Whether it’s an impromptu shindig, or you’re snowed in with your whole family, the holidays are the time to take that awesome portrait of your loved ones, maybe with that sweet new camera you just got as a gift. But for the occasional photographer who might not shoot anything more formal than brunch food and a kids’ soccer game, where do you start?
Dave FitzSimmons, a Sigma Pro photographer whose work has run the gamut from calendars to industrial photography and self-published books, recommends keeping it simple above all else. There’s no need to get a complicated rig or multi-light set up. Just a camera, a tripod when necessary and a few small tricks are all you need.
Clean up your frame
This can mean a whole bunch of things, but at its heart, the best thing you can do composition-wise is get your subjects as close together and make sure your frame is free of distractions.
FitzSimmons suggests posing people in a very tight group, eliminating as much space between people as possible. It might feel a little uncomfortable, he says, but it will pay off in a more intimate picture that fits everyone in the frame. “If you can’t see the camera,” FitzSimmons says, “it can’t see you.”
But also keep track of anything that you might not want to see in the final product. That stray wire on the floor? That weird bucket just chilling in your backyard? It might not seem like a big deal when family and friends are posing, but it’s bound to be an annoying element in your portrait.
FitzSimmons recommends looking at your background with a discerning eye, removing anything and everything that might take the attention away from the people (or pets) in the photo.
Getting the shot
The dilemma for the enthusiastic but occasional photographer is having the versatility without the investment. Many newer point-and-shoot cameras come with powerful lenses that are great in all types of circumstances. But for the DSLR and high-end mirrorless camera shooter, the lens choices can seem endless. You’ll want to shoot wide but be able to zoom in tight, all without racking up a bulky gear arsenal and the credit card statements to match.
For the DSLR shooter FitzSimmons personally recommends the Sigma 24-105 f/4, or the even more wide ranging Sigma 18-300 f/3.5-6.3 while the Canon 24-105 f/4 and Nikon 24-85 f/3.5-4.5 are also great options for their respective camera systems. These options will let you shoot telephoto tight for portraits but easily widen up for candid group shots. Most options will also mount onto mirrorless camera bodies like the Sony A series, with an adapter. All of these retail for under a $1,000 and give the amateur photographer some major flex room.
An important detail to be wary of when shooting inside however, is keeping your lighting sources consistent.
Your tree will likely be giving off a nice warm glow from incandescent bulbs, but that could be mixing with fluorescents and LEDs bouncing around your living room. If you’re near a window, there’s going to be daylight pouring in.
All of these light sources have a different color temperature, meaning they will give a warm or cool cast to your pictures, and when you have multiple sources mixing, funky and unnatural colors will show through. The best way to deal with this is to minimize the type of light sources you have, and maximize the similar ones.
Draw the curtains if its bright outside and jack up the incandescents you have. Or if it’s bright enough, throw those curtains open and flood your home with fresh clean window light.
On exposure settings to use, FitzSimmons acknowledges that most people will be shooting in their camera’s automatic mode, but a good rule of thumb across all types of cameras is to “always expose for the faces,” meaning a well lit and exposed face will make or break a picture. This can be done by changing your bracketing settings on your camera to overexpose or underexpose by different increments, or using your smartphone’s metering or HDR settings to prioritize the face’s exposure.
It’s going to be the most focused on part of your picture and the most noticeable if isn’t exposed properly.
For a simple way to reflect light onto your subjects, FitzSimmons recommends a disk reflector. These are handy, versatile and often cheap additions to the photographer’s toolbox, readily available from most camera shops. In a pinch and for the budget conscious, a large sheet of poster board can do a similar job of bouncing light onto your subjects.
FitzSimmons also recommends a subtle burst from an on-camera flash as a finishing touch. Many cameras will allow you to manually adjust your strobe output, so just set it low, and it will fill in some shadows and add a nice catch light in your subject’s eyes.
Happy shooting, this holiday season!
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