With the holidays just around the corner, many folks will be gathering (hopefully in a responsible and covid-safe way) for their annual family portrait. Over the years, I’ve taken my fair share of family photos in front of the christmas tree, a roaring fireplace, or (since we live in the sunshine state) at the beach.
Now, before you pull out your smartphone and flick the camera app of your choice open, here are some time-tested tips to make this year's photos really shine.
#1 - Light, Light and Light!
A common theme with holiday portraits (especially those in front of a christmas tree) is that the photos are just too dark! All too often the only light in the room is the lights on the tree. While cameras these days are better than ever (yes low light mode on the new iPhone is amazing) there’s no substitute for good lighting. Turn on all the room lights you can (with a few exceptions - don’t turn on lights that fall BEHIND your subjects). Consider a small investment in an LED Panel light. They can be found for under $100 and will last for years, and work no matter what camera you have.
#2 - Step Forward, Move Back, Zoom in
There’s a reason why professional photographers use longer lenses to take portraits. The longer the lens the more flattering the image will look for your subjects. So instead of having your camera set on the wide lens - if your phone has a 2x lens like many modern iphones do, use it.
Another trick that the pros use is to blur the background to create separation between the background and your subjects. Now a smartphone can do some trickery and blur the background using “portrait mode” but this isn't a good application for this. Instead have your subjects take a few steps forward (away from the tree) and then you should back up and zoom in using the 2x lens on your smartphone. Although it won’t blur out the background the way a DSLR will, it will help add separation to the subject and help make your photos really pop.
#3 - Get a tripod
You should be in the pictures! The easiest way to do that is to put your camera (or smartphone) on a tripod. Be sure to pick out one that adjusts to a decent height and is nice and sturdy. Your phone doesn’t weigh much but you don’t want it tipping over and breaking. Then simply use the self timer (set on 10sec) to get in the picture. One easy way to do this is to set up an area for you to stand before you try to take a picture; this way you know where you’re running to and don’t end up getting cut out accidentally. A tripod also helps with making sure that your horizon line is straight. Unless you’re taking pictures on a ship, everything should be nice and level.
#4 - Take more than one
The old saying “film is cheap” is of course even more true now that film isn’t even used anymore. So there’s no reason not to take lots and lots of photos. On an average photo shoot, I typically take between 200-500 photos. Now you don’t have to take that many, but you should try for between 3-5 images for each pose. This will help with a few things: First - blinkers. We all have a family member or friend who can’t help but have their eyes closed in EVERY image. By taking a bunch of photos - in quick succession, you can help avoid the dreaded blinks. Second - the middle images in a group are often the sharpest, so by taking a quick burst, you’ll likely have a few images that stand out in the group.
#5 - You’ve got to edit!
There’s a reason why professional photographers take a day or more to deliver your images… they edit. You should too. No, you don’t need photoshop or anything fancy - try downloading the FREE app Snapseed. It’s my go-to mobile app for photos, and has some great presets to get you started. In Snapseed my #1 tip is to add a light vignette to your image. That will help draw the attention to the middle of the frame and will give a more pleasant result. NEVER use a white vignette. Ansel Adams once said “a photo isn’t finished until you darken the edges” and that’s all you’re trying to do. And go lightly. When you find a result you like, back it off by a little.
BONUS TIP - Share!
All the great images in the world are useless if nobody ever sees them. Post your photos to Instagram, Facebook, 500px or whatever your favorite social media platform is… but take it a step further. Print your photos. They don’t have to be huge prints or fancy on canvas or anything, but just a 5x7 or 4x6. Even if it just ends up in a shoebox; your great grandchildren will someday be able to see what life was like here today. While social media is fabulous, those photos are temporary. Who knows if Facebook will even be here in 10/20/50 years, and without proper prints of your photographs, all of those memories could be lost forever.