Marion Owen


Marion Owen shares some of her favorite Christmas photo-taking tips.

Why is it so many of us get flustered while taking pictures during the holidays? Maybe because family get-togethers add another layer of pressure? Or maybe someone just handed you their smartphone and said, “Here, you take it!”

Or maybe all that closeness makes you a tad uncomfortable. Don’t feel bad. Americans in general, have boundary issues.

In my 40-plus years of teaching photography and taking pictures professionally, I’ve heard lots of reasons for photo-phobia. Comments like, “I don’t take good pictures!” are all too common.

It doesn’t diminish the fact that we love stories. They affirm who we are. And we all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. So, with the holiday season in full tilt, here are some of my favorite photo tips. Hopefully, they’ll help boost your confidence so you can take awesome pictures of—and share stories with—your friends and family. At the end of this article, I’ll share my Number One photo tip of all time…



So, you’ve herded some folks into a neat cluster in the living room or in the garden and you’re ready to capture the moment on your camera. But how can you be sure you’ll be happy with the result?

Plan ahead. Start by thinking of the moments–in pictures–that you want to look back on. Then create a list of those moments. Moments such as:

• Decorating cookies

• Grandma’s apron

• Windows in the church

• Footprints in the snow

Your list then becomes your “story board.” Story boards are the foundation of every Disney movie, Ken Burns documentary, and National Geographic article. If you need inspiration, go online or flip through magazines at the checkout stand. Look for new angles. They lend fresh impressions to familiar subjects and scenes.



For more visually appealing photographs, keep your subject away from the middle of the frame. How? One way is to apply the Rule of Thirds. Here’s what you do: Mentally divide the frame into a tic-tac-toe grid, with three horizontal rows and three vertical columns. Then position your subject near the intersection of any two lines.

For example, if you are photographing a beautiful candle, try placing it on the right with the Christmas tree on the left, in the background. The candle is the main actor; the tree is the supporting actor. 



Taking a picture of your cat or one-year-old grandson playing on the floor looks better from their level. Of course this might mean that you’ll be laying on the floor, standing on a driftwood log, or sitting on the top of the stairs. Once you preview subjects and scenes with the thought, “How can I make this better?” you’ll have a greater variety of photos. And those viewing your photos will thank you.



The best moments aren’t choreographed, so have your camera or smartphone handy at all times; and make sure it’s charged up. Be like a sports photographer by anticipating the action. (If you have a digital camera that suffers from a bit of a delay when taking the picture, then you will have to become even more intuitive and skilled at anticipating the moment).

For example, if a child is opening a gift or experiencing snow for the first time, it’s a split-second event. And when photographing, don’t feel that your subjects need to be looking at the camera. Nothing kills spontaneity faster than, “Say cheese!” or, “Look over here.” 



When shooting a story, NatGeo photographers prepare by planning ahead. The holidays are not different. Think of the various Christmas scenarios that provide oodles of photo ops: Food preparation, setting the table, ice skating at the rink, putting up decorations, wrapping gifts, puppies knocking over the Christmas tree, kids throwing a tantrum while getting dressed in their Christmas outfits…you get the idea.

While capturing memories is well worth the extra effort, it also helps to be assertive with your picture-taking. Shoot quickly and shoot often, especially when photographing groups and families. You can always delete images later. Don’t be shy. Shoot first and ask questions later. Getting a great photo of the right moment is rewarding. 



For a variety of looks, shoot horizontal and vertical photos; and the occasional pano. Shoot movies, too. Just remember, they hog a lot of memory. 



Memories are not just about people. The details help tell the whole story. Get closer and fill your frame: Hands, ornaments, cookies, a pile of shoes and Xtratufs, frost on the window. The best shots, the ones that engage the viewer, are ones that have some sort of focal point.

Most photos are too busy. They contain too many focal points which compete for attention. Practice de-cluttering your images, just like you’re going to de-clutter your closets after the New Year, right? It’s not just what you cram into the photo but what you consciously leave out. 



This can be fun but it takes some forethought: Take a before and after picture of the dinner table or the living room scene after opening presents or the neighborhood dumpster on December 26. (You will recycle all your cardboard, though, right?)



We make like too complicated and “keeping it simple” is my favorite photo tip. First, it’s not necessary to shoe-horn everything into a single frame. All that visual stuff overloads and confuses the viewer.

Pause a second and ask yourself, “What do I like about this scene?” Is it Mom’s hands? Ornaments? Letters to Santa? Your puppy chomping on the outdoor Christmas lights? (Just kidding). Figure out what you like and then move in closer to fill the frame.

Example: A common mistake is to show people far away, across the room or yard). Practice de-cluttering your images, just like you’re going to de-clutter your closets after the New Year, right? Remember: It’s not how much you cram into a photo, but what you consciously leave out.



‘Tis the season of joy, so don’t overthink your photos. Play a little. While shooting a group photo, ask everyone to close their eyes. Or arrange the group in a circle, heads together to look like a giant snowflake.

 A thought about snowflakes, I’m praying for a white Christmas. Just think of the photo possibilities!

Merry Christmas, Kodiak!


To see Marion’s complete list of 21 Tips for Christmas photos, visit her blog at Scroll to the bottom of the front page and search for “Christmas”.  You can also find her on Facebook and Instagram. Marion can be reached at

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