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The Photo Method: Christmas Edition

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Less than 2 weeks until Christmas and I’m up writing in the wee small hours of the morning. The early morning is my favorite and most productive time, a time usually invested in my fitness routine. But today is my Off Day and so here I am, the lights of my office dimmed, my retriever Gus snuggled in his bed, and the mood set for writing about the photos of Christmas past. I love looking at photos from the Christmases of my childhood. My dad was the photographer in my family and did a wonderful job documenting the holiday as extended family descended upon the house and gift exchanges happened in waves starting on Christmas Eve. Once I had my own family I strived to replicate what my dad did but struggled. Actually I’ll amend that statement: I did a really good job capturing the kids at our annual holiday photo shoot in the backyard, the Powellings all dolled up in holiday finery and donning Santa Hats for the Christmas card photo. But what my dad did so well was document the actual Christmas Day and as I reviewed my own photos each year I found them lacking in both quality and quantity. It took many years for me to realize why it was so difficult for me vs. him. The first reason was that my Dad had way more technical skill with his camera than I did, and he knew which settings to to use and how to take advantage of light (also, he was shooting with more natural daylight in sunny California than I was in dark, mostly gray Washington State.) But the bigger reason (that he has pointed out to me many times) was that he was free to document largely from the sidelines while my mom was in the thick of handling most aspects of entertaining at Christmas, namely cooking, gifting, traffic-directing, etc. It was a well-divided setup, she choreographed and he captured. In my own family I was trying to play both parts and predictably the capture of the events in photos got the short end of the stick.

However, I did learn some tips and tricks as the years went by, both technical and process-related that improved my Christmas documentarian skills. I also learned to appreciate some of the photos I wasn’t thrilled with the year they were taken. I’m still not as good as my dad but am sharing my method here in the spirit of passing the wisdom gained from my mistakes on to others. It’s a fairly simple method (there are 3 tips) but the key is to go into the event with the tips in mind and be intentional with your camera/phone.

Me and my cousin Laura during gift exchange circa 1983 – she looks beautiful, my hat is questionable…

My middle Powelling Charlotte by the tree in 2004, she was 18 months

  1. capture moments, not portraits

    Sometimes pictures are beautiful to look at and sometimes they perfectly capture a moment. I believe the best focus at a holiday event where there is activity going on is to capture the action. Don’t ask people to look at you, instead get their faces as they are surprised by the contents of a gift, are in conversation with someone else or thanking someone with a hug. Kids are fun to capture as they play with whatever new toy or gadget they just received, I personally love ‘concentration face’ (bonus if the tongue is sticking out!) Blending in and capturing candid moments is also a strategy that works well if you have teens (or adults) who don’t like having their picture taken – it’s very effective! Other moments to be mindful of are things that distinguish this holiday from other years. ‘That was the year we got the pogo sticks’ or ‘That was the year we were snowed in.’ Make sure your photos capture the distinguishing features of the year which could be related to specific gifts, clothing, weather or food.

  2. kids are easy, take advantage

    If there are young kids in the mix at your holiday celebrations take full advantage of their cuteness and willingness as subjects. You don’t need to blend into the background with kids like you do with teenagers. Some of my favorite Christmas photos of my kids through the years involve a close-up of them at the tree. Fill your frame with those faces, get as close as you can – it may feel weird at first but trust me, those sweet faces can handle the close-ups and they will end up in your favorites as the years go by! If your tree is near a window take advantage of the light that provides a natural glow on their skin, a la Rembrandt. If you are really good you can try for a similar shot year-over-year to document their evolving faces as they grow (for the record I am not that good, though I did keep up the Santa Hat tradition for as many years as my kids would comply – I think I had a streak of 6 or 7 years.)

  3. you have a phone, be intentional

    These days you do not even have to be a proficient photographer to effectively capture the joys of the holidays, your phone will pretty much do it for you. Most new-gen iPhones and Androids have superior cameras and will allow the lowest-common-denominator photographer to take excellent shots. It will correct for light, focus, aperture – all of the things you have to fiddle with on a DSLR camera. The one thing it doesn’t do it actually take the pictures and frame the shot, you still have to do that part! Which is the essence of my last tip: decide beforehand that you are going to capture some moments of the day or evening. Pick a few specific things you want pictures of and make it happen. They may not turn out great, but even if they don’t they very likely will tell the story of a lovely holiday gathering with family and friends.

My kitchen helpers stirring the pots for our traditional Christmas Eve Fondue Feast

So that’s pretty much it: set out to capture moments, go nuts with the little kid shots and be intentional with your phone camera. Even if you only get a few good shots each year they will add up! I am an admitted photo freak but I will tell you that nothing sustained me better through last year’s COVID Christmas than reliving the joys of past holidays through the pictures I took, even the bad ones! This post is late for Hanukkah celebrations but I hope it gives you some inspiration to document your family and friends at Christmas this year!

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