Holiday photos aren’t the easiest to take, especially when lighting situations are poor and you might have to rely on a small camera phone flash to capture your subject. Flash tends to wash away some of the nice warm colors associated with the holiday season such as candles and string lights. But if you’ve got a steady hand, and just enough light, you can capture some great portraits and interior shots on your camera phone without flash. The conditions almost have to be perfect though. Meaning, there needs to be just enough light for the camera’s sensor to render a good exposure without all the graininess typical of low-lighting situations. And, it takes a keen eye to determine whether lighting is adequate enough. In many cases you’ll want to use flash in low light because if nothing else, you’ll want your subject(s) lit and in focus.
Below we’ve listed 10 ways to improve holiday photos with your smartphone. Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or other holiday, be sure to have your camera phone ready. Because, even if you plan on using a point-and-shoot or SLR, you never know when that perfect moment will arise.
1. Organize your subjects
Assuming you’re taking a photograph of a group of people, try organizing them according to height. The best arrangement is usually having the tallest person in the center of the composition with the shortest on either sides. If you have a larger group, you can reverse the arrangement by having the tallest people on the sides and the shorter subjects meeting at the center. In both cases the idea is to create a nice “shape” within the horizontal frame. A “stair” type of arrangement, with the shortest to the tallest, creates an odd composition.
2. Make Sure Everyone is Looking
It can be a struggle getting everyone to look towards the camera at the same time. Take a look at the image above and you’ll find a few people looking away from the camera. Before taking your final shots, make sure you have their attention by calling out something like “Cheese.” And, try to hold their attention while you snap a few photos. There’s a reason why photographers always use the word “cheese.” It’s because the pronunciation puts a slight smile on your face. If you want to try a different word or phrase, make sure it has an extended “e” sound.
3. Consider Composition
It’s easy to frame your subject in the center. But how about an asymmetrical layout where your subject is off to the left or right, leaving negative space (or positive space, depending on how you look at it), on either side. Take a look at the photo of the garden gnome to the right. The left side of the image isn’t just blank. It serves a purpose; directing the focus towards the subject. Perfectly symmetrical compositions can get boring, so be creative! You can also try some creative compositions in which subjects are cropped out of the frame, leaving more to the imagination than one might expect.
4. Take Multiple Exposures
If you’ve taken the time to get a nice shot organized, why not snap a few shots at different exposures? With some camera apps you can move the exposure to different locations on your image, therefore increasing or decreasing exposure time. Take several shots with different exposures and try some with different compositions and focal points. In the end, you’ll be able to choose the image that works out best for your intentions.
5. Try Some Candid Photos
Not every picture has to be posed for. Some of the best holiday photos are taken when the subjects are not looking. Keep an eye out for great interactions, kids playing, and those memorable moments that will have everyone saying “Wow, that’s a great shot!” You have to learn to be patient though. The best pictures are usually long-awaited.
6. Take Some Still Life Photos Without Flash
Still life photos of holiday decorations, table settings, and other inanimate objects can make great holiday photos. They also make great cover photos or fillers for custom photo books you might create at Shutterfly or Snapfish. When taking a still life photo, use a tripod or set your camera down on something stable to avoid camera blur. And, for the most part, turn off your flash. Using flash to take a picture of a Christmas tree won’t capture the warm colors emanating from the ornaments and string lights surrounding the tree.
7. Use One Light Source
Often times, photographers will put as much light into a room as possible in order to increase the overall sharpness and clarity of the entire photo. But you might not need everything in focus, and may want to create a more dramatic feel to the photograph. Try using a strong light source, such as an open window during daylight, or a table or floor lamp at night. With one light source, you’ll give up range of focus. But what you might lose in focus you might gain in aesthetics. Sometimes the more dramatic a picture, the better.
8. Shoot in the Phone’s Highest Resolution
Often times, holiday photos are printed out and framed to hang a wall or place on a mantel. By shooting at the camera phone’s maximum resolution you’ll be able to get the highest quality image possible when printed to paper. A larger file will also allow you to crop and enlarge a digital photo if needed, more than you would if you shot in a lower resolution.
9. Hold Still!
When shooting animate objects in low lighting (mainly people), tell them to “Hold Still!” The lower the light available, the slower your shutter speed. Thus, the greater chance you’ll have of having a blurry subject. There is nothing worse than taking a great shot only to find one person in a group was moving their head. Make sure everyone is completely still, and facing the camera, before taking your photos.
10. Process Your Image After
The greatest thing about digital photography is the ease at which you can manipulate images afterwards. Using an application like Instagram or Adobe Photoshop Express (both free downloadable apps from iTunes and the Google Play Store), you can manipulate photos after you have taken them. Instagram only works with square images (a real fun format to play with), while the Photoshop app will allow you to use any image format you want. Both apps have a selection of pre-loaded filters to choose from that can enhance your holiday photographs. The most useful of the image filters might be the ones that brighten your subject, add contrast and color saturation, and play with color balance.
Color? Or Black and White?
Just because your camera phone shoots in color doesn’t mean your photographs have to be in color. Try using an app filter or imaging software on your PC to convert an image to black and white. An old phrase photographers tend to use is “Color photography is about color, while black and white photography is about the subject.” Experiment with converting color images to black and white, sepia tone, or subdued colors to see how the changes reduce or enhance the impact of a photograph.
Some of these tips may seem obvious, but others may introduce you to techniques you may not have tried. Experiment in different lighting situations, and with different apps, to see what works best for your photos. You may find you’ll use different apps for various shooting situations. And, don’t be afraid to move your subjects around to find the best lighting situation.
There’s some good news for Apple users who shoot a lot of photos with iPhones, iPads and iPod touches. The new iOS 7 update adds new camera features such as the ability to share multiple photos, shoot in Square and Panorama mode, capture motion more effectively in Burst mode, and use imaging filters such as Mono, Tonal, Noir and Chrome among other built-in effects (à la Instagram).
For more fun, there’s actually a book called Awkward Family Photos that has some of the funniest, and most awkward, family portraits ever taken. Many of the photos in the book were taken during the holidays, so you can learn plenty from this book about what “not to do.”
Jeff Chabot has a background in web development and design, as well as working in broadcast television as a studio engineer, lighting director and editor. He frequently writes about technology, broadcasting, digital entertainment, and the internet.