Sugar cookies

Closeup of three homemade sugar cookie snowmen, all wearing black hats and sporting carrot noses, but decorated with icing to depict different outfits; arranged on a black mesh cooling rack over blue tablecloth.

KODIAK — The best holiday photos do more than crystallize memories. They tell a story. We all love stories. They affirm who we are. And, we all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. Here are 17 things you need to make the best of a gathering of friends and family.

 

MAKE A LIST, CHECK IT TWICE

Chance favors the prepared, so plan ahead. Think about the moments that you want to look back on in pictures. Create a list: Food prep, wreath on the door, kids unwrapping presents, Grandma, church service, footprints in the snow, puppies, decorating cookies and so on. This is your story-board, the foundation of every Disney movie, Ken Burns documentary and National Geographic article. If you need inspiration, go online. Flip through magazines at the store. Look for new angles to lend fresh impressions to familiar subjects and scenes.

 

KEEP IT SIMPLE

You don’t need to put everything in one frame. It confuses the viewer. A common mistake is to show people way off in the distance, across the room or yard. Ask yourself, “What do I like about this scene?” Mom’s hands? Ornaments? Letters to Santa? Then, move closer until you fill the frame. Practice de-cluttering your images, just like you’re going to de-clutter your closets after the New Year, right? Mantra: It’s not just what you cram into a photo but what you consciously leave out. 

 

KNOW YOUR TOOLS

Is your camera or smartphone charged up? Do you know what video settings to use? Know your equipment. Otherwise, you’ll miss golden opportunities. Practice, practice, practice. You can’t learn how to ride a bicycle with the kickstand down.

 

PLEASE, DON’T SAY CHEESE!

Your grandson is sitting by the tree opening presents. It’s a Kodak moment. You grab your camera and point it in his direction. “Say cheese!” He drops the gift, looks up, blinks and smiles. Sort of.

What just happened here? What did you take a picture of? A child unwrapping a gift? No. It’s a photo of a child who was unwrapping a gift. Confucius says, “A normal expression in a candid shot is better than a fake smile in a posed one.” Let’s train ourselves to not say “cheese.”

 

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Without light, there are no photos. Play with light. Make friends with it. Front lighting, back lighting, side lighting. Night, day, sunrise, sunset, lamp light. What’s best for portraits? Full shade or overcast light. 

 

HOW TO PREVENT BLURRY PHOTOS

It’s common to tense up and hold your breath while focusing on a task. Just ask any tennis player. Here are a couple breathing tips while taking pictures: Relax your shoulders and your jaw. If necessary, use a tripod or brace yourself against a fridge or tree. Then, as you press the shutter, exhale slo-o-o-wly.

 

WHERE TO PUT YOUR SUBJECT?

Photo rules aren’t cast in concrete. But, if you want more appealing pictures, apply the Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds is a classic tool for artists. Here’s what to do: Mentally divide the frame into a tic-tac-toe grid. Then place your subject not in the center, but near the intersection of any two lines. For example, a beautiful candle sits on your coffee table in front of the Christmas tree. Take a picture of the candle in the center. Now, move the candle to the right side of the frame with the Christmas tree on the left. Compare the two photos. Which one do you like best? 

 

POINT OF VIEW

When your cat starts batting a tree ornament across the floor, it’s time to drop down to the floor and take pictures. Same with kids. Eye level views connect with the viewer better than photos created by standing tall and looking down. They’re more real. Keep asking yourself, “How can I make this better?”

 

SHOOT MOMENTS, NOT POSES

The best moments aren’t choreographed. So, keep your camera or smartphone handy at all times. Anticipate action like a sports photographer: Take bunches of photos, especially of groups and families. Don’t be shy. You can always delete stuff later.  

 

ADD A LITTLE SPARKLE

So simple, yet so effective: Use candles and light to create an interesting background. Out out-of-focus lights can add interesting sparkles and orbs behind your subject.

 

VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE

For a variety of looks, shoot horizontal and vertical photos; and the occasional pano. Movies, too. Related to the last point is you that you need to remember to take a variety of different images styles of a single situation. You need portraits, wide-angle shots, shots from up high, down low, action shots, zoomed-in details… all these combined tell a whole story.

 

PLAN A ‘BEFORE AND AFTER’

Before-and-after scenes make for comical photos: A before and after picture of the dinner table; the living room before and after opening presents. It requires a little planning, but it’s well worth the giggles.

 

TAKE A TIME-LAPSE SERIES

Set up your camera on a tripod. Focus on the Christmas tree or the dining room table; or the front lawn to capture a snowman-making event. How many shots to take? “It depends on how smooth you want the movement to be,” says local photographer Pam Foreman. I’d say no fewer than one frame every five seconds, and maybe more like every two to three. The more frequent the shot, the less jerky the human movement.” 

 

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL

Macro photography reveals unseen worlds. Pine needles, snowflakes, candies, a baby’s fist. Get closer by zooming with your feet, not by zooming in with your camera.

 

THE WORLD IS NOT FLAT

Since photographs are flat, your job as a photographer is to create a sense of depth. The easiest way to do this is to include a foreground element: A tree branch, a coffee cup, a windsock, a crow. “Foreground” is awesome sauce.

 

GIVE THE GIFT OF A PHOTOGRAPH

Parents and grandparents love photos of the family, pets, and children. And there are so many ways to share a photograph: Create a greeting card, print, book, photo ornament, coffee mug, poster…

 

LISTEN TO YOUR HEART

When your heart tells you to pick up your camera and snap a photo, do it. Don’t hesitate, just take the photo. It may not be the perfect moment or the best angle. But at least you got the photo.

As far as storytellers go, Mister Rogers was a master. He always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”

Be loved. Tell your story in photographs.  

Marion Owen is a professional photographer who taught photography at Kodiak College for 15 years. Her images hang in The Smithsonian and, since the 1980s, have been showcased in Readers Digest, National Geographic Traveler, and The Nature Conservancy, to name a few. For more photography tips, sign up for Marion’s email newsletter at marionowenalaska.com

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