The holiday season is such a special time of year. Thousands of glimmering bulbs light up the streets, there’s cheerful music everywhere, kids are excited about presents from Santa and parents are filled with joy (assuming Christmas shopping is done and out of the way). It’s almost as if there’s magic in the air, making everything a bit brighter and happier. But how can we capture that feeling — the spirit of the holidays — in our photos?
I’m going to share a few tips to instill a touch of magic into your indoor holiday photos. These simple tricks can transform your at-home holiday pictures from ordinary to extraordinary.
1. Try light painting for a festive look.
Painting with light is a fun technique that will stretch your creativity to new limits. To capture the whole stroke of a “light-brush,” follow these steps:
1. Choose a time of the day when it’s completely dark outside. If you want to include your environment in the frame, you can turn on a dim light, such a small lamp, candle or fire in the fireplace, otherwise, you’ll want to turn off all lights before you begin photographing.
2. Switch your camera to manual mode and set it up on a tripod. Since you’ll be using a slow shutter speed, you’ll want to use a wireless remote or on-camera timer to eliminate camera shake when pushing the shutter.
3. Choose your camera settings: A good place to start is ISO 100, f/10 to f/16 and a shutter speed around 3 to 10 seconds. For the sparkler images (below) I used a shutter speed of 3 to 4 seconds. For the flashlight writing image (below), I used a shutter speed of 10 seconds.
4. Set up your scene and focus with the lights on and then switch to manual focus so your camera doesn’t automatically adjust focus. Then, turn off the lights (except any dim background lights you choose to leave on).
5. Use a flashlight or sparklers to paint light into your scene.
You can change the color of your light strokes in-camera by wrapping your flashlight in colorful semi-transparent cloth, or in post processing by adding a tint to the highlights.
2. Create flare for a more dramatic look.
Lens flare or sun flare can add drama to an otherwise ordinary scene, like a child sleeping or playing near a window. This helps create emotion in your image, giving it a nostalgic or hopeful look.
To achieve great lens flare, find a window with direct light coming in and shoot right at the sun. Start out by turning on your camera’s live view and pointing the lens toward the sun. Move the camera around until you see the desired flare effect. Even the slightest of movements will lead to a change in the appearance of the flare. This technique can take a lot of experimentation and practice, so patience and observation are key.
Play with your aperture to create more diverse flares. In general, a wider aperture (like f/2) will create a softer looking flare, while a more narrow aperture (like f/22) will define the sun’s rays.
3. Add a dream-like feeling by freelensing.
You don’t need a special lens to create a completely magical look. Simply detach your lens from the camera body and try freelensing to turn any ordinary scene into a magical fairyland. Here’s a tutorial. I find it easiest to use my camera’s live view and zoom in to find the narrow slice of focus. As with many experimental techniques, there will be a lot of missed shots, but that one that you do get right will be worth all the labor!
To further soften your background, use sheer curtains to filter the light. By including a curtain-draped window in your frame, you can add an ethereal, dreamy feel to the photograph.
Pro Tip: Focus on what’s important with a wider aperture.
Use a wide aperture lens (like one with a max aperture of f/1.2 or f/1.4) and shoot at the lowest possible f-stop. By narrowly focusing on small details and allowing other elements in the foreground or background to blur, you’re showing the viewer exactly what’s important in the image and allowing him or her to fill in the rest of the story. Creamy bokeh also adds a dreamy quality to the photos, which can feel ethereal and magical. As a result, the image better represents what the moment felt like, rather than how it looked.
10 Magical holiday photo props to try
1. Gingerbread house with powdered sugar and a sifter
2. Classic holiday-themed toys
3. Handmade decorations and tree ornaments
4. Holiday books, such as The Night Before Christmas
5. Steaming mug of hot cocoa
6. Extra Christmas tree lights
7. Seasonal PJs
8. Sheer curtains
10. Gold or silver glitter or confetti
4. Set the mood with sunbeams.
Sunbeams add a little extra something to an image. Maybe it’s a nostalgic feeling, or a little touch of magic. Maybe it’s those leading lines hitting your subject like a spotlight. Either way, capturing sunbeams in an image can add another layer of mood and emotion to your indoor holiday photos.
To capture sunbeams, you’ll need smoke, dust or fog and a clear day with bright direct sunlight coming into a room. Try frying bacon (my preferred method) or sugar to fill the room with aromatic smoke. This will make visible the slanted sunbeams falling through the window, skylight or door and add a totally different atmosphere to your images.
Shooting against a darker background is key to really bringing sunbeams to life.
5. Capture holiday cheer by adding some sparkle.
Nothing says Christmas like the twinkling of lights! You can capture the unmistakable holiday atmosphere by creatively photographing through, around and in front of lights. Use a wide aperture and position the lights in the foreground or background of your frame to create gorgeous bokeh. Find angles where you can capture your subject and keep the lights out of focus.
It’s a good idea to add even more lights to your home or Christmas tree than you think you need to give your photos extra sparkle. I like to add a new strand of Christmas lights to our tree every year, because what feels just right for the tree in person is far from enough for magical photos with twinkling lights. Right now, I have about 500 bulbs for my modest tree and I still don’t feel like it’s enough!
To properly expose my kids’ faces next to the glistening tree lights, I often shoot while it’s still light outside.
More tips for magical indoor holiday photos.
- Move around: Don’t be afraid to move your favorite holiday activity near the window, Christmas tree or other areas where you think you have the best chance to add magic to your photographs.
- Try a double exposure: If you’re unable to have both the twinkle lights and your subject in the same frame, consider in-camera double exposure. Here’s a detailed tutorial.
- Glitter it up: Add gold confetti or glitter to any scene to transform an ordinary scene into something magical.
All photos by Sopo Titvinidze