Capturing Christmas: A Guide to Better Holiday Photos

We’ve all been there- scrolling through our social media feeds after posting our Christmas morning photos and feeling like the photos of our own morning look like absolute crap.

I’m going to tell you a secret-my secrets, the secrets of a semi-professional occasional photographer who thrives on lifestyle and editorial imagery- on how to achieve a picture perfect holiday to make your friends and followers wonder if you have a pro on retainer for the holiday.

Here’s the secret: Most of those pictures are staged. Yep. Totally fake. Curated. But you can still make magic on a more realistic scale. But first, a teeny tiny, itty bitty disclaimer: I do not subscribe to the idea of presenting a false narrative of my life to the world (or even my friends). Also, be prepared to miss out on a bit of the magic if you are behind the lens. I highly recommend sending this post to your significant other so that you can switch out!

The Magic Doesn’t Start on Christmas Morning

The holiday season doesn’t start on the morning of December 25th, so your photos shouldn’t either. Capture your kids making and decorating cookies (the uglier the cookies, the better), or helping you pick out and decorate your tree, or any other holiday tradition. Take it from a mama of a pre-teen and a teenager: these days are fleeting, and you will one day wish they were still destroying your home instead of the dreaded combo of ignoring you while believing you are *cringe.*

The trick is to let them be. Think of them as animals in the wild. Your job isn’t to direct them- it is to observe and document. Let them play and make a mess and fight and laugh and BE. Sit back and let them go. Interject as little as possible. There’s magic in the mess.

If you want your pictures to have that pretty, soft light, make sure to plan your magictivities at the time of day when your home is filled with diffused, not harsh direct, light. If your kitchen gets direct sunlight blasting through the windows in the evening, you’ll be better off getting an early start. If that’s not possible, a quick hack is to throw a cheap frosted shower curtain over your window(s) so that you’re still getting light, but it’ll be softened so it wraps around your subjects.

Making the Most of the Morning

I could lie to you and say that this is a walk in the park, but it isn’t. If you have bébés that are up before dawn, you probably won’t get those sweet pictures of Santa surprise. Our own littles had us tricked to believe that they would wait for us to wake them, but we knew better. Unless your kids are confined to a crib or unable to open their doors, they’ve probably, at the very least, taken a peek at what’s under the tree.

If your kids are early risers, take the time the night before to open up EVERY SINGLE curtain, blind, or shade in the room they will be opening presents in, especially if that room does not get morning light. If it’s too dark, your pictures will be blurry and grainy, and you won’t get those warm, fuzzy feelings when you look back at those pictures.

Once they start tearing into their piles, get low. Sit on the ground so that you aren’t just photographing the tops of their heads. Even better, lay on the floor to get a perspective that feels more connected and intimate. Getting down on their level makes the shot more interesting. Don’t forget to focus on the details, like their little hands as they savagely rip open those gifts you meticulously wrapped at midnight the night before. Have your camera ready and near you, but don’t feel driven to photograph every moment. Yes, you might miss THE picture, but it would be even worse to miss THE MOMENT in real time.

Tech(nical) Talk:

The images in this post were taken with a digital camera and high-end lenses, but that is not necessary to capture great images, especially with the amazing cameras that are on phones today.

If you are a digital camera user and are not familiar with manually setting your exposure, I gotchu! Set the dial on your camera to Aperture Priority (usually indicated with an A) and choose the smallest f/stop (number). This is will open your lens the widest it can go to allow more light, but automatically choose the other settings so that your exposure should be as close to correct as you can get without shooting in manual mode. It’ll also give you better bokeh (that nice dreamy blurred background effect).

If you are a phone photographer only, use portrait mode. Set your f/stop around 1.5 and focus on your kids skin. You want your phone to expose for the brightest part of their skin so that your picture isn’t too bright.

Last, but certainly not least, is the real MVP. Download the free Lightroom app. Invest in a multipurpose preset pack that will make editing your images a one-click kind of magic. I personally prefer the Light & Airy presets. Once you’ve gotten the hang of what looks good, you can stop relying on the presets and play around with making your edits your own!

Happy Holidays and Merry Photographing!

Julie Lee
Julie is a mama, wife, teacher, writer, photographer, designer, and basket case—jack of all trades, master of none. She lives in Ascension Parish with her husband, her two hooligans, and her quarankitties, Stella and Luna. She’s an English teacher by day, and a lover of words by destiny. Her favorite word is schadenfreude. When she’s pretending she isn’t too busy to breathe, you can find her curled up in her hammock with a book.


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