Tips for Taking Holiday Photos

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With the holiday season just around the corner, many of us will be toting our cameras to festivals, parties, and family gatherings to preserve our precious memories for years to come. Unfortunately, you might look back at some of your pictures and wonder why they were blurry, out of focus, or just not all that interesting. Whether you have a smartphone or DSLR, here are a few simple techniques you can use to make your photos not only stand out, but help you learn a bit more about photography along the way.

#1 Get down to eye level with the kids
While you might be tempted to pass the time visiting with adults and catching up with friends at holiday gatherings, some of the best photos years down the road often end up being the ones of kids. It’s fun to see them grow and change over time, and when browsing photo collections people will often linger on photos of children for all the memories they bring back. When you have your camera out, though, remember to get on eye level with the little ones! It can feel a bit strange to squat down or sit on the floor to get a good shot of your three-year-old niece while all the adults are visiting in the other room, but the results will be well worth it. It’s tempting to shoot down at kids from your eye level, but this often results in unflattering pictures that seem cold and distant. Putting yourself physically at the same level as the kids offers a much more interesting view of their world, and makes for photos that are far more personal and memorable.

#2 Adjust the ISO instead of using the flash
If you leave your camera on Automatic mode, you might notice the flash constantly going off which can result in washed-out colors and unnatural shadows across people’s faces. But if you try to disable the flash, your photos will often come out blurry or out of focus. To fix this, you can set your camera to Program mode instead of Auto, which will allow you to have more direct control over the ISO setting and get better shots in low-light conditions (like indoor holiday parties) without using the flash.

The higher you set your ISO, the less light your camera needs in order to take a photo. This is nice if you want to avoid blinding people with your flash, but the trade-off is that your pictures might look noisy or grainy. Fortunately, most modern cameras do a fine job even at ISO settings as high as 3200 or even 6400 – particularly if you just want to share the photos online or print at smaller sizes like 4×6.

Make sure to practice beforehand so you are comfortable not only setting the ISO, but knowing the limits of what your camera can do. But if used carefully, adjusting the ISO instead of using the flash can result in much better holiday photos with the added bonus of not blinding your guests or having to deal with red-eye corrections later on.

If you really want to use your camera to its full potential, ditch Auto or Program mode entirely and try shooting in aperture priority (A or Av) mode where you choose the lens aperture and ISO while your camera calculates the best shutter speed. Or you could try shutter priority (S or Tv) mode, where you choose the shutter speed (1/60 to 1/90 second are good starting points when shooting indoors, such as holiday gatherings) and ISO, and your camera figures out the best aperture. I would recommend getting lots of practice with these modes and making sure you know how to adjust your settings accordingly before the holidays, though. You don’t want to try something new for the first time when everyone is opening presents and have a bunch of dark or out of focus photos as a result!

Finally, it’s worth noting that many modern digital cameras have user-programmable Auto ISO settings. You can use this to tell your camera to select the best ISO when using the semi-automatic (A/Av, S/Tv, or P) modes but stay within a few parameters that you define. For instance, if you know that your camera gets too noisy above ISO 3200, you can set that to be the maximum allowable ISO but let your camera do the rest. Or you can also set a minimum shutter speed before the Auto ISO kicks in. If you don’t want to shoot anything slower than, say, 1/30 of a second, your camera will do everything in its power to maintain proper exposure by adjusting the ISO in order to stay above that shutter speed. This can be quite handy at holiday gatherings when you don’t want to spend all night fiddling with your camera’s menus and settings but also want to make sure you get the best shots possible without the pop-up flash constantly blinding your guests.

#3 Shoot moments, not poses
It might be tempting to run around with your camera at holiday parties barking out orders like “Smile,” “Look here!” and “Say Cheese!” But a better option is to be a little more discreet and attempt to shoot moments instead of poses. Capturing the essence of what people are doing – talking, laughing, opening presents, sharing a drink – often makes for much more interesting photos as well as better memories in years to come. There is certainly nothing wrong with posed photos or having people look at you and smile while you take their picture, but these often lack context aside from the clothes people have on. What else was happening? Who else was present? What sort of activities were people doing? By taking a documentary-style approach and shooting pictures of people just being themselves (particularly if you turn the distracting flash off and adjust the ISO instead) you will capture memories that will strike a chord years down the road.

#4 Know when to put your camera down
This might sound counter-intuitive for an article about how to get better holiday photos, but as the saying goes, there is a time for everything under the sun. This includes a time to shoot pictures and a time to just be with friends and family. Rather than 100 photos of your family opening presents, just take a handful and use the rest of your time to simply be with your loved ones and enjoy your time together. Try to be intentional when taking fewer photos, and the result will be more keepers that you want to look at years down the road instead of dozens and dozens of images of the same scene.

Tricks to Photographing Beer

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1. Warm Beer Is Your Friend
If you want your beer to be bubbly and frothy and gorgeous, then you want to go with warm beer. Not the best thing to drink, but a must for photography. Cold beer will not give you a whole lot of bubbles and in addition will cause your glass to fog up with condensation. If you’re going for a super-cold and refreshing look this may be ok, but if you want to see the beer clearly through the glass, keep it warm.

Fake condensation in this shot was made using light corn syrup and water.

Beverage Styling Tip: If you DO want to have the beer look super cold, try making fake condensation: take some light corn syrup mixed with some water and spritz it onto your beer glass or bottle. The ratio of corn syrup to water will depend on how large or small the droplets you want and requires a little experimentation. I use a toothbrush to spritz on the mixture and then a syringe or chopstick to drip individual droplets at strategic places. Once it dries you’ll have perfect condensation which won’t evaporate or move, which is handy when you’re trying to get that perfect shot. Even better, the “condensation” will wash off with warm water when you’re done.

2. Tall Glasses = Lotsa Bubbles
After some experimentation, I realized that a tall skinny glass with a small top will give you the best half-life on your bubbles. I’m sure there are all kinds of scientific reasons for this like surface tension and such, but for a zero-science guy like me I figured it out just by trial and error. Obviously if you’re shooting a particular kind of beer you need to take into account the correct type of glass. But for a straight up beer with bubbles shot, tall and skinny is the way to go. For the shoot for Feast I used a standard British pint glass for some of the shots, and then for others I picked up a clear plastic food storage container from the Container Store that was perfect for beer-bubble-detail shots I was shooting.

3. A Little Lint Goes a Long Way
When preparing for a photo shoot using glassware, removing every single piece of dust and lint is a must. After all, you don’t want any distracting dirt taking away from your photograph. However, when shooting a carbonated beverage like beer, sometimes a little lint is a good thing. After you meticulously clean your glassware, wipe down the inside with a non-lint-free rag or a paper towel. The tiny bits of lint that are left behind are generally invisible to your camera, but they grab onto the bubbles in the beer and make them stick to the inside of the glass. You don’t want to go overboard, but a few pieces of lint can make the difference when you’re trying to show bubbles.

4. Pinch of Salt
Turns out that if you drop a few pinches of salt into beer it will bubble like crazy. I found that this was a great way to reinvigorate my beer once the bubbles started to slow down and the head started to collapse. I tried a variety of different types of salt – rock salt, sea salt, kosher salt – but found that the ordinary fine grain table salt worked the best. When you sprinkle the salt into your beer make sure to do it evenly and across the whole glass or you’ll get uniform little streams of bubbles which don’t look natural.

5. Plan Ahead, Have Extra Beer
Obviously this quick little list of tips is not a complete “how to” for photographing beer – there are all kinds of different styles of beer and beer photography and these tips worked very well for the specific art direction for the magazine assignment. Every beer company has a different idea for what their beer should look like – color, size and shape of the head, the glassware it should be served in etc. So make sure that you have an idea of what your final shot is going to look like before you begin and plan from there. And make sure that you have plenty of beer to work with. Carbonated beverages are a living thing, and it always pays to have more than you’ll need, just in case it takes longer than you think to get the shot.

And after all, it’s not like that extra beer is going to go to waste. In fact, the best thing about shooting beer is that there is usually a lot of left over beer for a taste test. Just make sure you drink it cold … without added salt and lint.