Holiday Celebration Photography Tips

The holiday season is upon us! For any of you photography enthusiasts out there, this is the perfect time to put those cameras to good use. Use photos to show and tell people about your holiday traditions, whatever you celebrate this time of year. It’s the perfect time to take advantage of the free on-camera talent that you have: your family and friends!

christmas cocktail

photo by John Morgan

Here are some tips on how to capture your next holiday celebration.

Photographs Tell Stories

The whole point of documenting an event in a powerful way is to tell a story in pictures. Like all stories, picture stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end to take people through the experience. If they weren’t there, you want them to feel as if they were. If they were there, it reminds them of the experience in intimate, loving detail.

christmas tree on car

Photo by AJ Hill.

Many people celebrate many holidays during this time of year, but let’s use Christmas as one example of a popular holiday gathering, because most people know the general events surrounding the holiday.

1. Check your gear. Make sure you have enough batteries and space on your memory card. Bringing a tripod may be cumbersome, but if you don’t mind the extra weight, it’s good to have.

2. Let people know what you’re doing. “I’m going to be taking photos for a slideshow for later,” or “I’m creating a Christmas storybook we can all enjoy.” This helps people relax and enjoy the spirit of the event when they know what you’re doing with the photos.

The Beginning, Middle, and End

All good stories have an introduction, a main event, and an ending or conclusion. For the photographer, this means shooting photos that show each of these phases.

The Beginning

When photographing your event, there are several types of photos or shots that will anchor your storytelling. These are called establishing shots and consist of portraits, detail photos, and pre-event or preparation photos. The various kinds of establishing shots tell the beginning of your story. They not only introduce the viewer to your story, they set the mood for the story.

To document an event most effectively, you have to get there early, at least an hour before it begins. Begin putting your story/day together by taking establishing shots. These will set the time and location for your photo documentation. Establishing shots put the rest of the photos that you’ll be taking in the right context for what you do with the photos later, such as creating a photo album, photo book, or slideshow.

christmas beginning

Photo by Jonathan Borba; ISO 2500, f/3.5, 1/25s, 20mm.


  • Decorating the Christmas tree
  • Wide shot of your mom’s house
  • A highway sign that says, “Welcome to Townsville”
  • A shot of your parents opening the door

Preparation Shots

When there’s a big event, there’s always preparation in the background. This is a good time to take some candid shots of people getting ready before the big event so your viewer feels the excitement and anticipation begin to build.

christmas turkey

Photo by Mike Fleming.


  • Mom taking the turkey out of the oven
  • Kids sneaking under the Christmas tree
  • People getting dressed or ready for the big day, especially if they rarely get dressed up (teenagers, children, etc). Think fun and silly.

Detail Shots

Your photos don’t have to have people in them all the time, and it’s better if they don’t. Detail shots enhance the flow of your photos and give viewers a chance to appreciate the details of the day. Detail shots can help evoke a mood or emotion as well. You’ll shoot these throughout the day, not just in the beginning.

christmas photos

Photo by Ami Becker.


  • Shots of decor in the house, like twinkling Christmas lights
  • Close-up of hands breaking an egg and other food shots
  • Shot of window looking out
  • A family pet sniffing presents
  • Shots establishing the weather—snow or frost on a window or ledge, leaves changing color in a tree in the yard
  • Flowers or candles
  • The centerpiece on the table or the table set and waiting for guests to arrive


Portraits help remind everyone of who was at the event. A group shot or poised portraits are great, but candid shots are more fun and interesting for the viewer. Think natural light and candid shots as well as posed portraits. Use light coming in through windows, firelight, and lights from sources in the room more than you use flash. You’ll tend to capture some of your best portraits when people are unaware you’re there. Hard to do, but so worth it! You’ll also shoot these throughout the day as well. They can be hard to get if you wait, so shoot them as you see them.

christmas portrait

Photo by Oleg Sergeichik; ISO 1000, f/1.8, 1/100s, 50mm.


  • Close-up of someone unwrapping a present
  • Staring thoughtfully into the fireplace or out a window/or admiring the tree
  • Portraits involving parent and child
  • Children playing or sleeping
  • Someone carving the turkey or ham

The Main Event

This is the moment of truth. As a storyteller, it is best to be an observer at this point, watching reactions and grabbing photos of the emotions you see—surprise, laughter, joy, tears, and smiles. Don’t be afraid to walk around and document what you see, but don’t be in your subject’s face. Being too obvious with your camera will take away the spontaneity, and probably their enjoyment of the event. There’s not much to photograph when people are eating, so sit down and be a part of the event.

christmas celebration

Photo by krakenimages


  • Unwrapping or handing out of gifts
  • Family pets playing with wrappings
  • Goings on of people during event
  • The interaction of babies, toddlers, children and animals
  • Food being served or eaten
  • People playing video games, watching television, having snowball fights or playing sports in the yard
  • People interacting, cooking, cleaning up in the kitchen

The End

The end is really the event’s conclusion, winding down, or aftermath. The main event may fade into the end slowly or quickly, but keep shooting. Documenting the aftermath will be a good indication of how successful the event was. It is also a great time for photo opportunities. People are happy, engaged, and even sleepy as events wind down. The stressful part of the day—the main event, be it dinner or unwrapping presents, or decorating the Christmas tree—is over and people relax.

christmas coffee

Photo by Hello Lightbulb; ISO 400, f/4.0, 1/20s, 26mm.


  • Photos of people leaning back at the table talking, laughing, or enjoying a cup of coffee, hot chocolate, or a hot toddy
  • Youngsters, exhausted by the day taking time to nap in unexpected places

You’ve worked hard on documenting this event and if it stays in your camera all your hard work is just put to waste. Your great story goes untold until you tell it in a book, slideshow, or album. While the moments are still fresh in your mind, take time to put them together where people can see, enjoy and share them:

  • Build a photo gallery and share them with everyone.
  • Print them as a coffee table book.
  • Make a calendar out of the best photos and give it to your relatives after the event to help them remember the fun all year long.
  • If you really want to have fun, make badges, buttons, bumper stickers or greeting cards out of your photos.

Photos tell the story of our lives and relationships better than words ever can. Photos not only help us connect our customers to our brands, but they help us connect our friends and families to our hearts and memories. May your holiday season be filled with love, memories, and photos to last a lifetime.

About the Author:
Donna Santos has been a professional photographer for over 10 years and is based in Toronto.

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