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If you can’t get to a professional studio for your holiday portrait this year, all you need is a camera — even a smartphone — to do it yourself.
Turn those Christmas lights into a blurry light effect known as bokeh simply by manipulating the camera settings and positioning your subjects.
You can turn your photos into a digital greeting card or print them for remembrance.
Having portraits taken is a popular holiday activity for many families. But as people are limiting their travel outdoors and interactions with others, hiring a professional photographer or heading to the shopping mall may not be in the cards this year. If that’s your situation, you can take your own family portraits at home with quality results, as long as you own a camera.
With today’s cameras — whether it be a DSLR or smartphone — snapping a great photo is as simple as pushing a button. To take that photo further and make it festive, you just need to learn how to set up the scene; we’ll show you how to adjust a camera’s setting, set up your subjects, and use Christmas lights for a fun background effect. From there, you can change things up and make the photo your own. Once you’ve captured the shot, you can use it to create digital greeting cards, social posts, frameable prints, and more.
So before you take down the Christmas decor, gather up the family and take a professional-looking photo to remember.
Here’s the equipment you’ll need to shoot holiday portraits at home
When it comes to taking a good photo, you want a camera that can capture sharp subjects but with a nice, softly blurred background, known as depth of field. It’s easy to achieve with an interchangeable lens camera — DSLR or mirrorless. You don’t need a professional-level model either; so-called budget cameras like the Nikon D3500 or Fujifilm X-T30 will offer excellent quality, especially if your end goal is to post online, email to friends and family, or make small prints.
Depth of field is harder to capture with a smartphone, but it isn’t possible. As long as you put some distance between your subject in the foreground and the background and then tap to focus on the subject, the camera should blur the background a bit. Newer phones offer “portrait” modes that produce a similar effect, whether it’s through a dual-lens camera system or software. There are also apps that help you achieve this look in post-editing, such as Snapseed (iOS/Android) and Adobe Photoshop Fix (iOS/Android), but these are more of a cheat and won’t look as natural. And, you won’t get the same bokeh effect as you would with a dedicated camera and a good lens.
A bright lens
If you are working with an interchangeable lens camera, you’ll want to pair that body with a bright lens, such as an f/2.8 or f/1.8 aperture to help create that background blur. A “nifty-fifty” 50mm f/1.8 lens works great here, but you can use another focal length (designated in millimeters) if you’ve already got a bright lens in your camera bag — for example, a 22mm f/2.
A memory card
You can’t take a photo without one of these in a camera — not an issue for smartphones. If you want to get the most speed out of your camera, pick up one of the best memory cards available, though speed isn’t exactly a must when taking a family portrait unless you are shooting lots of action shots.
You’ll need to edit your photo — it’s easiest to do with a big screen. But you can transfer photos to a smartphone or tablet if that’s all you’ve got.
How to take a Christmas portrait
This tutorial walks you through how to take a family Christmas photo using an interchangeable lens camera and Christmas lights in the background for a blurry light effect, which is known as bokeh — note the rounded balls in the background in the photo above, created by the lights. You can use your Christmas tree already decorated with lights, but if you want to photograph a big family, you may want to string several strands over a large wall instead.
These same tips, however, create great photos even without the Christmas lights, so feel free to get creative with the background, or try taking the photo outdoors at a Christmas tree farm.
Set up in front of the Christmas tree, lights, or another background
To get that blurry Christmas light effect, you’ll need to create depth of field. Instead of placing your subjects directly in front of a lit tree or whatever background you want to blur, leave a few feet between the foreground (subjects) and the background.
Next, you’ll need to get light onto your subjects. Ideally, it should be natural light from a window behind the camera, with the camera stationed between your subjects and the window. That way, you don’t need to use a flash, which will be too harsh and throw off the effect. Of course, it’s more effective to take the photos during the day when there’s ample light streaming in, and you should avoid a dark room or using harsh lighting.
The largest part of the Christmas tree is at the bottom, excluding the gap you left to fill in presents for. To help fill the background with those lights, have the subject sit or kneel in front of the tree. For young kids, have them sit on a bench or ottoman so you have the most lights in the background, not the gap at the bottom.
Every year, the setup for my own family Christmas photo looks similar. The kids are seated on an ottoman about 3 or 4 feet in front of the Christmas tree, with a set of French doors as the light source just behind me and the camera. Where you position the camera will depend on the focal length of your lens. Avoid using the zoom function if your lens has it, as the aperture becomes smaller toward the longer end of the zoom. And, use a tripod to keep things steady, which helps the camera take in more light without adding any unwanted blurring due to camera shake.
Adjust your camera settings
To get that background blur, you need to make the opening in the camera lens (the aperture) wide. That’s accomplished through shooting with aperture priority mode (or manual mode, if you’re camera savvy). If you opted to use a smartphone, most won’t allow you to adjust the aperture, but be sure to use portrait mode if your device has one.
Turn your camera’s mode dial to the A or Av. Use the camera’s control dial to turn the aperture down to the lowest number that your lens offers, ideally, between f/1.8 and f/2.8. It may be higher if you are shooting with a kit lens, and that’s okay.
If you are photographing more than one person, however, a wide aperture may blur the lights and some of the group. Try to pose everyone so that they are an equal distance from the camera, then use a slightly narrower aperture to ensure sharp faces, such as f/4.
In aperture priority mode, the camera will choose the shutter speed that balances out the exposure and the ISO, if auto ISO is selected.
Occasionally, however, the camera may capture a flicker in the Christmas lights that’s invisible to the naked eye. If you look at your photos and it looks like someone turned the Christmas lights off, that’s exactly what happened. The solution is to use a slower shutter speed, so the camera doesn’t capture that flicker. To do that, turn the camera to Manual mode (the M on the dial) and set the shutter speed too. A 1/60 usually is slow enough to eliminate that flicker. If you are photographing kids who have a hard time sitting still, however, bump that up to 1/80 or 1/100. If you turn the ISO setting to auto while in manual mode, the camera will still balance out the exposure for you.
Set the focus mode to single point autofocus and move the point over the subject’s eye. Or you can also use eye detection AF, if your camera has that option; with this function, the camera detects and keeps focus on subjects’ faces..
Another helpful camera setting for Christmas photos is burst mode, where the camera takes several shots at once. This is useful if you have subjects that can’t stay still, say toddlers and pets. Shooting in the RAW file format instead of JPEG is also a good idea if you plan to edit the photos afterward.
Shoot, then troubleshoot
With the settings adjusted, you are ready to take the shot. Thanks to digital, once you snap a photo, you can check and see what you’ve got. Don’t do this with every single shot or you may miss a good smile, but it’s a good idea to take a quick test shot and see if the settings need to be adjusted.
If the image is too dark or too light, use exposure compensation to adjust: (+) to make the photo brighter, (-) to make the photo darker. If the Christmas lights in the background aren’t blurry enough, use a wider aperture or move the subject farther from the Christmas tree. If those Christmas lights appear to be off, try manual mode with a slower shutter speed.
For smartphone users who are using portrait mode, it’s important to stop and check the shots. Because it relies on software, it’s not 100% perfect. You may find that a part of a subject is blurred because the software detected the wrong focus area or part of the background isn’t blurry enough.
Most photos could benefit from a bit of tweaking after the shot. Software like Alien Skin Exposure, Photoshop Express, and Adobe Lightroom, or free online photo editors like Pixlr or Fotor can help make your photo pop even more.
Filters and presets can help jumpstart the editing process, then adjust the brightness and color as needed. If the photo looks too blue, too orange or too green, adjust the white balance.
Depending on your comfort level with photo editing, you can either make small corrections or go wild, especially if you’ve shot in RAW, which gives you greater flexibility in what you can edit. However, you shouldn’t need to make big edits if you were able to capture the shot correctly.
What to do with the photo afterward
Once you have a good photo, there are fun things you can do with it. You can turn that image into a last-minute digital Christmas card and fire it off to friends and family via email or text. You can also design physical greeting cards for use next year. Most online photo printers have tools to make the design part simple, but you can also use an online program to design a card that you want to print at home or simply send virtually via email or social media.
No matter what program you use, keep a few design basics in mind. Make sure the card is easy to read. Text should have lots of contrast. For example, avoid red text on a maroon background. Keep the text big enough to read, and even larger if you use a swirly font. And with any design, simplicity is often better than going over the top — a bit of blank space is good and keeps the card from looking too crowded.
Design and print your cards using an online printing service
With many online photo printing services, making a greeting card with your own photo is simple and straightforward: You upload your own photo and customize the text, then just add the card to your cart. There are several different great platforms for both printing and designing your own card.
Here are a few of our favorite holiday photo card printers:
Shutterfly: This popular photo printing company offers a mix of affordable basic cards and premium cards with things like foil and glitter. Besides creating a photo card, you can also get custom envelopes to match.
Nations Photo Lab: Nations is a photo printing company used by many pros, but with reasonable prices. Offering a wide selection of designs, Nations also has a design your own card option.
Minted: Minted is a high-end option, but the company offers excellent design, high quality, and will even address the cards for you. Each Minted design is created by an independent artist.
Design and print your cards at home
If you want to use your own printer or would simply rather design a card to blast our to your social media followers, you’ll need a design program. Here are a few of our favorite online design tools for Christmas cards:
From the same company behind Photoshop, Spark offers a slew of user-friendly design tools. With Christmas cards, you can start with a template, then easily customize it. The app is free to use online, but your final project will have some Spark branding on it if you don’t buy the program or aren’t already using a Creative Cloud product.
Canva is an online design program that allows the artistically challenged to create a Christmas card. Because the app is online, there’s no download necessary to start using it. Canva is also free, with a Pro version that offers more advanced features and tools.
Better known for its online photo editing tools, Fotor also offers a few easy-to-use design tools for Christmas cards, you can start with a template, then easily customize, or design your own from scratch.Join the conversation about this story »
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