photos

Get the most out of your digital camera for those picture-worthy holiday moments!

I'm a little photo crazy- my family has come to expect this, and therefore tolerate the multiple poses, Mommy following them around with a camera in their faces, saying, "Smile! No, a nice smile," and "ok, just one more time." 

A few years ago I received a digital SLR camera for Christmas, and have been using it and getting fabulous results, but I've been stuck in "AUTO" mode for two years. It's like getting a foreign car with a big engine and only driving 40 miles per hour. A waste of a great piece of machinery. So, I found a local photography workshop, (a shout out to photog guru, Kristine Pringle) and three hours later, felt like I could take off my training wheels and take photos like a big girl.

The holidays bring twinkle and candlelight, moments to treasure, reminisce and start new traditions, and with all these things are magical moments I love to capture in photographs. I like to document my children's faces, as well as their attempts at decorating cookies, hanging their favorite ornaments, and leaving a letter for Santa. Your camera can capture these moments perfectly, or ruin them if you have a harsh flash going off in their faces.

With a few days to spare, get out your camera, make sure the battery is charged, and get to know it better, so you won't be fumbling with it while those "Kodak moments" are passing you by. Hang onto your camera straps, people. We're going MANUAL.

ISO Sensitivity: (On a digital SLR camera, it will be in the menu display.) This is how sensitive your camera is to light. You used to buy film (remember that?) with ISO speeds selections 200, 400, or 800 to capture movement better. Knowing how to adjust the ISO speed permits you to go without a flash. Capturing candlelight, twinkle lights, the glow from a fireplace works much better without a flash that bleaches out the photo and makes everyone look like deer in headlights with vampire red eyes and adjusting the ISO can help you avoid the flash.

In a dark room lit by your Christmas tree or candles, increasing your ISO to 1600 allows those beautiful glowing photos. The cost of increasing your ISO speed is called "noise", how grainy your photo appears. If you want a clearer photo, you can keep your ISO at 800, and make other adjustments to bring in more light. That brings us to....

Shutter speed: (S mode on a digital SLR camera) This is how long the camera sees an image before taking the picture. A long exposure/ low shutter speed, such as 1/10 to 1/60 (of a second), lets in more light, and can let you capture great photos in a dark room. The payoff is that the lower the shutter speed (anything lower than 1/60) will require stabilization, meaning using a tripod, a stack of books on a table, etc. Just holding the camera, your breathing, or the shake the camera makes when you take the photo can blur a scene. Using your camera's timer also helps prevent the shake.

If you want to capture movement this way, play with the low shutter speed by moving the camera while shooting Christmas lights,  July 4th sparklers, kids with glow sticks, your dog running around the house. You get my point. High shutter speeds are great for action shots, and can catch a person mid-jump shot, throwing a ball, etc.

If you're trying to capture your kids by the glow of the Christmas tree, a low shutter speed might not work, unless you bribe them with lots of candy if the stand still for two minutes! In that can make another adjustment called the....

Aperture: (A mode on a digital SLR camera) The aperture on your camera works just like your pupil in your eye. The dimmer the light is in your environment, the larger your pupil gets in you eye. In bright sun, your pupil changes to a small hole to block out the extra light. The aperture, the hole in the camera's lens opens and closes the same way. You can manually adjust the aperture to get some cool effects with the focus of the photograph. You'll see the numbers for the camera's aperture appear on the display as f/2.8, f/4, 4/5.6, etc. The settings are called "f-stops".

These cool effects that I've come to love the most are called "depth of field". A low f-stop, like f/1.8 to f/4, will create a shallow depth of field so the area of focus in your photo will be in focus, but the foreground and background will be fuzzy and soft. It's great for up close portraits, and a trick called "bokeh" that I'll come back to.

If you are taking a large landscape photo or a photo of a large group of people, you want a large depth of focus, so Aunt Rose in the back row isn't blurry. In this case your f-stop number would be higher.

So, if you're looking to capture those Pinterest-worthy shots of your family during the holidays, try the following:

Kids in front of the Christmas tree or by the menorah- Set the mood- turn off the lights in the rest of your house except the Christmas tree or candlelight. Bribe kids, and place them in front of the tree, looking up at the star or hanging or pointing to an ornament, lighting a candle, or for little ones an adult can hold them up to show them a particular ornament on the tree. Check your ISO and set to 800. Set camera on M (for manual- don't panic).

To adjust both your aperture and shutter speed, you may need to pull out your manual. Some camera have separate wheels to adjust each setting, and some have one wheel that you have to press an another button to toggle between the two modes. Adjust your shutter speed to 1/100, and your f-stop to f/2.8 to f/4. Take a few shots and check them on the display. Are they too dark? Increase your ISO or put the camera on a tripod and lower the shutter speed below 1/60. Keep playing- you'll get a good one!

Bokeh lights: Bokeh lights are when the twinkle lights from the Christmas tree appear like blurry stars or balls of light- so pretty! To achieve this, switch your camera to the A (aperture) mode. Set the aperture to a low f-stop, f/2 to f/4. Pick a focal point about ten feet in front of the twinkle lights. Push the shutter release down half way to set the focus, and while keeping it halfway down, move the camera so that the composition is the way you want it, then click. (Try sitting on the floor, and setting the focus on your feet in front of you with the tree in the background, and then readjust before taking the photo.)

No training wheels for you! You're ready to say goodbye to AUTO mode! Have your camera at arms reach; it does no good packed away in a closet in the camera bag! Play with your camera now, so you feel more confident taking photos around family and friends in the midst of the holiday frenzy. Capture the hustle and bustle of the holidays, as well as those special moments. Set the camera's timer, or look into getting a camera remote, so you can be part of the memories as well.

May your holidays and photographs be picture perfect!

Alicia Porter December 20, 2012 at 01:40 PM
THANK YOU!!! I'm getting a digital SLR for christmas and this will help me so much! I plan to take a class, but this should get me started. Maybe now I can take a photo or two on christmas day.

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