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How to take great photos
on Christmas morning

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  December 22, 2011 06:57 PM

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By Joanne Rathe
Globe Staff

Christmas morning, opening presents
It’s magic. Christmas morning is full of great expressions and happy moments all ready to unravel in a mostly predictable fashion. It’s what a photojournalist would call a “loaded situation”. Where, basically, you can’t miss – as long as you are ready and anticipate.

I approach this like any assignment I might have for The Boston Globe.
My focus, as a photojournalist, is to capture the emotion, expression, and special moments of an event. Moments can be peak action or quiet and subtle, but it’s a fraction of a second that creates a visual statement where no words are necessary and can be remembered for a lifetime.

First, you need to be ready. Your batteries have to be charged, flash cards ready and formatted. Download what’s on your card so you can fill it up Christmas morning. The surest way to take a great photo is to take many photos. Put fresh batteries in your flash and have your camera equipment at the ready – maybe it’s next to the Christmas tree or bedside if your kids tend to wake you up with the news of Santa’s arrival.

As I prepare for any assignment, I try to visualize the event, what the light will be like, how the event will unfold.

Lighting is key
I try to use natural light in every situation (that isn’t posed). If I have to use a flash, I use it to emulate natural light.

The problem with a flash on your camera pointed at your subject is that it produces harsh shadows and makes your background go dark. Most of all, it doesn’t look natural. The first accessory I would suggest for any DSLR user: an external flash that can be tilted. The built-in flash in your camera just won’t take you to the next level. You need a way to manipulate the light. By tilting the flash, you can aim it at the ceiling (if it’s white) and bounce the light off a huge surface so it brings the light level up while keeping the look nice and soft – so both your subject and everything in the room gets a boost in light. In some situations you can aim the flash against a wall and it will bounce back into your subject’s face, creating a directional type of light.

The next trick is to mix the flash with the ambient (the existing) light in the room, and the way to do that is to shoot at a slower shutter speed – 1/60th, 1/30th, or 1/15th of a second. Be careful when under 60th/sec.; your action could blur. You will need to be steady and hit the peak of the action. You can also crank up the ISO. Digital cameras today are amazing. With newer cameras, you can easily shoot 800 to 1000 ISO without much loss in quality. The professional cameras can go much higher and still look good.

Christmas morning you have the advantage. It’s your home. You know how the room will look in the early morning. Open the blinds on Christmas Eve so you have natural light pouring in the next morning. Leave the Christmas tree lights on to add special light to the room.

Start noticing now what the room looks like. Every time I’m on assignment, I take a photograph of the room before an event starts to see the quality of light and how the exposure looks. I figure out what the lowest ISO I can get away with to maintain a fast enough shutter speed to keep the action sharp. If there is plenty of light, I will go with 200 or 400 ISO. But maybe I have to work at 800 or 1000 ISO in darker situations. If it’s a bit dark, I will try again with a bounce flash, trying to determine which look is better. This way I have no surprises as the event unfolds. Do this a couple of days before.

Another point with lighting: It’s great to include the Christmas lights, and the best way to do that is with a slower shutter speed, 1/30th, 1/15th or sometimes, if you’re steady and also using a bounce flash, you can get away with shutter speeds of 1/8th of a second.

You’re ready technically, now you have to capture the moments.
Be ready for the opening scene - the first moment your family sees that the presents have arrived. Then you may want to control the chaos. This is something I couldn’t do on an assignment, but you certainly can ask your family - open one present at a time.

You have to place yourself in the right spot, and that could mean moving a lot! It could mean getting low lying on the floor shooting up to best capture faces, it could mean standing on a chair and shooting down on the scene, or shifting to get away from a distracting background.

Think about filling the frame of your viewfinder with exactly the image you want to get. Use Christmas lights in the foreground, or frame your subject through the branches of the tree. Get a closeup of faces showing reaction to presents – you don’t necessarily need the present in the photo, just the reaction.

Shoot wide, medium, and tight shots. Detail shots work great in the final presentation. Get a closeup of the note to Santa, the crumbs of leftover cookies and milk, and that special ornament.

If your camera allows adjustments of f/stop (aperture), shoot the lens wide open at f/2.8 or f/4 (smaller numbers mean wider aperture). A wider aperture means a limited depth of field of focus. Focus becomes critical; make sure that the focus sensor is placed on the spot you want in focus. A limited depth of field will help separate the subject from the background. It also helps the viewer know exactly where to look in the photograph, with all other elements in the photograph supporting it. I prefer to set my shutter speed and let the aperture adjust (TV setting). This way I know I have control of the action and a limited depth of field.

And, of course, the best advantage that you have Christmas morning is that the event unfolds again and again. As each present is opened, you have time to try a different approach. Try some photos with natural light, some with a bounce flash, and maybe a blur to show the frenzy.

But sometimes, with my family, I just have to put the camera down and savor the moment.

Joanne Rathe is a member of the Globe photo staff.


Joanne Rathe

About Joanne Rathe
Joanne Rathe, pictured here on the Zakim Bridge during construction in 2001, has been working at The Boston Globe since 1985, where she is an assistant chief photographer. She has had a wide variety of assignments, traveling from the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan documenting Afghan refugees to the Northwest Territories of Canada photographing the winter ice road. She has covered strife in Nicaragua, the Olympics, political campaigns, and the community of Globe Northwest.

She has won multiple awards from the National Press Photographers Association, including two first prizes. She also has received the World Press Children's Award for her photos from post-apartheid South Africa, the World Hunger Award for documenting rural poverty in New England, and many awards from the Boston Press Photographers Association.

Before coming to the Globe, Joanne worked at the Boston Herald and the Springfield (MA) newspapers. She is a graduate of Boston University's College of Communication, and is from Westbury, New York.

More photos by Joanne Rathe


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