How To Improve Christmas and Holiday Photos of Family and Friends (Part 1)

Posted Dec. 23rd, 2011 by Daniel J. Cox

One of the great things about the holidays, whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s or any other celebration, is the chance to get together with friends and family. With so many digital cameras around there is no reason we all shouldn’t have fabulous photos of the ones we love. So, in this post I want to share with you a simple technique I use for getting much more interesting and beautiful images of  the people I care about.

Doug and Suzy, my sister and her husband, at Vince’s and Lysa’s Christmas gathering. Exposure was at 1/10th of a second at F/7.1

First and foremost is you need to make an effort to pull your camera out and start shooting. So many people will attend an event or family gathering and forget to bring their camera. Taking pictures is actually time consuming, can be difficult and may sometimes make others feel like you’re a pest, but don’t let any of that bother you and  forge ahead. The historical value for family and friends will be appreciated. As you practice and get better at your craft, you will eventually be able to mostly slip into the background and hardly be noticed.

Night Portrait Mode Setting
The little trick I want to explain is the Night Portrait or Rear Curtain Sync. We’ll start with Night Portrait first.

Scene mode on a Lumix GX1 camera. Notice the yellow border around the image of the man with a star above left. That’s what is called the Night Portrait setting.

Night Portrait is a setting found on many cameras, typically under the Scene mode. If you have a higher-end, professional camera body you may not have this option. Later I’ll explain how to accomplish this manually in a more advanced camera. It could be the Flash Setting mode that is as simple as changing your flash from the normal lightning bolt to the image that shows a lightning bolt with a person and a star. The options I’m describing are on most cameras, including the smallest point and shoot cameras that have been sold in the last couple of years. I say this with as much conviction as possible knowing full well that there will always be a model or two that doesn’t’ fit these descriptions. Sorry about that if you have one of those unusual models.

Lysa and Suzy, my sister and her close long-time friend at a Christmas gathering.

The reason Night Portrait can look so  pleasing is due to the camera shutter staying open longer and allowing surrounding ambient light to be recorded. It’s the ambient light, such as Christmas tree lights, warm ceiling lights, candles, etc. that can add so much warmth and feeling to an image. The longer exposure necessary to get that ambient light can make for blurry photos, but the Night Portrait mode minimizes this by also firing the flash. This is the key to the Night Portrait mode. When the flash is fired it will illuminate subjects that are closest to the camera. Whatever the flash easily illuminates, the closer the better, will be recorded very sharp due to the flash’s ability to stop action. The combination between the closely illuminated subject in the foreground and the beautiful ambient light in the background gives a much more pleasant looking image. So, if you have the Night Portrait mode, set your camera there for the next shoot you have with the family and give it a try.

Slow Sync or Rear Curtain Sync
On the  more sophisticated cameras you have a couple of flash settings known as Slow Sync or Rear Sync that will allow you to accomplish a similar feel and look as the Night Portrait setting on the smaller cameras. Slow Sync is actually closer to the Night Portrait setting talked about earlier. Slow Sync is typically set in the Flash settings menu. On my Nikon D7000 I can access the options for changing the Flash Sync by pushing the little flash button that is located on the front of the camera,  just below and to the left of the D7000’s built-in flash. It’s the little button with the lightning bolt on it. By pushing this button and turning the Main Command Dial you can cycle through several different options for firing the flash. You can see your changes in the Flash Setting window on the camera’s top LCD.

Nikon’s D7000 has the ability to set the flash to either Rear Sync or Slow Sync to allow you to record darker ambient light with flash added to illuminate closer subjects.

Two of those options include Slow or Rear Sync. By choosing either one of these settings you are accomplishing a similar technique to Night Portrait. Along with setting the flash, you’ll also have to set the camera to either Program or better yet, Manual. When I use Slow Sync I like to set the camera to Manual Mode and make sure the exposure is set one to two stops daker than the camera suggests. This will still allow the ambient light to be exposed and register in the image, and you can use a higher shutter speed to stop any movement that might take place. It’s always a bit tricky to get a shutter speed that is fast enough to stop the action with the help of the flash and yet still be slow enough to register the ambient light. Each situation is different and it always depends on the amount of ambient light in the room or outdoor situation you’re shooting.

When shooting in this manner I’m never shooting long lenses and most often I’m using something fairly wide like a 24mm-35mm lens. For lenses in this range you would want to use a shutter speed of maybe 1/15th of a second give or take a shutter speed or two.  There are no absolutes in photography so just give it a try and see how it works. If it doesn’t come out as planned  try something different, but either way you’ll begin to get a feel for what works in these holiday lighting situations. If the background is still coming out too dark, up your ISO to whatever setting starts to record the ambient light. Just make sure you don’t go to crazy on ISO since high ISO settings can create poor quality images due to added noise.

My sister Suzy and her friend Lysa sit for a portrait. The shutter speed was too slow and the camera’s flash not powerful enough to stop movement.

The image above is one I actually threw out but retrieved to show you what can happen if the shutter speed is too slow. Here I was shooting at 1/3rd of a second and I had zoomed my lens out to 80mm. As you can see it was just too much lens to stop movement at that shutter speed, even though the flash did stop some. The motion in the image was due to my sister and her girlfriend swaying as they laughed, along with my lack of stability laughing with them. All that motion lead to a fuzzy, difficult-to-look-at photograph.

Getting great images of your family and friends can be a lot of fun, and many times you become the family hero since most people just don’t take the time to make pictures. Do yourself and your family a huge favor this holiday season and practice your craft. They’ll thank you at some point. If not the night of the event, most assuredly when you send them the images. later on down the road – be it one year or twenty – everyone will be happy you made the effort to capture your family history. Happy shooting and if you have any questions just drop me a note here on the blog. Im happy to help if I can.





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