Holidays in the Northern Hemisphere can be a bleak time of year for photographers. Daylight hours are short, temperatures drop, and the leaves have fallen off the trees. Luckily, in December, cities and suburbs are decorated with a blaze of holiday lights and color – so even if you’d rather spend time indoors, I encourage you to head outside and create some beautiful and colorful holiday images.
What types of photos can you capture? While you can always just set off with your camera and explore, I’ve come up with a list of several festive holiday photography ideas to get you inspired – so read this article, put on a warm coat, and enjoy the holiday season!
1. Search for stunning colors
Over-the-top holiday decorations are filled with color. Stores like Macy’s use festive decorating as a way to lure customers into the store, and it’s a lure for photographers, too. You can photograph the splashes of color in the window displays, and you can even venture inside (especially if you want to get out of the cold!).
Just look at this red lighting:
If you shoot outside during the day, you can work handheld without issue. However, if you want to capture the colors in the windows at night, you’ll need to bring a tripod or work with a camera that offers excellent high-ISO capabilities. If you decide to shoot handheld in low light, you’ll need to crank up that ISO, often to around 1600 or more.
If you photograph inside stores, you can stay near the windows for brighter light, or you can head deeper into the store. You won’t be able to bring a tripod – this is a big no-no in most establishments – so you’ll need to do your best to keep your hands steady while you work.
By the way, in addition to the riot of holiday color, stores are filled with signage, bright spotlights, and people so be creative when you compose your images. Try some unusual perspectives to help you avoid distracting elements.
Sometimes it helps to zoom in when you compose. Don’t worry about fitting the entire subject into your frame. Instead, move around and find a composition with repeating elements:
If you don’t have a big department store to explore, that’s okay; just head to your local shopping mall or main street shopping district. Shop owners work hard to make their storefronts look beautiful! Again, think outside the box when you compose your images. Don’t be afraid to try different angles, have fun testing out various bokeh effects (especially when holiday lights are involved), and just do your best to create unique shots!
2. Look for lights
Cities are amazing locations for holiday photowalks, not least because of the lights. If you live in or near a big city, be sure to take a tripod to the large parks and plazas that usually have lighted trees. Super large outdoor trees make great focal points, and they also make great backdrops because the twinkly lights can blur into beautiful bokeh. (Just make sure you use a longer lens – 50mm is a good focal length – and a wide aperture such as f/1.8.)
When shooting in the city, arrive just before dusk to observe your location and find good backgrounds. A great time to shoot the holiday lights is the hour after sunset because the sky is a lovely shade of blue and it’s bright enough to capture images of people. That said, you may want to break out your tripod – or, if you want to freeze people in action, crank up your ISO.
For this next shot, I was planning to photograph the skaters on the rink below the promenade. Yet this couple looked so beautiful bathed in golden light that I couldn’t help but take their picture.
A really fun holiday photography idea is to focus on a lighted tree branch, especially if the bulbs are unusual. You’ll want to search for an isolated tree branch with a clean background. Then open your aperture to its widest setting – preferably f/1.8 or f/1.4 – and let the more distant bulbs dissolve into soft, round circles:
By the way, scenes filled with white twinkly holiday lights look great in color – but they look gorgeous in black and white, too. For images like these, the trick is to underexpose slightly, so your histogram looks like this:
You see, those white twinkly lights are bright, and if you expose too far to the right, they’ll look blown out in your final image. By underexposing and keeping your histogram stacked to the left, you may lose a bit of detail in the shadows, but since the goal is to capture the twinkly lights, it’s more important you retain detail in the highlights.
If you’re primarily interested in capturing the lights in their environment, setting your camera on a tripod is the way to go. But if you’re trying to photograph the lights along with moving subjects (e.g., a group of people), crank up your ISO and do some handholding.
3. Photograph the holiday flora
Most macro photographers despair when winter comes around. However, the holidays offer an exciting assortment of plants and flowers that are great for holiday photoshoots!
You can often find large holiday blooms in botanical gardens, and you can also find plenty of poinsettias, red berries, and pine trees out and about (on street corners, hanging on shop doors, etc.). I’d recommend working with your closest-focusing lens (while a dedicated macro lens is generally best, standard 50mm lenses often offer surprisingly high maximum magnifications). Then choose a smaller aperture and have plenty of close-up fun!
If you prefer a softer-focus, artistic-style look, try widening your aperture so that only a small portion of the flower is in focus.
Of course, you can also buy holiday bouquets at your local grocery store, then create a little home-studio setup and see what you can capture.
One more tip: While the most festive images tend to feature bright holiday blooms, I’d also encourage you to seek out darker and moodier images. Look for snow piled up on wreaths, dying leaves hanging off trees, and tiny plants poking out of the ice. These photos won’t exactly bring the holiday cheer, but they’ll help capture the contrast between the brightly lit streets and the cold, dark winter.
4. Capture miniature scenes
Miniature Norman-Rockwell-like villages crop up everywhere during the holidays. For some folks, these models are family heirlooms and setting them up each year is an important holiday rite. If you have a friend who sets up one of these treasured villages every December, ask if you can come on over and photograph it for them.
You can also find exquisite miniature scenes in public places, like the Winter Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden:
The key to successfully photographing miniature scenes is to shoot from eye level and to find a specific focal point, like the train in the image above. This viewpoint successfully highlights all the tiny, intricate details.
And if you can’t find any miniature scenes or you don’t feel like leaving the house, you can always create one using props! Find a crystal orb, place it in front of your holiday display, and watch as the scene is compressed and flipped:
To create such an image, you may need to experiment a bit with the orb’s position. Move it around, set it on tables and shelves, and see what it reflects. And once you find a great reflected composition, set your camera on the same level as the orb. Focus on the scene in the orb and let the background blur away. For the image above, I used f/16 for crisp orb details, but you can always experiment with f/8 or even f/4. Since you’ll be shooting indoors, you’ll probably want to choose a longer shutter speed – mine was two seconds – and a tripod or another sturdy method of support is recommended to prevent motion blur from shaky hands.
5. Photograph music
Buskers and musicians abound during the holidays, and if you’re lucky, you can find a few of them even on a short photowalk. You can make street-photography-style portraits of musicians, or you can photograph the broader scene, with the festive lights and starstruck onlookers.
In this first image, the background was more cluttered than I would have liked, but the harpist’s face was so angelic as she sang that I had to capture the moment. If you’re planning to take this type of candid shot, you’ll probably want to handhold your camera so you can avoid attracting attention. Again, make sure you keep your ISO high if you’re shooting in low light and widen your aperture for a smoother background. (This is the perfect opportunity to try a 50mm prime lens and experiment with wide apertures, such as f/1.8, f/2, or f/2.8.)
Alternatively, you can embrace a slower shutter speed and let the motion blur work for you. Think of it as seeing the music! The shot below is intentionally blurry because I wanted to show the energy and enthusiasm of the brass band:
To make your image look this way, focus on a key element but intentionally set a slow shutter speed. Try 1/10s to start, evaluate the level of blur, and then readjust as needed to get the right look. There is no right or wrong here; just keep experimenting until you get a shot you’re pleased with!
Holiday photography ideas: final words
These five ideas are just a few of the many ways you can make fun and beautiful images during the holidays. Of course, if you plan to shoot outside, don’t forget to dress warm and stop often for hot cocoa!
Do you have more great ideas for capturing the holiday season? Share them in the comments below!