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How to Take Better Holiday Photos

Read these tips on how to best capture the holidays from photographer Amy Drucker.

Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or the winter solstice, chances are you've been getting together with friends and family to celebrate. And chances are you'd like to use your camera to capture some moments from the holidays in the coming days.

And maybe, this year, you'd like to go beyond the group photo in front of the tree—especially if it ends up being more tree than group, like mine does — and tell a story with your photos.

Fear not—we've solicited tips on taking holiday pictures from Amy Drucker, a Katonah-based photographer and owner of Amy Drucker Photography, which has a boutique school portrait division called Soulshine Studio. Drucker, 42, specializes in lifestyle photography, which she describes as "going beyond the portrait" and creating a narrative that tells a story.

"The differences between a snapshot and a portrait lie in the details," she said. "There's skill and craft in making the image look the way you want. And to achieve that, you need lighting, composition and a connection to your subject."

While it would be nice to hire a pro like Drucker to hang around the house for a day snapping away, with her tips in mind, the average shutterbug can achieve better results this holiday season.

(Extra memory cards? Check. Charged batteries? Check. Connection to your subject? Check—isn't that what the holidays are all about?)

The Group Shot

While not her favorite, Drucker said people love to take them as a way to commemorate the occasion and all of its participants. Her approach?

Take it at the beginning of the celebration, when guests have all arrived and people are excited and smiling. It's not so much about getting kids before they've become untucked, but more about capturing the anticipation and festive mood.

Don't worry about getting it all in. If you're shooting a group photo in front of a tree, focus on a wide shot that includes everyone's heads, feet and tree, zoom in. Walk closer or zoom in with your telephoto lens. Worry less about getting every detail including the star on top. It's better to get expressions on faces.

Take multiple shots. The bigger the group, the more pictures you need to take. Someone will be blinking, yawning or trying to crawl away, so take at least five versions, or more.

Arrange the group. Ask your family and friends to get closer and touch each other. An arm over a shoulder, a hand on a knee—anything to reduce the space between people. You can also stagger everyoone so they don't appear to be standing in a row, have some sit, some stand, some in laps. You could try for a more triangular shape to the group. Make sure you can see everyone's face. Use a tripod or a timer and get in the photo yourself!

Gift opening

Be ready. While this mantra could apply to your whole holiday celebration, it's especially true when you want to capture your kids opening presents, Drucker said. Have the camera up and ready to shoot when the wrapping paper comes off.  "I recommend shooting in burst mode, which on some cameras looks like a little sports icon," she said. "And worry less about getting every detail but fill the frame with your subject. It's not so much about the legos, it's your child's expression when he opens them."

Tell the story of your holidays

Never say "cheese." That's Drucker's motto—if you direct your friends and family to look at the camera every time, you're not capturing real moments. "Take pictures that, on their own might not tell the whole story but in a book would tell a story," she said. These might include the kids coming downstairs in their pajamas, or a closeup of hands—wrapping gifts, setting the table, putting cookies out, hanging an ornament.

And watch for quiet moments. "It's exciting to capture the opening of gifts, but watch for opportunities when it's all over. Kids playing with toys, laying their head down, grandpa watching—these are very sweet moments." 

Capturing the lights of the season

Whenever possible, force the flash off. To avoid a washed-out inside look, try taking shots without the flash. To ensure you have enough light for your subject, you may need to turn on more lights in the room or get your subject closer to lights—as Drucker did in the photo posted with this story. You can also play with your camera's settings—increasing the ISO or using shutter priority or sports mode. Lastly, using a tripod to steady the camera in low light helps.

Take outside shots at sunset. In the daylight you won't see holiday light displays, but when it's completely dark you only see the lights and few other details. The trick, said Drucker, is to balance the ambient light with holiday lights—and that's best achieved around 4/4:30 p.m. these days. You can also use night mode or set your camera to tungsten white balance.

For more on Drucker's photography, visit her websites: amydrucker.com and soulshinestudio.com.

This story was originally published in Dec. 2011. -Ed.

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