There are so many photo opportunities around the holidays — a chilly ice skating outing, baking cookies with grandma, and checking all of your family’s Christmas traditions off the list — and naturally you want to capture every moment. So, you set up your phone, try to take a family photo and it turns out… just okay. If you feel like your pictures aren’t doing your holiday moments justice, you may need some iPhone photography tips to level up your images.
“I’m a photographer, so I absolutely know how special family photos are, but we don’t always have the time or resources to schedule them,” says Houston-based photographer and mom of two Erin Brooks. “Or, maybe you get to take a trip and finding a photographer away from home seems daunting.” The good news is that you really can take beautiful, frame-worthy photos, even if you think you’re the worst photographer ever — and you already have everything you need.
For starters, Brooks says it’s all about practice, practice, practice. “Keep shooting. Photography is a bit like writing: everyone has a unique voice, so focus on developing yours, and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing or thinks,” she says.
You also don’t have to corral your kids into the frame a certain way or get them to pose perfectly for great holiday photos. Think about those moments you and your loved ones really want to remember, and focus on those.
“One unexpected moment during the holidays that makes for great shots: The excited faces of children as loved ones arrive at their door, or the hugs when everyone comes inside,” says Brooks.
Luckily, she shares, all you need to capture great images is a tripod and mount that will hold your phone. Using just those tools, Brooks was able to snap some stunning family photos on a Thanksgiving trip to the beach.
Below are Brooks’ tips for capturing your own beautiful photos this holiday season:
Be a creative storyteller.
Look around you and consider what parts of your environment might make your photo better.
“When composing your scene, take in the surroundings and decide what you want to include in your frame to tell your story, and position yourself accordingly. Consider angles, framing, and details,” Brooks says. She says to try:
- Taking a downward angled photo through tree branches with your kids smiling back up at you for an interesting perspective.
- Including a sleeping pet in the photo to communicate a peaceful story.
- Using your iPhone’s Portrait mode to focus on surprising details like a mug of cocoa with an out of focus, exited face in the background.
- Creating a frame within a frame around your subject using a window, wreath, or string of lights to add visual interest to your shot.
Capture the feeling.
You might think you want your kids to stop playing with their new video game and go stand in front of the tree for a photo. Instead, maybe you should try snapping a picture of the focus on their face while they play, or the victory smile when they beat a level.
“This is always my most shared tip, because it’s the most important: An image with feeling will always end up being your favorite,” Brooks says. “To do this, be an observer and look for the in-between moments to capture. You can also create them — have your kids wear Santa hats and tell jokes for giggles. Ask your kids to hug and snap the photo. Have them do something active, like jump on the bed in jammies or sip cocoa covered in whipped cream. You can even capture nostalgia by having them help you select a vintage scene to recreate. There are so many ways to capture those feelings.”
You should also take photos before and after you tell little ones to smile to capture more real, often funny moments. If you’re doing something more staged, like recreating a vintage photo you love, Brooks says a little photo editing can go a long way.
“Try adding grain when you edit your photo to give it a timeless touch. You can do this using many photo editing apps, such as Lightroom Mobile or RNI Films,” she says.
When taking a group shot, bribe your kids.
How can you get your kids to look at the camera when you’re taking a self-timer photo with them? Make it a game. Or, cookies.
“First, turn on Live Photos so you have more options to choose from,” Brooks says. “I used to tell my girls to find the circles on the back of my phone, which are the lenses, and they’d look right at them. Or, I would tell a silly joke, cuddle them, or make a funny face, and capture the giggles. Then, even if we weren’t all looking at the camera, it would end up being a great photo. And if none of that worked, I’m not above bribing with something like a cookie when we’re done. The treat option almost always works.”
Play with the light.
What’s Christmas without all the lights and decorations? If you want them to shine in your photo, don’t be afraid to play with exposure.
“The iPhone 14 Plus has incredible lowlight capabilities, even in Portrait mode, allowing a lot of freedom with capturing holiday photos. Use this to your advantage and create sparkling scenes at nighttime, illuminating your subject with holiday lights, the fire, or a candle,” Brooks says. “You can also play with the exposure of your image during editing. Sometimes even lowering the exposure (darkening the image) creates a beautiful moody scene.”
Don’t sleep on Portrait mode.
Speaking of Portrait mode, Brooks says it’s one of the tools in your iPhone’s camera you may not be utilizing often enough.
“You can use it for a family photo, if you’re close enough to the camera, or to take a selfie. It adds nice depth and polish to an image,” she says.
Create a double exposure.
Want to remember your little ones’ faces all aglow as they look up at Christmas lights? You can create a beautiful photo using a little editing.
“One of the most fun photos to take during the holidays is a double exposure, and yes, you can do that with your iPhone,” says Brooks. “All you need is a photo blending app from the App Store. I use one called Blend Editor. To create bokeh balls (the fuzzy balls of light), I moved my iPhone too close to a sparkly tree ornament to focus and took a photo. Then, I took a photo of my daughter looking up at the tree using Portrait mode.”
Next, Brooks uses Blend Editor to combine the two images together. If you try this and it’s not looking quite right, Brooks says to try darkening your bokeh photo before trying to blend the two shots. Do adjust the exposure, you can use a special editing app, like Lightroom Mobile, or use the iPhone’s editing tool.
Keep things candid.
The biggest mistake people make when trying to take family or holiday photos, according to Brooks, is posing every shot.
“Some of the very best captures are not technically perfect: they may be crooked, they may cut off a hand or foot, or maybe everyone isn’t looking directly at the camera, but the genuine emotion captured makes the photo a lot more special,” she says.
Play with Panoramas.
Most people only toggle to the panoramic camera on their iPhones to photograph scenery, but it has another use that may come in handy during the holidays.
“I have used Panoramas when I wanted to play with scale and emphasize how little my girls are in this big world. For example, when there was a rainbow, and I wanted to capture my girls underneath it, or walking down a tree-lined forest path,” Brooks says. “It might be a cool option to try when you’re out looking at neighborhood Christmas lights and want to capture your child walking down a path lined with lit up homes.”
Once you’ve taken your family holiday photos, or you have a few special moments to share online, be sure you find the perfect Christmas Instagram caption to post with them.
Erin Brooks, professional photographer based in Houston