Make the most of your holiday photo opportunities

Shannon O'Brien

It’s about time to whip out the camera and start capturing your family and friends celebrating “the most wonderful time of the year.”

And who wouldn’t want to immortalize the visage of loved ones basking by the warm glow of holiday lights strung about the Christmas tree?

That is, until you turn your camera in the direction of those loved ones, push the shutter button and release such an overpowering burst of flash that everyone in the picture looks as though they’ve been lit by solar flares. Or no flash fires at all, and your digital camera’s LCD screen offers only murkiness with vague shapes where your family members should be.

We all have pictures like this — too bright, too dark, your brother’s eyes are closed, your aunt’s mouth is agape, your cousin whips her face away from the camera whenever you point it in her direction, so all you have are pictures of the back of her head.

Here are some tips and suggestions that may be useful during festivities with your friends and family.

Make sure they can see you. It wasn’t easy, but you gathered your extended family together and have them arranged in front of the Christmas tree to get a picture … only you notice on the print that you can’t see Uncle Joe’s face because Aunt Hilda’s head blocks it.

This is a common problem when photographing large groups, and there are a couple of ways of handling it.

_Arrange everyone by height.

_Have a row of people sitting, and a row of people standing behind them.

_If you’re gathering everyone together for a quick shot, and there is no rhyme or reason to their arrangement, tell them they have to be able to see you before you can take the picture. If they can see you, you should be able to see them, which means you should also be able to see them in the printed photograph.

Too dark, too light. When an image turns out too dark, it means there wasn’t enough light to capture the scene. When it turns out too light, it means too much light was available.

If you know how to work the manual settings on your camera, you can fix these issues by changing the shutter speed, the aperture size and the ISO.

But if you have no idea what shutter speed or aperture mean, and you just want to release the shutter on your camera and take a well-lit picture, turn to one of the auto programs your camera offers. Today’s digital cameras take much of the technical detail out of the picture-taking process, which gives you more time to focus on the content of your images.

If you find the flash seems too strong or too weak in your pictures, experiment with the various programs on the camera. For example, when a camera flash is used indoors, it’s often strong enough to overpower the ambient light in a room. This ensures that the subject of the picture will be adequately lit, but the rest of the picture is dark.

However, if you like the mood the ambient light is creating around your subject — particularly if holiday lights are part of the ambience — select a camera program that will help capture this mood. “Night shot” is a standard program on most digital cameras, and it works well at capturing ambient light with just a fill of flash that doesn’t overpower everything.

Closed eyes, open mouths. These issues aren’t as simple to address because they have to do with timing. Maybe your photo subject really does close his eyes or start talking right as you push the shutter button.

The best you can do is to give plenty of warning before taking the picture. Count to three so they have an idea of when you’re going to snap the picture.

Often people start moving and talking once the first pop of flash has fired, but if you’re using the red-eye function on your camera, the flash goes off repeatedly before the shutter releases. So remind them that there may be multiple flash bursts before the picture actually takes, and to hold still until you say it’s OK to move.

Embrace candidness. Don’t worry about closed eyes and open mouths while capturing your loved ones in action. Often when perusing pictures of holidays past, it’s the silly, unexpected images that bring the biggest smiles to your face.

Even when you’re gathering everyone together for a big family picture, your relatives will interact as they wait for the picture to be taken, or for other people to find their spots in the group. This often provides an excellent time to get candid shots of people just being themselves. You may be surprised at the little moments you see in the pictures leading up to that posed one.

Opening presents is another opportunity for great candid shots, and kids are pretty easy to capture. They are typically more concerned with the gift in front of them than with the camera pointed at them.

Don’t hesitate to get on the floor with children to take pictures, and make sure you’re in a position to see their faces as they’re opening their gifts.

If you want to get candid pictures of the adults, just tell them to ignore you if you point the camera in their direction. That way they’ll know that you aren’t interested in only getting pictures of them looking at the camera and smiling, which is what many of us assume when a camera is pointed at us.

Have fun. You’re trying to capture memories of your time with family and friends. Let the moments create themselves, and photograph them as you see fit — whether catching people by surprise, or lining everyone up by height to get a group picture. These images are for you, so do what makes you happy.

Shannon O’Brien is a former newspaper photographer who lives in Springfield, Ill.