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How to Shoot Festive Christmas Portrait Photography

Christmas is a fantastic time to put some of your photography skills to the test. You have interesting decorations to serve as props, great settings, and all the family together. 

But photographing your Christmas shots aren’t always easy, especially if you’re shooting in those situations that create a truly festive atmosphere, such as at the local Carols by Candlelight or around the Christmas tree with the lights lit up. 

A mother wrapping a Christmas present with her child.

So here are some of our most valuable photography tips to help you create stunning family Christmas snaps for this festive season.

Have your camera ready for any event

There are plenty of things you know you’ll want to have the camera juiced up for come Christmas: decorating the Christmas tree, putting up the stockings, opening the presents, and the family dinner. 

But plenty more opportunities will come to you unexpectedly. The moment your baby falls asleep at their first Carols by Candlelight. A family cooking session together baking Christmas delights. When the kids are completely absorbed in their newest toys – or that rare moment when they’re actually sharing.

Man cutting roast at Christmas family dinner

Have your camera battery charged and your camera ready for these moments. They may prove to be your most precious shots. 

Focus on the eyes

In conversation, eye contact is crucial. It’s human nature to look at the eyes so it’s natural that you’ll automatically be drawn to them in a photograph. 

Make your photo striking by ensuring the focus is trained on the eyes and that at least one eye is sharp and clear.

Bounce the light

When we think of Christmas, we often think of the lights – the warm glow from Christmas tree lights and Christmas candles. 

You want to keep the ambient lighting as authentic as possible, but you may need a little extra light to properly expose your shot. In this case, a detachable flash is better than your on-camera flash, which might wash out those vibrant Christmas colours. 

Two girlfriends giving each other Christmas gifts

Bounce the light off the ceiling or a wall rather than training it directly on your subject for a warm, softened glow. 

Turn on AF Assist

Many cameras struggle to focus on their subject when there is low light, such as when you’re taking a shot in front of the glowing Christmas tree or at the Carols by Candlelight. Unless you have manual focus activated, you might struggle to get your camera to focus correctly. 

In this case, make sure your camera is in the single or one-shot focus mode (AF-S) rather than the continuous focus mode and switch your AF-assist on. 

Not all cameras come with AF-assist but if you do have it, now is the time to use it. AF-assist creates a red light beam that illuminates a scene just enough for the camera to lock its focus onto the subject. 

Get your exposure triangle settings right

Getting your exposure just right is going to be your biggest task with Christmas photography, especially if you’re photographing at night.

To get the right effect for Christmas portrait photography – a creamy blurred background with your subjects in sharp focus – your aperture should be around f/5.6. 

A father holding up his daughter to put the star on the Christmas tree

In darker scenes, try to keep your aperture between f/2.0 and f/2.8 if you have a prime lens, or the lowest number possible on a zoom lens. 

For night shots, you will also likely need a slow shutter speed to create a warm atmosphere without introducing too much noise. If your subjects are restless, you can increase your shutter speed by likewise increasing your ISO – just keep in mind that this will create more noise. 

Use a tripod to prevent camera shake

If you choose to use the settings above and avoid the flash, you’ll probably risk camera shake unless you have a tripod to stabilise your camera. 

Of course, if your subjects are moving, the tripod won’t help. But the results that will come from a tripod are unbeatable – you can select the settings you need without restraint and ensure you get the best quality possible in such tricky shooting circumstances.

Look out for creative camera effects

Christmas provides plenty of opportunities for you to get a little creative with your portrait photography.

Experiment with strings of light by getting your subjects to cup lights in their hands – or wrap Christmas lights around them. This effect looks particularly good with low lighting to accentuate the glowing lights.

Sticking to the light theme, use bokeh to create a beautiful orb-like glow using a Christmas tree or house lights in the background. This works when you shoot with a wide aperture and in a low-light situation but the tripod is essential!

A baby wearing a Santa hat with a Christmas tree in the background

To create bokeh, your subject also needs to be separated from the background with some distance. Increasing the distance between your subject and the lights also increases the size of the lights.

To create bokeh with different shapes, try an aperture attachment or create your own by simply cutting shapes out of the centre of a piece of black paper. Any bokeh will automatically take on whichever shape you’ve cut out, so envision Christmas trees, stars, snow flakes, bells, or angels!

Don’t limit bokeh to the background either. You can experiment with dangling a string of lights in front of your subject to bring some of those glowing orbs into the front of the frame, creating a truly immersive shot.

Get inspired with your Christmas portrait photography

There’s no better time to grab your camera and start getting creative with your photography.

There’s also no better time to upgrade your camera or to find the perfect new camera lens for portrait photography since you can just add it to your Christmas gift list!

Browse our collection of cameras and other accessories online at Camera House today.

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