How to take great holiday photos

Herea are a few tips and tricks for improving your holiday photos.

The holidays are a time for colorful gifts, candy canes, and holiday pictures. And with a little attention to exposure settings and shooting techniques, you can capture great holiday photos you'll want to share.

Choose the Right Camera Settings

When the house is filling with guests and the kids want to open their gifts, you don't want to worry about your camera settings. Here's how to optimize your camera in advance for the kinds of shots you plan to take.

For all-around indoor holiday photography, prepare your camera to shoot fast action in low light. Kids are like cats: They might appear calm and quiet, but you can't predict what they'll do next, especially under the influence of presents and candy. If you'll be shooting during daylight hours, turn off the camera's flash and increase the ISO to ensure that the camera can take good natural-light photos. Then either set the camera to its action scene mode or switch to aperture priority and use a small f-number, which will give you the fastest possible shutter speed.

In the evening, you'll probably need to turn the flash back on, but you might want to leave the ISO setting high — especially if you'll be shooting in a large room — so you can fully illuminate the scene.

Capture the Magic With a Series of Photos

Often, a single photo can't adequately capture the moment. If your camera has an interval timer mode (check the camera's menu or user guide), you can use it to create your own time-lapse photos. Set up the camera in a corner of the room with a good view of the action, and configure it to snap one picture every minute or so as you decorate the tree or open presents. You can turn the resulting photos into a time-lapse movie, or you can publish the most interesting shots as a series of images on your Web site or photo-sharing site.

Another alternative is to use the burst mode or continuous-shooting setting on your camera to take a series of rapid-fire shots while the assembled multitude is opening gifts. You're much likelier to get a memorable photo this way, and you can discard the images that you don't like.

Whether you choose to shoot photos at intervals or in burst mode, you'll want to avoid using the flash, in order to save battery life and to let the camera recharge faster, with less lag between shots.

Focusing on Holiday Portraits

Since the holidays are about getting together with friends and family, you'll want to take some portraits along the way. The two biggest problems people tend to have with holiday photos is focus and lighting. Let's start with focus.

If you're shooting just one or two people at a time, try to use the narrowest depth of field possible. This brings the subject into sharp focus while causing the background to melt away in a gentle blur. The easiest way to do that is by using your camera's aperture priority mode and dialing in a small f-stop number.

For group shots, you'll want to set the aperture in exactly the opposite direction: To ensure that everyone in the photo is in focus, set the biggest f-stop number that your camera allows; this will help you achieve enough depth of field to ensure that everyone from front to back will be in focus. The background won't blur as it does when you shoot with a small f-number, but you'll have better luck keeping everyone in focus.

Shedding Light on Your Christmas Morning Photos

If you position your subject in front of a window, you'll want to overexpose the scene a bit, because your camera's sensor will be confused by the daylight streaming in the back of the shot. Left to its own devices, your camera will tend to underexpose the faces of your subjects. Use your camera's exposure compensation control to start with a value of +1, and then experiment to see what works best.

Expose for Snow

There will be plenty of opportunities to shoot outdoors during the holidays, but a landscape blanketed in snow may convince your camera to underexpose the shot, yielding snow that has a grayish or bluish cast. If your camera has a scene setting for snow, dial it in. Otherwise, use the exposure compensation dial on your camera to overexpose the scene. Setting the dial to +1 (that is, one stop of exposure) will probably be enough in most cases.

IWhen you shoot outdoors in very cold weather, your camera's batteries may give out sooner than they normally would. Carry a spare battery and keep it warm in your jacket. If you've been out in the cold for a while, protect your camera's lens and electronics from condensation when you bring it back into the house by sealing the camera in a plastic bag and letting it warm slowly in an unheated area of the house (such as the garage).

Sharing Your Photos After the Holidays

Now that you've assembled a collection of holiday photos, what can you do with them?

If your PC runs Windows 7, you can create your own holiday-photo-themed desktop that randomly displays selections from a set of photos as a desktop background. The results will this look great on your PC, and you can share the theme with friends and family who also have Windows 7 — maybe as a personalized holiday gift.

To get started, right-click the desktop and choose Personalize; then click Desktop Background, browse to your photos, and select your best shots of friends, family, and holiday lights. (To make this step easier, you could collect all of the holiday photos into a single folder.) Click Save Changes. Now, in the My Themes section, right-click your new Unsaved Theme and choose Save theme for sharing. You can give the resulting file to friends and family, and they in turn can install it as a theme on their own Windows 7 PCs, with a simple double-click.

Another option: Turn your favorite photos into calendars, coffee mugs, mouse pads, jigsaw puzzles, or other gifts. If you already share your photos online or occasionally make prints from an online printing site, you'll find that most of those sites offer all sorts of gift options as well. The most popular sites include Shutterfly, Snapfish, Kodak Gallery, and SmugMug. Also, check out "Parlay Your Photos Into Holiday Cards and Calendars" for more photo gift ideas.

For more holiday photography tips, read "Photograph Spectacular Christmas Lights" article and "Take Spectacular Holiday Photos."

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