Now that the clocks have gone back and it seems to get dark just after lunchtime, it’s time to look forward to the next big event on the calendar – CHRISTMAS! Ok, I realise there’s enough hype around the silly season without going all-caps, but humour me here – I feel like it was summer about 5 minutes ago!

Holiday Moments

Today I’m going to offer you some photography tips to help you make the most of those priceless holiday moments, like the visit to Santa’s grotto, the kids unwrapping presents, and of course everyone’s favourite, Dad asleep with the remote in his hand.

Expression Trumps All

The tricky thing about taking photos at this time of year is that we’re often faced with less than optimal lighting conditions, and photography is all about light. The quality of the light and the mood it lends to a scene is what makes most good photos, well, good. The subject is secondary in importance to the light. That is unless the thing being photographed, or the expression of the person in the photograph is particularly unique or interesting. Some photographers like to say that ‘expression trumps all’, meaning that the expression captured is more important than the light, or the composition, or the sharpness, or any other technical aspect of the image. In fact history has taught us a very similar lesson; many of the most iconic images ever made are technically lacking, but the moment they capture is so important that this is ignored and these images become immortal.

If you want to learn more about photography and light, check out this post.

Flash Kills Mood

One of the annoying things I find with modern cameras is that when you work in automatic mode, they tend to throw up the onboard flash on a regular basis. I personally don’t like flash photography very much; the light that the flash creates is very flat and boring. It fills in all the shadows, and steals a lot of the mood from an image. It seems that manufacturers place a bias on keeping the ISO low instead of pushing it up and keeping that nasty little flash down. So my recommendation is to look through your menu and see if there’s an option to disable the flash. Otherwise, this might be a good year to learn how to shoot in manual mode! It really isn’t that difficult and working in manual mode will give you a much better understanding of photography and allow you to make big strides in the quality of your photography.

I wrote a little primer on the topic of manual photography a while back, which you can find here.

Bump The ISO

Increasing the ISO on your camera basically makes it more sensitive to light, but the downside is that it tends to increase the amount of digital ‘noise’ that you see in the image, a kind of pixilated distortion. For me though a little bit of noise is much more preferable to the flat lighting from a flash.

Some People Love Flash

For all my negative comments about flash photography, there is a movement within photography which embraces flash photography as a legitimate and accessible style. I say ‘accessible’ because we’re all familiar with the look of flash photography because so much of the amateur photography that we’ve seen in our lives, and probably a good number of the images from our youth, were shot with flash. Photographers who use flash photography do so deliberately because it gives a lo-fi, amateur feel, which sets it apart from most other photographic movements, in the same way that punk rock sought to distance itself from all other forms of music by rejecting the norms and stripping away the veneer to create something raw and powerful.

Sorry, that’s a bit of a tangent from where I started! My point is just that by embracing the limitations of a situation, in this case the necessity to use flash, you may find a style that resonates with you, one that you may end up pursuing over a longer period of time.

But getting back to Christmas….

Photographing Snowy Scenes

Everyone loves to frolic in the snow, and it makes for great photo opportunities, but despite the fact that snow scenes are often nice and bright, because the snow acts as a natural reflector, there is the possibility that your camera will underexpose the image. The reason for this is that your camera’s light meter is designed to create an image that averages out to mid-grey, which in most cases works just fine. But if you point your camera at a black wall, the camera will overexpose so that black wall appears mid-grey. Similarly if you point the camera at a snow bank, the camera will underexpose so the snow bank appears mid-grey. When you work in manual mode you can use something called ‘exposure compensation’ to take account of this. In a mostly white snow scene for example, you can tell the camera to overexpose a bit and your final image will more closely resemble what you see with your own eye.

EF-S-18-200.jpgImage Stabilization

Another little workaround for low-light situations that I want to mention is image-stabilization, a feature that comes built in to some lenses, like Canon’s EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS. (The letters ‘IS’ stand for image stabilization). It allows you to shoot at lower-than-normal shutter speeds without causing blurred images due to camera shake. Camera shake happens when you need to shoot at a slow shutter speed due to lack of light, and small movements of the camera in your hands become noticeable. Image stabilization is really effective and can give you a surprising amount of leeway when photographing indoors. The only thing is that if your subject moves (and if you’re photographing kids this is pretty much inevitable) then this movement can show up as a blur on you image.


Photographing Kids

Speaking of kids – one more piece of advice; if you’re photographing kids this Christmas, get down on their level. We have a tendency to photograph our kids from a standing position, which is kind of a shame because it doesn’t really tell their story effectively. One of the great features for varying your shooting angle is the tiltable LCD screen, like you get with the Canon Rebel T5i, so keep that in mind if you’re in the market for a new camera.

I know it’s kind of early, but here’s to a Christmas filled with amazing memories!

Justin Morrison
I am a professional photographer, working in motion and stills. I create portrait, lifestyle and documentary work, and I strive to tell real and authentic stories. Based in Vancouver, British Columbia.