How to Take Great Holiday Photos

Ah yes, the holidays… every year we merrily eat, drink, exchange gifts, and take terrible, terrible photos. Wondering how to take family photos at home or what the best holiday photo poses are? The good news is, a few simple tricks will make your life easier and your holiday photos way better.

I know this isn’t a holiday photo but all the principles below apply!

I know this isn’t a holiday photo but all the principles below apply!

Let’s start with what not to do.


  • Use a direct flash. Strong light right on the face is not flattering for anyone. Try turning off your flash, or consider at least using a diffuser and pointing it away from the subject (this is worth playing with at home beforehand). If you’re using a phone, there are still plenty of options outside of the standard flash, like a light ring.

  • Shoot from below. There’s a reason all of those instagram “models” are constantly holding their cameras up and at an angle—it’s flattering. You don’t have to climb above your subjects, but avoid being below their face level. It makes for double chins and charming up-the-nose shots.

  • Tell people to stand right in front of the tree. It will look like it’s growing out of somebody’s head. End of discussion.

  • Get really close to people when you take their photo. It makes them uncomfortable and look terrible. The only exception is maybe getting a closeup of a kid’s face as they open a gift, but do that with a lens that has some zoom abilities.

  • Use a wide angle lens or low zoom when photographing individuals. When you use a wide angle lens or a zoom less than 50mm you will start to distort peoples faces to look fatter and wider than they really are. This is pretty much unflattering for anyone. You may need a wider angle or shorter zoom for a group but always try to minimize it as much as possible. If you can, simply move back.

  • Put people’s heads in the center of the photo. This portrait photography 101, but worth noting here. In general, you’ll probably want heads in the top part of the frame and off to one side.

  • Send People Bad Photos. If you decide to send out photos to people only send them the flattering ones. Most people hate being photographed to begin with so when you send them bad edits of themselves it tends to make them self conscious.

In between the do’s and don’ts is making people pose. If there’s one or two group shots that don’t require a massive painful effort, fair enough, but avoid making every picture one that involves interrupting conversation and corralling people into an awkward bunch—it’s not worth it! Those photos are not going to be good ones. If you do go for the big group shot, make sure at least that people are at multiple levels and nobody is covered up and use the rest of these rules.


  • Look for natural moments—laughing, hugging, opening gifts, clinking glasses. When people directly face the camera and wear a forced smile, it rarely makes for a good photo.

  • Capture people from a slight angle rather than face on. As noted above, straight on rarely looks good. Look at magazine covers and you’ll notice the celebs are almost always slightly turned. This is also a useful tip for when you are on the other side of camera and wondering how to pose for holiday photos.

  • Get creative with accessories. Taking great holiday pics is a perfect reason to treat yo’self! If you need some holiday photography ideas, new lenses for your camera or phone will get the creative juices flowing. Play around with all of those string lights too.

  • If you are doing a staged group holiday photo, use a tripod. You can use a phone tripod or even a really basic one for your DSLR. Nothing spoils all of the effort it took herding the family into the shot like discovering that the whole thing is blurry.

  • Pick a productive spot/time to shoot. Mid-meal is probably not going to yield the best holiday family pics. Go for opportunities before the meal, in front of the tree, under the mistletoe, first gifts (before that mountain of paper stacks up), outside a little before sunset. That way you get times to relax as well.

  • Zoom in. In general your best portraits will come out at around 50-100mm focal length with 85mm being the sweet spot. This zoom range tends to make faces slimmer.

  • Use the right aperture- Most portraits look best with a shallow depth of field meaning the subject or person is in focus while the background is out of focus. You can achieve this by placing your camera’s aperture at f/2.8-5.6. One way to achieve this is by placing your camera’s setting to “A”

  • Use the right shutter speed- One big mistake people make is they have a shutter speed that is too slow that causes people to become blurry when they move. This is common when you put your camera on automatic mode. Human movement can be “frozen” at speeds of 1/60 to 1/80. Anything slower than that and you will find your subject becomes blurry, especially if they are in a room, laughing and joking and moving around. One way around this is to set your camera to manual, then set your shutter speed to 1/80, your aperture to its fastest setting (usually f/2.8-5.6) and your ISO to automatic. That way you are determining the shutter speed and aperture and you’re letting your camera decide which ISO is necessary to capture the right lighting.

  • Use Natural Light- Natural light will typically look better than a flash or a harsh interior bulb. If possible have people stand by the window or go outside.

Most importantly, don’t take any of it too seriously. Taking pics can be a nice way to escape the political debates and drama, but it’s also worth putting down the camera, having a stiff drink, and enjoying the weirdness that is your loved ones.

Best wishes for an amazing holiday from us!

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