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Are you stuck in a rut with your holiday photo card?  Tired of using a mediocre photo from a vacation you took 8 months ago when you were 10lbs heavier?  Well, then take a new photo that’s in-theme for the season.  Here’s a few suggestions and ideas that I’ve tried (and some I’m hoping to try) for this year and for years to come.  Whatever you do, be creative, and have fun!


Location, Location, Location!

Wherever you live, there are lots of locations that can give you a “holiday” look and feel.  And if you live in Los Angeles, there are many places that decorate for the holidays, so why not just use their holiday lights as your backdrop? Think about shooting at an outdoor mall in front of the big tree such as Fashion Island or at CityWalk; head on down to a boat parade; go to one of those neighborhoods where every house has lights such as one of the Christmas Tree Lanes (Long Beach, Altadena, San Moreno) or Candy Cane Lane in Woodland Hills, or the Eagle Hills neighborhood in Brea; try the Zoo; the DWP Holiday Festival of Lights in Griffith Park; or how about amusement parks such as Disneyland or Universal Studios.  Or go with a forested look.  Drive to the mountains and get some shots dressed up in the trees.  Or if gas costs a bit too much, head to one of the local tree farms or even a tree lot.  Throw on a Santa hat, zoom in and it will look like you’re at the North pole, not in the Home Depot parking lot.


Use Out of Focus Lights

Nothing says the holidays like out of focus Christmas lights in the background.  Use a flash to light your subject (but don’t overexpose the foreground).  Use a large aperture such as an f/2.8 and a long focal length (such as 80mm or longer) to get the beautiful bokeh.


Use “Night Mode” or “Rear Curtain Sync Mode”

Are the holiday lights in the background looking a bit drab and dark?  Try using your DSLR or high-end point & shoot’s night mode with a flash.  This is a great trick that can yield great results with a little practice.  This mode effectively can freeze the action in the foreground while letting the sensor “soak in” the light in the background.  Now your foreground subjects must remain fairly still as the shutter will need to be open anywhere from a 1/8 of a second to a second... or more.  But generally the flash freezes the subject well, and you can get some amazing results.  And the great thing about shooting digital is you can see the results right away.  Some cameras allow the flash to go off at the beginning of the exposure, and some even allow the flash to go off just before the mirror closes.  I usually opt for the flash at the beginning of the exposure.

     In the top photo, this technique was used to capture the girl in line waiting for Santa (ISO 200 f/4, 1/3 sec shutter speed, 46mm lens, Canon 5D Mark II).  If I would have used a flash alone on an automatic setting, she would have been properly exposed, while the background would have been virtually pitch black.

     In the example in the middle photo, the family was on a holiday train ride.  Because the flash went off and then the shutter was left open for a 1/4 second (ISO 400, 28mm lens, Canon 5D Mark II), I got was able to freeze the people but still retain beautiful bright light streaks created by the movement of the train in a tunnel full of Christmas lights.

     Now if you want to really get creative and don’t mind experimenting, try this while using night mode with a flash:  Press the shutter - the flash will go off and while the shutter is still open, zoom out.  You’ll get a pretty unique blur as you can see in the third photo of the girl holding her note for Santa.  Now, you’ll need to keep your subject or subjects in the center of the shot, or they too will be blurred.  And although I did shoot this handheld, using a tripod will give you the best results as it keeps the light streaks straight.  (ISO 200, f/4, 1/6 second, aprox. 70mm zoom to 50mm, Canon 5D Mark II).


Shoot at “Magic Hour” with Christmas Lights

If the technique mentioned above frightens you, try shooting in front of those holiday lights just minutes after the sun has set.  You can might be able to get away without using a flash which is always pleasing for faces while retaining the beautiful glow.


Throw on a sweater, Throw on some leaves

There’s something nice about an outdoor fall photo -- maybe it’s the intense reds and yellows of the leaves that really pops in a photo.  Whatever it is, it’s always makes a nice family portrait that works great on Christmas cards.


Play with the Lights

Wrap yourself in some Christmas lights and fire away!  Use the glow of the lights to light up your face.


Watch your White Balance

If you are shooting at night with lights in the background, watch your color balance.  Keep in mind holiday lights are usually in the warm spectrum of light - around 3000K.  You’re flash, however, is not.  It’s usually a much bluer light, more around 5000K.  You can add a warming gel to your flash to make it match better.  Or you can set your camera’s white balance to be correct for the flash, and let the Christmas lights go a little warm.  Shooting in RAW mode will increase your opportunity and success to fix color problems with your software later.


Dress Accordingly

If you’re setting up a shot, make sure you’re wearing something neutral.  T-Shirts with logos and large printing are distracting.  Also keep in mind what colors you are wearing.  Make sure you’re outfits don’t clash.  Consider wearing similar colors, or even the same color (such as white shirts) for a professional looking shot.  And you can’t go wrong with red or green!


Match your photo to the border & text on the card

Keep in mind the color of the border you choose, if you use one.  Christmas cards that really pop usually have a complementary color palate -- the color of the border compliments the basic color scheme of what is in the photo.  For example, if you’re both wearing red sweaters, choose a green border to compliment the picture.  If you are using the photo of you on a beach from your trip to Hawaii, then use a blue border to match the blue color of the ocean.



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cameras . lights . audio . jibs . aerial . production . crew