How to tell your family’s Christmas story through photographs

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

MARBLE FALLS — With all the excitement and joy surrounding Christmas, it makes for great photo opportunities. But how often have some of those photos fallen flat or you just couldn’t figure out how to get the best shot?

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to help you capture the story of your family’s Christmas. First, think of it as telling a story through photographs. It might sound daunting, but with a little thought and pre-planning, you can do it.

Erin Summerill, a professional photographer and the author of “Clickologie: Elevating Your Photography from Beginner to Pro,” offered a few tips to get the best shot of your child or grandchild opening presents on Christmas morning.

“If you’re using a DSLR, I would put a wide-angle lens on, such as an 18 to 35 mm, so that way, you can get the whole room or the entire scene,” she said. “But it also gives you the ability to get in close and focus on one child when you need to.”

Telling a story with a camera is similar to other types of storytelling. But don’t get intimidated by the idea. Think of if as how would you tell your family’s Christmas to a friend or relative. For Christmas morning, you might start thinking about what goes into getting ready for the day. If you have a gift such as a bike that you know you or your spouse has to put together during the night, photograph that.

Another way to start is with a photograph of all the presents, wrapped and tucked under the tree, maybe with somebody placing the presents there.

During the morning, as everyone starts funneling into the room with the tree, set up across the room so you can photograph their expressions as they walk in. Anticipate their reactions. This is where you as a parent or a grandparent make the best family photographer because you know them better than anyone.

Summerill added that taking varying shots really helps show what’s happening or has happened. Along with shooting wide shots of the entire room, move in close and focus on a child opening a gift. Snap a few photos of the child, but then, get in closer to his hands unwrapping the present. Then, get photos of his face as he sees what’s inside.

“It sets up the story,” Summerill said.

While Christmas Day is a story unto itself, think of the stories within the story — or subplots. In the melee of all the presents, is there one particular present for which somebody is hoping and expecting? When he starts unwrapping it, keep the camera on him.

And don’t forget to get photos of people reacting to the unwrapping. Get shots of Grandma sitting nearby smiling as she watches the action. When you see your daughter toddle over to Grandpa to sit on his lap or give him a hug, get a photo.

When all the presents are unwrapped, paper strewn about the room and toys and gifts scattered, take a photo as a contrast to the previous one you took before it all started.

And you don’t have to stop taking photos when the presents are unwrapped. Remember the advice that Christmas Day is a story filled with stories within? What else is going on that day? Is Mom cooking a wonderful Christmas meal or Dad barbecuing outside? Photograph him or her at work. Like under the tree, take photos that encompass the entire scene but also include closer ones.

Another piece of advice Summerill shared was use as much natural light as possible and try your hardest to turn off the flash. While it seems counterintuitive, turning off the flash and relying more on natural light will make your photos much better. The flash, when used as a direct source of light, often renders the person or scene flat and boring.

“So I’d recommend opening as many windows as possible to let in as much natural light as you can,” she said.

Also, switch your camera from automatic mode or “P” mode on which the camera makes all the settings to aperture mode and “open” the lens up as wide as possible to allow in the most light. This could mean an F-stop of 4, 3.5, 2.8, 2.0 or 1.8. The lower the number, the larger the aperture. Of course, the wider the aperture, the less the depth of field (area in front and beyond your main point of focus) will be sharp. Also, when setting your aperture, pay attention to the shutter speed so it doesn’t get so slow that the images blur.

You can counter some of this by bumping up the ISO rating, which makes the camera more “light sensitive.” But also understand that going too high with the ISO rating might diminish the quality of the photos or cause them to look a bit “grainy.”

There are always trade-offs, so the best thing to do ahead of time is get familiar with your particular camera and lens (yes, that often means reading the manual), and, if possible, “practice” in the room under similar conditions that you expect Christmas morning.

Summerill offered one more piece of advice.

“Take lots of photos,” she said. “I once spoke with a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who said he took thousands of photos when he was on assignment. On Christmas Day, I’ll take hundreds of photos. So, take a lot of photos.”

daniel@thepicayune.com

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