Digital SLR Photography

DSLR Photography Christmas Countdown!

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

Christmas is a favourite time of year for many. Family & friends, mixed with plenty of food & drink, can lead to merry celebration, so keep your camera handy! Even the run up to the big day is full of photo opportunities, as winter draws in and decorations go up. In the week leading up to christmas, we’ve selected 7 fantastic ideas to sharpen your photo skills and keep your creativity alive as you count down the days until christmas

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1. Winter portrait

Woolly hats, scarves and fur hoods make great features for a frame-filling outdoor portrait. Ideally a fast lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or wider will give an appealing fall-off in focus but you can still get decent pictures with a standard zoom at f/5.6. Use single-point AF and focus on the subject’s eyes. Take a look around the edges of the frame to ensure you’re not over-cropping features like hoods, heads or hats.

Hats and hoods can place your subject’s face in shade, so shoot with your back to the sun or use a reflector to bounce light on to their face. If it’s snowing or raining, place them with their back to street lights or Christmas lights for a bokeh-filled background, or consider positioning an off-camera flash behind them. If you’re working with mixed lighting, it might be best to convert to black & white. Alternatively, if they’re not wearing anything on their head, you could wait until the light is low in the sky to feature warm backlighting and some atmospheric flare. Finish with a cool tint in post-production to add to the winter feel.

2. Paint your tree!

Don't worry, we’re not recommending you open a can of Dulux and splash some magnolia over your tree, rather we’re suggesting you try your hand at painting with light. The technique is relatively simple: dim/switch off the room lights, set a long exposure, then trip the shutter and, with a small LED torch in hand, circle the tree or follow its outline, all the time having the torch facing the camera. Avoid being recorded in the image by wearing black or dark clothes and keep moving. The result is your tree lit by its fairy lights and magical light trails around it. You could even try placing flash gels in front of the torch to create colour trails. An alternative is to set up your tree on a movable base (eg a dolly) and during a long exposure, slowly rotate it – the result will be a tree that appears to be spinning! With both methods, use your camera in manual mode, set an aperture of f/8 and ISO 400. Start with an exposure of 30 seconds, check results and adjust times accordingly.
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3. Focus on decorations

If you’ve made a real effort to put up lots of colourful decorations and twinkling lights, it makes complete sense that you should capture some decent still-life images. You could set up something, but we’d suggest zooming your standard zoom to its tele-end, or fitting a macro lens, and testing your creative eye to isolate smaller details. Setting a wide aperture, such as f/5.6 or faster, lets you to maintain a high enough shutter speed to avoid shake (stabilisation helps here too) but better still, allows you to maximise bokeh in your images. By including fairy lights or reflective decorations in the background and using a very shallow depth-of-field, you’ll be able to highlight attractive decorations in the foreground and add a special glitz to the blurred backdrop, too.

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4. A Winter Wonderland

A landscape following a heavy snowfall offers incredible photo potential, so be ready to take full advantage. Watch the weather forecast and be prepared. Pack your camera bag the night before, make sure your battery is fully charged and carry a spare. Keep your tripod by the back door so that you don't forget it. Take along a flask of hot drink, high-energy snack bars and a spare warm item of clothing. Carry a head torch and a whistle in case you get into trouble. Dress appropriately for the conditions and keep warm. If you are cold you will not be concentrating on the image or the light and will want to give up and head home early.

A standard zoom covers the main wide-angle focal lengths. A telezoom is a good call, too, as is a macro lens. Carry a leather chamois cloth to wrap around the camera and lens to protect them from falling snow and moisture or even your own breath from hitting the camera and freezing. Even a simple baseball cap perched on top of the camera and lens will help protect them. To help prevent your tripod legs from sinking into soft snow, use snowshoes for tripods or specialist discs designed for tripods in the snow.

The colour of light in winter can be very deceptive. It is far too easy to look at a snow- covered scene under a clear, crisp blue sky and think how great conditions are. While these shooting conditions are good, the camera will see and record blue shadows whereas the human eye is seeing white snow. Be aware of what the blue sky is doing to the snow and compensate by altering the White Balance. Auto White Balance will do a good job but for absolute control, alter the White Balance manually and increase the Kelvin number towards 10000K. Shoot in Raw and you can make further adjustments in post-production. Lots of snow can fool metering systems so check the histogram and either take a spot-meter reading from a mid-tone or use multi-zone metering with positive exposure compensation.

5. Moody Xmas portrait

There’s nothing wrong with fun Christmas portraits that have us donning Santa hats and reindeer ears, but how about shooting something moodier? When we picture Christmas at home with the family, we’ll often visualise a scene filled with warmth, so set up a shot that captures the atmosphere of a cozy Christmas. If you have an open fire, you’ll find it gives off very warm light, but for most of us, the warmth can be achieved by shooting under tungsten room lights with the White Balance set to AWB. Don’t go for anything posed – candid images work better – have parents sat with children opening presents, kids playing with toys or a couple cuddled and canoodling. Place fairly lights in the foreground or background so as to give sparkling bokeh and light some candles for further ambience. If you’re showing the family looking at a present, pop an iPad in an empty box with the screen brightness turned up to bathe their faces in a white glow. Finally, shoot in Raw and you can tweak the colour temperature in post-production.

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6. Let there be light!

Fairy lights have many functions over the festive period, not least to be a key light for your little people's portraits. If they’ll let you, try wrapping them loosely with battery-powered lights (never leave them alone though and ensure they don't get hot – LED lights are best). You could put them in a box for them to gaze into or have them hold the lights in their hands. Turn off or dim room lights and you’ll have them entertained long enough to fire off a few frames. It’s a tricky shot to get as children tend to move and you'll be working in low light, so maximise your shutter speed by using a wide aperture and a high ISO. If your camera’s AF struggles, switch the lens to M and focus manually.

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7. Reliant robin

Robins are a photographer’s favourite, with this time of year being a particularly popular time to photograph them, especially if it has been snowing. The good news is there are millions of robins in the UK and gardens are a popular feeding zone, so you shouldn’t have to stray far to find them. Set up a feeding station with fat balls or mealworms and you’ll entice them to visit regularly. Their small size means you’ll need a powerful telezoom to fill a good portion of your frame. A telezoom like a 70-300mm is good, but better still is a more powerful zoom, such as the NIKKOR AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-6.3. A feeding station will allow you to coax the robins to a particular area of your garden that is well lit and free of distractions. Shoot from a window, shed or hide and avoid noise or sudden movements. If handholding, set a high ISO (start with ISO 400) and switch on your lens’s stabilisation mode if it has it. Better still, mount your camera on a tripod. If it has snowed, bait the ground and capture the robin against a white backdrop, or hang fat balls above a thick branch on which the robin can perch.

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